- Subway riders in New York City fear for their safety after two people were pushed onto subway tracks.
- Transit experts and criminologists are encouraging New Yorkers and tourists to keep riding public transportation.
- Experts said crime rates on the subway are expected to rise as ridership rebounds from early pandemic rates.
Recent incidents of violence on the New York City subway have left travelers scared to get around using the public transit system.
In mid-January, a homeless man shoved 40-year-old Michelle Go in front of an incoming train at the Times Square station. Go was found dead on the tracks; she never saw her attacker. Eight days later, a 62-year-old man was pushed onto the tracks at a Lower Manhattan station. Police said he had to receive treatment for a leg laceration.
Overall crime in the New York City mass transit system rose in 2021 compared to 2020, the height of the pandemic. But that increase in total major felonies on public transportation was 1.1 percent, according to preliminary crime stats compiled by the New York Police Department in a recent transit and bus committee board document.
The transit system saw murders increase by 33.3% (two) from 2020 to 2021, and reported sexual assault by 14.3% (one). The largest increase, according to the MTA report, included assaults, which rose by almost 30% (100). Robberies decreased by nearly eight percent and burglaries by 73.9%. During this time, the NYPD more than doubled the number of arrests from 2020 to 2021, the report shows.
In an MTA board meeting this month, Kathleen O’Reilly, chief of transit at the NYPD, “noted that year-to-date crime is down about 3.5 percent,” according to the report.
To say that crime is rising, however, is too simplistic, according to John DeCarlo, a criminologist at the University of New Haven. Rising crime rates during this period can reflect a lot of things, including population density, he said.
At its peak before the pandemic, subway ridership reached about 6 million travelers per day. But ridership began to fluctuate during the pandemic, reaching low points as government officials enforced lockdowns at the height of the pandemic and again as the Delta variant spread.
As more people got vaccinated against the coronavirus and headed back to work, ridership increased and will continue to go up, DeCarlo said. And crime rates, as a result, are expected to follow in this trend because of population density, he added.
“Now, we’re up to about 3.1 million a day,” DeCarlo said. “And so the ridership is up. In criminology, one of the most important factors is population density. So if you have more people, it follows you’re going to have more crime.”
Crime in the subway is ‘a multifaceted issue,’ experts say
Experts told Insider there’s no single correct way to prevent violent crimes like attacks and assaults on the subway.
James Dooley, a retired NYPD captain and a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, proposed stationing more police officers and placing cameras to deter potential offenders.
“A lot of these subway stations are still very isolated,” Dooley told Insider. “You realize if something happens, you’re alone.”
At the MTA board and committee meeting, members called for an increased presence of law enforcement on trains and platforms.
O’Reilly said this was her goal and “responded that the deployment of officers remains the same and has been steady at about 1,000 per day into the system,” according to the board meeting documents. “She noted that crime in the Transit Bureau represents only 1.7% of total crime in the City.”
An increase in law enforcement does not address underlying systemic issues like poverty and mental health, which are often connected to crime, both Dooley and DeCarlo acknowledged. But knowing there are officers and cameras around might at least make people feel safer and could be a way to prevent crimes while lawmakers continue to consider these systemic issues, they said.
“Is it a Band-Aid? Yeah. But sometimes a Band-Aid keeps infection out,” DeCarlo said.
‘A legitimate fear’
At a press conference last week, New York City Mayor Eric Adams said the subway is safe, arguing that there’s just a “perception of fear.”
“New Yorkers are safe on the subway system,” he said a day after Go died. “I think it’s about 1.7 percent of the crimes in New York City that occur on the subway system.”
The perception of fear discourages people from using the subway system, which in turn may encourage violent crimes, according to Dooley. When there are fewer people on the trains, for example, it’s easier to prey on isolated riders, he said, because potential offenders are more likely to strike if minimal intervention is presumed.
While overall crime rates are down, violent crime rates such as robberies and assaults on the subway are up, and elderly people are at higher risk of becoming a victim of a violent crime, Dooley said.
“It is dangerous for people, especially older Americans, older New Yorkers who may travel by themselves,” he said. “I do not think they’re being paranoid. I think they have a legitimate fear and I would recommend to all of them at the bare minimum, try to stay near people, try to stay near a token booth if there is one and don’t isolate yourself. You don’t want to be alone at the end of a platform.”
Other precautions include remaining vigilant of one’s surroundings, Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, told Insider. Daglian and MTA officials advise riders to stand away from the platform edge.
While all New Yorkers and tourists should take these precautions, Daglian said, the perception of fear is not reflective of reality.
“It’s not unsafe to the level that people think it is,” she said. “The things that scare every New Yorker the most, which is being shoved in front of a subway train, are capturing our attention and it captures the media’s attention.”