Roughly 3.9 million people entered Manhattan below 60th Street every weekday in recent years until March of 2020. Most of these people had ridden the subway into town: They flooded up from underground and streamed into offices and restaurants and retail stores, to Broadway theaters and Times Square and the Empire State Building. They made Midtown and Lower Manhattan the anchor of jobs and wealth in the Northeast.
Sixteen months after New York’s lockdown, however, foot traffic in Midtown resembles that on a sleepy Sunday. So many of the city’s highest-paid workers are still working at home full time, keeping offices in central parts of the city largely empty when compared to their prepandemic levels.
But we need to confront a root impediment to New York’s coming fully back to life, one seen in Chicago, Philadelphia and some other cities, too: fear of the subways. Before the pandemic, three-quarters of daily visitors to Midtown and Lower Manhattan came in via transit, more than 2.2 million on the subway. Today, weekday subway ridership remains less than half of normal.
Potential subway riders may fear Covid, but they also fear crime and harassment, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. In the first quarter of this year, only 26 percent of riders felt satisfied with the levels of crime and harassment on trains, down from 65 percent in the final quarter of 2019. In stations, 34 percent of riders were satisfied with the rate of crime and harassment, down from around 70 percent.
New Yorkers haven’t had much reason to worry about public safety on the subways since the 1990s. But if New York is to be New York again, it’s a problem that Eric Adams, most likely the city’s next mayor, is going to have to solve.
For Mr. Adams, the solution should be clear. As a former Transit Police officer, he knows it well. The city needs to increase the level of police enforcement against smaller crimes in the subways. Doing so will make people comfortable enough to use transit to go back to office jobs and other activities. Given the posture of many progressive leaders in the city toward the police, this will be a test for Mr. Adams, but it’s one the city needs him to meet.
A new analysis of subway and police data that I created for the Manhattan Institute shows why the city needs to counter the threat of crime and harassment against potential riders. Between January 2020 and May of this year, 10 people lost their lives to homicide on the subways. Since the late 1990s, the average number of killings on the subways has been one to two annually. In little more than a year, New York has experienced five years’ worth of homicides.
Crime underground is still rare. But it is less rare than it was before. Moreover, the nature of these crimes introduces an added anxiety. In contrast to violent crime above ground, crime in the subways appears to be almost always stranger-on-stranger.
Random pushings and other assaults are, by their nature, hard to predict and thus hard to protect against. Of the five people arrested for six of the 10 subway killings since March 2020, none of the suspects seemed to know their victim.
Other felonies, too, have increased on New York subways. In 2020, there were 2.71 felonies committed per million rides, up from 1.45 in 2019. Most disturbing, though, is the elevated risk of violent felonies against people as opposed to property.
My analysis for the Manhattan Institute found that violent felonies — murder, rape, robbery and assault — have increased disproportionately compared with nonviolent property crime. During 2020, despite severely reduced ridership, violent crime rose to 928 incidents from 917 the year before.
Though the situation has improved since then, it is far from normal. According to my analysis, any single rider faces greater risk of becoming a victim of a violent felony, as opposed to a property-theft felony. In 2021 through June, at an average of 1.5 instances of bodily harm per million rides, the physical threat was three times the prepandemic average.
What can we do to combat crime on the subways?
Crowds help, but they are not the only preventive force available. In 1990 in New York, there were 26 homicides on the subway and 18,324 felonies overall. In the wake of these statistics, the transit police under Bill Bratton sought to stop people from committing small crimes — fare-beating among them — hoping it would prevent them from committing worse crimes.
Over the past five years, the police have eased such enforcement. That’s to riders’ detriment, given that this kind of enforcement still works. Of the 779 arrests that the police made in the subway system in January and February 2021, 51 of the people, or 6.6 percent, were alleged to be carrying guns or knives.
Today, the problem is that this type of enforcement has fallen with reduced ridership. In the years before the pandemic, even as the police eased the enforcement described above, crime remained low. This was, in part, because of near-record subway crowds. But now the crowds are gone, and safety in numbers has disappeared. The police must step back up.
In his overall reform of the Police Department, Mr. Adams should staff the transit system with more police to make up for the lower civilian foot traffic. He should also encourage police officers to engage respectfully and with minimal force with suspected fare-beaters and other low-level transgressors. A vast majority of enforcement for such nonviolent offenses should continue to be civil fines, not criminal charges. And the city must make clear, through better reporting, that it will not tolerate racial discrimination in such enforcement.
But New York cannot wait for ridership to go back up, fixing the problem naturally. It is quite possible that subway ridership will stay at depressed levels for years, with smaller crowds encouraging crime, and crime, in turn, discouraging bigger crowds.
Fear of the subways partly defined New York in the 1970s and ’80s. Mr. Adams will be judged in part by whether people feel safe — and are safe — on the rails.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. She is at work on a book about New York City’s modern transportation history.
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