Home Subway Security The way we ride: obliviously

The way we ride: obliviously

by Benjamin Kabak

In the 1974 version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three — airing later today at Film Forum — Robert Shaw has successfully hijacked a subway car, and to ensure his ransom demands and getaway plans, he threatens to kill the passengers on board. In a moment quintessentially New York, the passengers laugh. They don’t believe that the guy with a gun is actually going to use it. It’s the subway after all; anything goes.

At that point, the subways were amidst a long, slow decline to lawlessness. Graffiti markings that marred every available surface of nearly every single subway car lent the subways an aura of anarchy, and the always-feared subway shooting can to pass in December of 1984 when Bernard Goetz opened fire on four young men he claimed were trying to rob him. Straphangers took the subway at night at their own risk, and riders were always aware of their surroundings.

Today, we treat subway crimes with an aura of detachment and murder with spectacle. In the backs of our minds, we know that people can get robbed, mugged or raped in the subway, but the numbers and anecdotes say it doesn’t happen too frequently. In fact, through August 2010, the police have received no reports of any rapes in the subway and just 775 instances of grand larceny. As recently as 2000, the NYPD had fielded four rape calls in the subway, and as recently as 1997, grand larceny reports numbered 2264.

Yet, a narrative has emerged, fueled in part by overeager police and in part by real-life experience, that suggests straphangers have become almost too complacent underground. The narrative is summarized by Andrew Grossman and Tamar El-Ghobashy in the Wall Street Journal. Criminals, they say, are targeting high-tech devices.

Based on the latest totals released by the NYPD, grand larcenies were up only 15 percent for August 2010 as compared with August 2009. Overall, grand larcenies are up from 759 from January-August in 2009 to 775 over the same period in 2010. That’s a jump of just 2.1 percent, and while it’s hardly an alarming increase, this year marks just the second time since 1997 that grand larceny has increased over the first eight months of the year.

Cops tell the Journal that the increase in theft is directly related to appealing iEverythings. Police officials claim that perps grab iPhones, Blackberries or anything else electronic out of the hands of those sitting near car doors and then bolt right before the train leaves. “We often see spikes in thefts of popular items, especially in teen-on-teen crime after school,” NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said. “For example, when eight-ball jackets were popular among teens, we saw a spike in their thefts. Same thing when certain expensive sneakers became popular. In more recent years, Sidekicks, cellphones and iPhones were targeted.”

So when then do I say we ride obliviously? If the NYPD says more people are getting their high-tech gadgets snatched, I believe New Yorkers have become too complacent on the subways. Newcomers to the city and even younger kids who grew up here don’t remember the days when the subways were dangers. Their parents have never told them to avoid the train at night or to ride in packs. Rather, they see people who flaunt their iPods, iPhone, iPads and Kindles. They see people who do work on their laptops during long rides. They see everyday life going on underground without an undercurrent of menace looming around the corner as many felt in the 1970s and 1980s.

Now, don’t get me wrong; a safe subway system is far preferable to one where we must sit on guard at all times wary of that guy giving us an eye across the aisle. But at some point, riders buried in their oh-so-familiar Apple headphones should remember where they are. Just as the noise leaking from headphones screams “obliviously,” so too does a disregard for personal security. It only takes a moment to see that iPhone ripped away from the train. Beware of the closing doors.

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kj October 1, 2010 - 7:34 am

Maybe it’s an old habit, but I still try to keep my stuff out of sight, my arms wrapped tightly around my bags, and I don’t drift off into slumber, as many riders do. Gotta stay awake!

Edward October 1, 2010 - 10:05 am

I’m often amazed a riders wearing headphones who suddenly look up to see where they are or why the train has passed their stop, even after the conductor made numerous announcements that a train was being rerouted for whatever reason.

Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I was leery of taking my wallet on the subway, never mind an electronic device (as big as they were back then!). To this day, I never wear headphones on the subway, and ALWAYS keep an eye and ear open to what’s going on. It’s just good sense.

Joe October 1, 2010 - 10:24 am

Almost never pull my phone out in the subway. I don’t listen to music. I don’t read. And I always look around at everyone on the platform. Never ride in an empty car at night. I didn’t ride the subways that often when they were in poor shape, but I remember when they were really bad, and I guess I will always assume something could happen.

Todd October 1, 2010 - 10:27 am

I’ve grown much more complacent over the last few years. Great post.

pea-jay October 1, 2010 - 11:37 am

I must admit that I’ve become more prone to using my iPhone on the train but that’s the extent of it. I was once on a train at almost midnight and there 3 people using laptops and one iPad user. I was amazed at this.

Kevin October 1, 2010 - 2:01 pm

Every once in a while, I would check my pockets even though I know my stuff is still in there. I don’t know why I do that, but I just do. When I do fall asleep on the subway, I would have my hand wrapped around my bag or something, usually I jump up awake when I feel it slips away.

My advice Do not sit near the door, especially on trains without an actual cover between the door and the seats (R160’s for example) and always make sure your device is secure in your pockets. If your wallet is in your back pocket, make sure you’ll be getting a seat, and make sure it doesn’t slip out when you leave. If there’s no seat, make sure there’s nobody behind you. Zipper pockets are good too.

In reality though, I’m more concerned about something slipping out of my pockets and leaving it on the train, as opposed to being robbed.

I’ve had friends who were robbed when they walked out of the station, and was followed by someone.

Just don’t leave yourself vulnerable, and stay safe!

Eric October 1, 2010 - 2:48 pm

When I first moved here in 1998 I started keeping my wallet in my front pocket and I never stopped. I do use my iPhone on the train, but really only at rush hour and when I’m further into the car. I certainly don’t listen to music at 3AM on the train or play Scrabble.

A lot of this is just those street smarts that it seems very few people have anymore.

ant6n October 2, 2010 - 4:46 pm

Not using your ipod seems to come at a bigger cost than the expected cost of theft of that device. Let’s put the math into perspective:

There are 750 cases of grand larceny in 7.5 months, about 3.3 a day. Ipods are not ‘grand’, so lets say there are actually 100 stolen a day. On the same day there are 5 million rides, so that’s about one stolen ipods per 50k riders. That means that the expected number of rides until my ipod gets stolen is 50k rides. If I take 3 rides a day, that would still mean that the expected time until the thing gets stolen is like 450 years — which is two orders of magnitude more than the expected life time of the device.

So it seems to me that keeping your device in your pocket – thus wasting it’s life time – comes at a higher cost than the expected cost due to theft of the same device.

On average, people who feel safe in the subway are probably much happier than the fear-mongers.

rhywun October 3, 2010 - 1:54 am

“When I first moved here in 1998 I started keeping my wallet in my front pocket and I never stopped.”

Same here, when I moved here in 1997 – because that was the advice I heard. And I assumed it was nuts to take the subway overnight. Gradually, I came to feel that such fears were overblown, and while I still follow common-sense “street smarts”, I don’t live in fear like I sometimes did in other cities I’ve lived in that have higher crime rates and less “activity”.

“Cops tell the Journal that the increase in theft is directly related to appealing iEverythings.”

I think the cops are just making stuff up. Such devices have been omnipresent on the subway for years. But it makes them (and presumably us) feel better to point at some concrete “reason” for the rise, rather than try to explain that crime goes up and down because of a combination of numerous factors that even criminologists constantly argue over.

Andrew D. Smith October 4, 2010 - 12:30 pm

To late for any real interaction, I’m sure, but I object to the general tenor of the post and comments that holds that people should have to be alert and cautious at all times.

When I hear the announcements telling me not to “display” and gadgets, all I hear is the MTA trying to shirk its obligation to keep the subway safe. In a civilized society, I should be able to display whatever I want to display without fear that someone will try to take it from me.

If we haven’t reached that point quite yet, then our goal should be to try to reach it via more effective policing and — God forbid — subway passengers actually helping one another out by tripping fleeing criminals and holding them for police.

(This is how I know New Yorkers haven’t really come to terms with the new safety: They are all too scared to enforce social norms by doing anything from tripping thieves to chastising door blockers because they all worry that the other guy is going to pull a gun or a knife and kill them. The city won’t be able to make the next leap to true civility until people are willing to police their own norms because there simply can never be enough police to make us behave.)

Anyway, I’m not saying that the other commentators aren’t smart to exercise some caution until we get to the point where no one needs to worry about theft. I’m just saying that there’s a tone of blaming the crime spike on others for being “careless” when the only people to blame here are the criminals. Saying that people are asking to get robbed by playing solitaire on their iPhones runs along much the same logic as saying that women who wear provocative clothing are asking for trouble. The problem here is not careless riders.

Daniel Howard October 5, 2010 - 5:06 pm

As we would say in the Silicon Valley, if the subway has become safe enough that the crime problem is petty theft of expensive gadgets from complacent passengers, “that is the kind of problem we want to have.”

ant6n October 6, 2010 - 3:41 am

You have found an even better argument. The goal is civility and a safe society, let’s build that. At the same time the actual risks of having your gadgets stolen are low. And as Daniel said – if it’s just the gadgets, then maybe we’re moving towards that safe society.

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Petulia Joseph December 26, 2010 - 9:10 pm

I keep my Smartphone in my bag. I don’t play Solitaire on it, nor watch whatever videos I downloaded on my train ride. I only take it out to check the time. And I’m going to soon stop doing this, too, because I plan to buy a wristwatch. Over the past few years, I’ve been using my cell phone to check the time; but with the recent increase in Smartphone thefts, I’m going back to the good old-fashioned wristwatch. In addition, I prefer to read books (the regular kind) or magazines of my choice, or my Bible, during my train rides. In-between reading, I still try to remain alert and vigilant until I get to my destination.

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