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While Manhattan’s streets may be the most congested—and carbon-emitting—in the country, the subway system that runs beneath them offers an inspiring example of how efficiently—and with what minimal emissions of greenhouse gases—passengers can be transported. Although the collection and transport of municipal solid wastes produces only a fraction of the congestion and emissions on Manhattan’s surface, in absolute terms the hundreds of thousands of annual truck miles these wastes cause are nonetheless quite significant. Does the subway model offer a suggestion for how waste transport might also be revolutionized? Perhaps.

Since the now-12,000-person full-service community on the New York City’s Roosevelt Island (RI) opened in 1975, none of its non-recycled, non-commercial municipal solid waste (MSW) has been collected by truck. Instead, it is whisked from one end of the Island to the other through an underground pneumatic tube, thus saving building space, labor, and the costs and environmental impacts associated with trucks, and providing the health and quality-of-life benefits associated with the fact that unsightly bags of residential trash are not set out at curbside (as they are everywhere else in New York City) to produce odors and attract rats, pigeons, and insects. These tubes, first installed to enhance the aesthetic experience and lower the operating costs of a utopian island development, may now offer a way for New York City to significantly reduce its carbon footprint by decreasing the number of trucks in midtown Manhattan where traffic congestion and volumes of waste are greatest.

Subway tunnels already carry pipe for the transportation system’s energy and information needs and additional space is leased to utilities for telecommunications networks. There may also be space for a 500mm pipe like the one that carries waste under Roosevelt Island. The subway could use the system to collect passenger waste, eliminating dedicated trains for waste transport and conserving personnel time and station space for other purposes. In addition to subway waste, inlets on sidewalks and or adjacent buildings could, depending on how the system was organized, collect MSW and recyclables from pedestrians, businesses and residents. By shifting waste collection underground, trucks would no longer be required to make the sometimes daily, or nightly, trips to pick up bagged waste from sidewalks and litter baskets, or containerized waste from loading docks. Not only would there be fewer trucks on the road, reducing fuel consumption and emissions from congestion, there would be more room for other vehicles, including buses and bicyclists. If waste from ground floor retail establishments were included, there would be more room on sidewalks for pedestrians as well. By using subway tunnels this new waste management strategy could be adopted without incurring the expense and disruption associated with trenching city streets.

If this initial study suggests that a pilot installation is feasible, and if a pilot project is successful, it would not only provide a model for other New York City neighborhoods, but could reduce carbon emissions in other urban areas around the State and nation.