Just days after straphanger Michelle Go was pushed to her death at the Times Square-42nd Street station, New York City Mayor Eric Adams said, “On day one, I took the subway system. I felt unsafe.”
The feeling he expressed is increasingly shared by more New Yorkers. In the wake of Go’s death, calls for enhanced safety measures, including more cops and technology designed to keep people out of the path of oncoming trains, have grown. Gov. Kathy Hochul has committed to new precautions as well, in addition to others that were already in the works.
But the feasibility of technological upgrades, given the age of the city’s subway system and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s budgetary constraints, has long been a subject of debate – one that’s become more urgent than ever amid the recent violence.
These are some of the frequently asked questions as the agency looks at new ways to keep riders safe and encourage more people to return to public transit.
Have the subways really become more dangerous?
The NYPD recorded 30 subway pushes in 2021 versus 26 in the previous year, police told City & State. Three straphangers have been pushed onto the subway tracks so far this year, as of Thursday, which is the same amount recorded during the first 20 days of 2021.
In 2021, the NYPD Transit Bureau recorded eight murders, compared to six in 2020. Eight rapes were logged last year, an increase of 14% from the previous year and a 167% increase from 2019, the data showed.
Felony assaults were up 28% last year compared to 2020, with 461 recorded by the NYPD.
Overall, the NYPD’s transit unit reported a drop in 2021 in the cumulative number of the six major felonies (murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary and grand larceny) from 2018 and 2019, attributable to dips in all three theft-related crimes in 2021 compared to one or both of the pre-pandemic years.
Officials have attributed crime on the subways, in part, to an increase in homelessness. In many subway shoving incidents, the accused are unhoused and have a history of mental illness, adding another layer of complexity to the crisis. Homelessness reached an all-time high in the city in 2019. Without adequate shelter space to accommodate all unhoused New Yorkers, many have taken refuge in the subway system and have done so during the pandemic to avoid contracting COVID-19 in overcrowded homeless shelters.
What safety mechanisms have worked in other cities?
There’s been a lot of talk in recent days about platform screen doors that open when the trains arrive and close when they depart, creating a barrier between riders and the tracks. The JFK AirTrain is the only rail station in the city where they are in active use.
While the technology is rare in U.S. transit systems, other countries have used them for decades. Doors were first installed in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the 1960s, according to Fast Company. Stations in Paris, London, São Paulo, Tokyo and Seoul have similar systems.
Vancouver has both laser detection and weight-sensitive plates in its TransLink SkyTrain system that force trains to come to a stop if something is on the tracks, The City reported.
What safety mechanisms has the MTA already tried?
The MTA has floated the idea of platform screen doors since at least 2007, when the technology was proposed for the Second Avenue subway. It never happened, and the agency went on to discuss the sliding doors many more times since. In 2014, the New York City Transit Authority commissioned a feasibility study on three types of platform barriers: full-height platform screen doors, along with half-height automatic platform gates and rope platform screen doors that would open vertically, according to documents recently obtained by NY1.
The agency in 2013 also announced plans to pilot thermal image and laser detection systems that sound an alarm when a person enters the tracks and alert train operators.
And last year, security cameras were installed in all 472 stations.
Why don’t the subways have platform screen doors?
In short, they’ve been deemed too expensive. Platform screens would have to be designed for each of the three door types used in the subway’s A Division, which includes numbered lines, and the B Division, which is the lettered lines. “The spacings of doors on these cars are significantly different, making the installation of platform doors infeasible at most stations today,” according to the study, which was completed in 2019.
Only 128 of 472 stations were deemed feasible for platform barriers – at an installation cost between $6 billion and $7 billion, depending on the type of doors used.
“They would be possible in some stations, but would be an extremely expensive solution to something that is typically viewed as a problem that happens on occasion, and not very often,” interim Transit President Sarah Feinberg reportedly said during an MTA meeting last year in response to questions about how the agency would work to prevent track deaths.
What is the MTA planning now?
Fulfilling a promise made during her State of the State address earlier this month, Hochul announced Friday that 20 public employees, along with nonprofit staffers and volunteers, would be deployed into the subway system within the next week to conduct homeless outreach.
The state also aims to send at least 12 teams of mental health specialists, health care providers and social workers to New York City by the summer, with the goal of helping homeless New Yorkers get off the streets and out of the subways.
Hochul and Adams laid out a joint plan to deploy “hundreds” more police officers to the subways in an announcement earlier this month.
In addition, the MTA recently convened a Trespasser Task Force to solve the issue of people deliberately entering the track bed, CBS 2 reported.
On the technology front, the state put out a call on Jan. 12 for information from the rail and tech industries on “track intrusion detection systems,” similar to the ones piloted in 2013. The proposals are due on Feb. 11.