It’s impossible to escape the spectre of September 11 right now. As much as I would rather not dwell on the uncertainty and emotion from that terrible day, it is now pervading New York life. New signs at Cortlandt St. point the way to the 9/11 momument, and news outlets of all stripes are covering the decade from every angle.
New York City’s subways were, of course, not at all immune from the impact of 9/11. Physically, the city’s subways were altered. Trains had to be re-routed and stations rebuilt as the falling towers crashed into the subway tubes below. Those weren’t, however, the only changes as security underground became a renewed focus.
Around the world, other cities have seen their subways come under attack. Since September 11, Moscow, Madrid, London and Tokyo have all suffered terrorism-related bombings in their subway systems, but New York’s has so far remain unscathed. That isn’t to say it’s a relatively protected system though. While the MTA has focused its security efforts on high-volume stations and train lines that pass under key infrastructure, the system is porous. Anyone can board a train anywhere and ride it to another destination for the simple swipe of a MetroCard.
With 9/11 looming, the MTA’s security efforts have creeped back into the news lately. New York 1 today offers up a few pieces. One looks at the authority’s increased security efforts while another praises the MTA’s seemingly successful “See Something, Say Something” campaign. According to that report, over 10,000 people called the NYPD to say something in 2010, an increase of over 7000 over 2009. The constant reminders to notice every suspicious plastic bag has at least given the police something to do.
“If there is an event in the the news, people will call more, they’ll see more, they’re paying more attention,” Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said. “If you don’t have any recent events, terrorist events, it’ll seem to fall off some. But generally speaking, I think it’s working well. People are aware of their changed situation.”
Now, the New York 1 pieces are designed to make us feel safer. The MTA, they say, is monitoring thousands of points throughout the system with cameras while some in high-traffic areas — Grand Central, Times Square, Penn Station — provide real-time streams to the NYPD’s high-tech monitoring system. These are necessary measures, but I sometimes wonder if it’s only for show. After all, someone intent on attacking the city’s transit network might know that the busiest stations are also the ones most heavily guarded.
Outside of the city, suburban dwellers are less comfortable with their security. The Daily New Canaan recently questioned Metro-North’s preparedness. As some riders noted, if cops had difficulty locating a stalled train a few weeks ago, how will they respond to a terrorism-related emergency?
Of course, these types of stories simply inspire more theater. People talk about bag inspections for commuter rail passengers, increased police patrols and on-board K-9 units. By stroking fears, lawmakers can push toward an increased police state in our rail network. No one really wants to experience that reality either.
Ultimately, it’s a balancing act. The NYPD and the MTA have to strike a balance between security and theater. They have to project an air of protection without seeming overbearing while working behind the scenes to ensure that the system is protected. We don’t like to think about subway security because we don’t want to think that the subways aren’t safe. We need them; we ride on them; we don’t want to fear them. But this week, security and terrorism are in the news, and subway security remains as it often is — a work very much in progress.