Good morning. It’s Wednesday. We’ll look at why a violent attack last week renewed attention on ways to make subway platforms safer.
Credit…Emil Salman for The New York Times
New York City’s transit system finally seemed to be bouncing back from the coronavirus pandemic: Crime rates were down, and ridership was up. Then, a week ago today, a random attack clouded the optimism.
A man described by the police as emotionally disturbed shoved a 30-year-old woman against a train that was pulling out of the Fifth Avenue-53rd Street station. She struck her head on a subway car, then fell onto the tracks. The police arrested Sabir Jones, 39, as a suspect. He was “known to the department” from a previous arrest, according to Michael Kemper, the Police Department’s chief of transit.
I asked Ana Ley, who covers transit in New York, to discuss why the attack focused renewed attention on subway platforms and whether they can be made safer.
The incident renewed pressure for the agency to install more protective features, like platform barriers that could at least keep riders from falling onto the tracks. How hard would that be? How expensive?
The answers to those questions depend on whom you ask and what kind of barriers you’re talking about.
The most expensive option being considered are platform screen doors that resemble those in other major transit systems in London, Paris and Hong Kong. Those are automated, and they work by blocking the track area from platforms until trains arrive.
The M.T.A. says installing those would be very difficult, and they would cost a lot. A February 2020 study commissioned by the authority determined that only 128 of the system’s 472 stations could accommodate the barriers within the next decade because of cost and engineering concerns. The authority estimated that outfitting those stations could cost $7 billion, plus annual maintenance expenses of roughly $119 million.
Last year the M.T.A. announced a pilot program to install screen doors at some stations. How far along is that?
The authority is looking for a contractor to build the doors at three stations: the No. 7 line platform at the Times Square Station; the E line platform at the Sutphin Boulevard-Archer Avenue–J.F.K. Airport Station in Queens; and the Third Avenue Station on the L line in Manhattan. The agency said when it announced the program that the work would not be completed before 2024.
The doors will be paid for by money generated from the congestion pricing toll program that is being finalized and is expected to generate $1 billion annually.
The M.T.A. initially said the program would cost more than $100 million, and on Monday it made public budget documents that updated the price tag to $254 million.Those budget documents also revealed that it missed a deadline to find a contractor by August.
Aren’t there other types of barriers that would be cheaper to install?
Michiko Ueda-Ballmer, an associate professor at Syracuse University who has studied the efficacy of platform barriers in preventing people from getting on railway tracks in Japan, has said the authority should install at least small metal gates, which would be much cheaper and easier to build.
The authority has been experimenting with them, but they haven’t captured the public’s interest as much as the more expensive option, so transit leaders haven’t openly examined their cost and practicality.
To what extent do the rare incidents where someone is shoved on the tracks figure in the public perception that the subways are unsafe?
The idea of being pushed onto subway train tracks is a potent urban fear. It can drive rider behavior, even if violent attacks in the system are uncommon.
Because of that, police officials and M.T.A. leaders are sensitive not only to keeping crime rates down in the system but also to making riders feel safe.
That’s a big reason the M.T.A. reversed course on experimenting with platform barriers after years of resisting the idea. Janno Lieber, the transportation authority’s chair and chief executive, announced the pilot program last year, about a month after Michelle Alyssa Go, a 40-year-old worker at the consulting firm Deloitte, was shoved to her death in front of a train at the Times Square Station.
Lawmakers, transit advocates and public safety experts think that platform barriers could help put riders’ minds at ease and coax them back to the system, which is crucial to the city’s economic recovery from the pandemic.
What have the M.T.A. and the police done to increase their visibility and thus the sense of safety?
Officials have flooded the system in the past two years with police officers to soothe riders’ fears, which ran high during the worst of the pandemic. Some days more than 1,000 extra officers have been on duty throughout the system.
At the same time, state and city officials have ramped up efforts to relocate homeless people who shelter in the subways and train stations, sometimes doing so forcibly.
What about surveillance cameras?
The M.T.A. is installing two surveillance cameras on every one of the roughly 6,500 subway cars in the system by 2025. There are also about 11,670 cameras in the system’s 472 stations. At a news conference last month, the M.T.A.’s subway boss, Richard Davey, said the system had “more cameras than a Las Vegas casino.”
Also, in recent weeks, law enforcement officials have ordered officers who would normally be undercover to wear their uniforms in hopes of easing public anxiety over the conflict in Israel and the possibility of incidents here.
Let’s do a reality check. What about crime in the subways overall? Haven’t crime rates declined this year?
Crime is down in the subway. From January through September, major felonies in the transit system were down by 5 percent compared with the same time period last year.
Last month, the police counted 175 major felonies in the transit system, and the M.T.A. logged about 95 million rides, putting the rate of violent crimes at about 1.8 per one million rides.
To compare us to a smaller nearby city, the transit system serving Philadelphia and its surrounding area had a felony rate of 1.6 crimes per one million rides in September.
So the reality is, the subway system is generally very safe to ride.
Expect a mostly sunny day with temperatures just below 70. In the evening, it will be mostly cloudy with a light wind rolling through. Temperatures will drop into the mid-50s.
In effect until Nov. 1 (All Saints’ Day).
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It was hot out, and I had to get from 59th Street and Fifth Avenue down to 12th Street for a doctor’s appointment.
My original plan was to take a leisurely walk, but it was just too hot, so I boarded an air-conditioned M3 bus instead.
As we approached 42nd Street, the driver announced that he was running ahead of schedule and would stop in front of the main public library to get back on time.
A few minutes later, some teenagers began yelling from the back.
“When will we get moving?” they shouted.
When the driver didn’t answer, the teens approached him and rudely asked the same question again.
“In 20 minutes,” he said.
They got off the bus angrily, saying they would catch the next one.
As soon as they were gone, he started up the engine. We all started cheering.
— Carol Dean Silverman
Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.
Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.
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Bernard Mokam, Stefano Montali and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].