The Bloomberg administration prides itself on finding high-tech solutions to New York’s oldest, thorniest issues: gridlock, unemployment, homelessness.
So it may be no surprise that City Hall is now aiming its technocratic lance at a problem so ancient as to predate the city itself: rats.
In the first study of its kind, officials scoured the city’s subway system to discover what accounts for the perennial presence of rodents, a scourge since the system opened more than a century ago.
The findings, disclosed at a Board of Health meeting on Tuesday, appear to belie many of the truisms familiar to any New Yorker who has screamed at the sight of a hairy critter slinking along the tracks.
Rodents, it turns out, reside inside station walls, emerging occasionally from cracks in the tile to rummage for food. The legend of teeming rat cities tucked deep into subway tunnels is, in fact, a myth. The electrified tracks, scientists said, are far too dangerous.
Not every station has rats, although plenty do. Of 18 stations examined in Lower Manhattan, about half of the subway lines got a fair or poor rating for infestation, meaning they exhibited the telltale culprits — overflowing trash cans, too much track litter — that can lead to a rodent jamboree.
But befitting a creature that has evaded annihilation for centuries, officials found no obvious solutions: poison packets and traps have proved no match for an agile mammal known to be diabolically clever.
“They jump two feet from a running start; they can fall 40 feet onto a concrete slab and keep running,” said Solomon Peeples, 86, a former director of the city’s Bureau of Pest Control Services. “We’re no match for them, as far as I’m concerned. Man does not stand no chance.”
The two-year subway study was a collaboration between the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which has fought rats for decades, futilely. Poison on the track is often scattered by a passing train. Subway riders persist in eating, drinking and littering while in stations, leaving behind the crumbs and detritus that, in a rat’s eyes, are an invitation to make oneself at home.
“Sometimes, it’s only a matter of a particular track cleaner not doing their job,” said Robert M. Corrigan, a rodentologist who led the study.
Still, the city did offer some practical advice. Nothing quite excites a rat like a station’s “refuse room,” a storage space for bags of garbage waiting to be hauled away. For rodents, the room is “a restaurant,” as Dr. Corrigan called it, and he recommended that the transportation authority install poison bait in the rooms for a more surgical strike. (Currently, the authority places poison only on the tracks.)
Entrances to the rooms should be guarded, Dr. Corrigan said, so rats cannot reach the food. He also suggested that transit officials invest in more high-tech trapping systems, although he said budget concerns would probably stymie such plans.
Indeed, a spokesman for the transportation authority said Tuesday that the agency would “need to evaluate the costs associated with implementation moving forward.”
Dr. Corrigan said he remained optimistic that a better system of prevention could be in place within the next two years.
It seems that rats like to hang out in stations, but not on trains. Perhaps for good reason: In 1976, an academic study concluded that “rats with high blood pressure should not ride the subways too often or too long: the stress of noise, vibration, and crowding may kill some of them before their time.”
Officials would not proffer an estimate for the city’s rat population. “Eight for one human, 20 for one, none of that stuff is true,” said Rick Simeone, the health department’s director of pest control. “It’s all sensationalism.”
On Tuesday, Dr. Corrigan told health officials that while rats were a problem in the subways, the rodents inhabited many other public spaces, particularly parks. “Virtually all of New York,” he said, “is vulnerable to this uncanny mammal.”
Mr. Peeples, the former pest control chief, concurred. “There’s not enough traps around,” he said, “to trap all the rats in New York City.”