Air Fresheners: The Secret to a Better Subway?

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In an effort to boost cleanliness rankings, the Washington Metro gives industrial-strength air fresheners a try. . (Photo: Mr.TinDC/flickr)

If you happen to ride the Washington Metro’s Green Line and catch a somewhat startling whiff of mango, there’s a good chance it might not be emanating from the lady who got on at L’Enfant Plaza and immediately started slathering herself with body lotion.

That fruity aroma could be coming from the subway car itself.

As reported by the Washington Post, Metro has quietly introduced industrial air fresheners to roughly 6 percent of railcars on the Green Line, Washington, D.C.’s newest subway line, which opened in 1991 and runs north-south from the city of Greenbelt in Prince George’s County, Maryland, to Branch Avenue in Suitland, Maryland, via the District of Columbia. The air fresheners are hidden out of sight within each car’s ventilation system — so don’t expect to see oversized, stylized evergreen trees dangling from the grab rails.

Given that the air fresheners have been installed in individual cars, not entire trains, passengers greeted by a heady blast of mango (or cucumber-melon) when they enter a car could hypothetically move one car down and enjoy the rest of their commute in an odor-neutral manner it they find the smell offensive. But that seems like a pain.

And while Metro is relying on a majority of its customers to embrace the artificial scents, the scheme does raise some questions: what about those with serious sensitivities to chemical fragrances? Will they struggle to find a subway car that doesn’t boast the olfactory profile of a Bath & Body Works store? Will air fresheners limit a train's accessibility?

And what about those for whom mango serves as a trigger smell, causing all sorts of unpleasant memories of five-too-many daiquiris imbibed on a Mexican vacation to come flooding back? One would think that Metro doesn’t want to inconvenience — or even traumatize — commuters with specific artificial scents.

A fresh new scent for a 'national embarrassment'

So why?

Metro is installing the air fresheners in pursuit of cleanliness — or the smell of cleanliness, at least.

In fact, Metro spokesperson Sherri Ly tells the Post that customer surveys reflect that satisfaction with cleanliness on Metro trains, system-wide, jumped from 53 percent last December to 61 percent at the end of March.

“On the Green Line specifically, satisfaction on cleanliness improved to 73 percent, a 15 percent increase,” Ly reveals.

“That did have a pretty nice impact quickly,” remarked Andrea Burnside, chief performance operator of Metro, at a recent board meeting. “I guess if [the trains] smell good, people feel they’re clean.”

Improving marks for cleanliness is a rare bit of positive news for Washington’s beleaguered rapid-transit system, the country’s third busiest behind Chicago’s “L” and the New York City Subway.

While plagued by delays, major repairs and financial woes, the Metro — deemed a “national embarrassment” by the Editorial Board of the Washington Post in March 2016 — has been keeping busy as of late. The system experienced its second-busiest day ever on Jan. 21 during the Women’s March on Washington, the largest single-day protest — a protest largely targeting newly minted commander-in-chief Donald Trump — in the history of the United States. (I rode the Ride Line during Women’s March and have never felt so overwhelmingly claustrophobic — and also safe, loved and united — in my entire life.)

It’s safe to say that, much like port-o-potty providers, Metro is enjoying an uptick in business during the protest-heavy Trump presidency as thousands of public transit-reliant activists and concerned citizens descend on the capital.

Yet while customer satisfaction levels regarding cleanliness are on the rise during this particularly busy period for Metro, it’s difficult to calculate the direct impact that a smattering of newly perfumed subway cars have had on this trend. After all, just because something smells clean, doesn’t necessarily mean it is clean. More often than not, the strong scent of artificial fragrance signals that another smell is being masked. It's a cosmetic fix.

Perhaps many of the high marks come from first-time Green Line riders who expect the subway to be rank but are pleasantly surprised when they step inside a train that smells like the latest Method countertop cleaner. It’s hard to say. Whatever the case, Metro has not indicated that routine and thorough cleaning of trains will decrease as more air fresheners are added to the ventilation systems of subway cars. Because really, there's nothing worse than a filthy, trash-strewn subway car that also vaguely smells like tropical fruit.

Something (else) in Washington stinks

While subway cars boasting bouquets of mango and cucumber-watermelon may seem like a novelty, Metro’s air freshener roll-out doesn't come totally out of left field.

In April, Los Angeles' Metro Rail announced plans to install charcoal-based deodorizers in all of its subway and light rail cars. While the main purpose of the deodorizers is to absorb lingering odors left behind by passengers with, in the words of Curbed, “wildly varying personal hygiene habits,” the devices also emit a “very, very slight” lavender-vanilla scent. The deodorizers are being deployed first to Metro Rail’s two subway and then the system’s four light rail lines.

Tower Transit, one of Singapore's primary bus operators, took the concept of perfumed modes of public transportation a sizable step further when it introduced a “signature scent” to it’s 100-vehicle fleet in 2014. So what exactly does riding a Tower Transit bus in Singapore smell like? Well, it's complex: “Refreshing top notes of fresh grass, lemon and orange, overlaying floral and peppermint notes, with a foundation of ylang and sandalwood."

Back in Washington, reactions to Metro's scent scheme are decidedly less than enthusiastic.

In addition to pointing out that the funds used to install and replace the air fresheners could be better spent on other much-needed improvement projects, a number of Post readers have decried the move as being adverse to those with sensitivities to chemical fragrances.

"What about people who get nauseated by perfume-y scents of any type? I'm having flashbacks to a godawful Plumeria fragrance put out by Bath and Bodyworks in the 90s," writes one reader.

"Every single penny they spend should be towards reliable service. Once that is accomplished then they can worry about the frills," says another.

"Nice try Metro, but your overall service stinks," writes one unimpressed commuter.

What do you think? Would you rather ride in a subway car that, for better or worse, is fragranced by the bodies and the activities of your fellow commuters? Or does introducing a cucumber-melon scent to the mix sound appealing?