Home View from Underground On safe subways and officials who rarely ride the rails

On safe subways and officials who rarely ride the rails

by Benjamin Kabak

NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, left, found the subways to be quite crowded during a ride last week. He shouldn’t have been so surprised. (Via Twitter)

I don’t tend to cover subway crime much on these pixeled pages. As a storyline, subway crime tends more toward clickbait than real coverage with the city’s tabloids preying on decades’-old fears of the subways a hot bed for crime. The reality is far more boring with the NYPD reporting less than seven major felonies per day in the subway, a far cry from even as recently as 1997 when major felonies topped 17 per day. The subways are very safe, and that truth makes for dull press.

Now and then, though, something related to subway crime draws me in. This story is tangentially related to the “spate” of subway slashings. I use “spate” with some trepidation as six incidents in January is hardly a sign of a return to the bad old days, but these crimes follow a pattern. Two people have a heated interaction on a crowded subway car or platform, one slashes the other and flees. The cops have made three arrests and are investigating the other three, including one that unfolded this past weekend.

The slashings, in and of themselves, are warnings to be wary of altercations underground, but the NYPD’s reaction has been telling. To assess safety underground, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton last week decided to ride the subway — with some fellow higher-ups and a security detail — to assess the safety of the subways. He proclaimed the subways “very safe” and added, “As [NYPD Chief of Department] Jimmy [O’Neill] and I found out this morning, they’re jammed in there like sardines. It’s amazing anyone can assault anyone. People can’t move in some of those cars.”

So it is early 2016 and apparently news to the police official in charge of the entire department that the subways are crowded and room is at a premium. Stop the presses indeed.

Bratton’s attitude and words are indicative of a bigger divide in New York City politics that comes about from granting so many top officials, elected and appointed, the perk of free parking and drivers. These leaders do not take the subways and view the subways and subway riders as “other.” Rather than experiencing the city as so many New Yorkers do on a daily basis through the lens of an hour or more spent riding subways each day, they view the subways as this thing that people who aren’t them — people who are the Other — use. The subways remain vaguely unknown and unsafe. Thus, crowded trains are all hours are viewed as a sign things are hunky dory underground.

It’s true as Bratton surmised, that crowds indicate safety. On a basic level, this indicates safety in numbers as the more riders there are, the safer we all feel. Plus, if millions of people didn’t feel safe taking the subway, the trains would be as empty today as they were during the doldrums of the late 1970s and early 1980s. As an infrequent rider, Bratton drew that seemingly common-sense solution, and he’s not wrong. But he’s also not quite right.

As trains get more crowded, the safety concerns manifest themselves in other ways. Subway riders — especially women — are more worried about sexual harassment and assault in the subways. After all, crowded trains give those so inclined cover for inappropriate contact or worse. Bratton wouldn’t pick up on that nuance if he were only last week discovering how crowded trains were. Riders too are worried about confrontations as space on peak hour trains is at a premium. These slashings have arisen over disputes over seats or standing space or those blocking doorways. With trains packed, we grow protective over our square feet, and watching the MTA’s service strain to meet peak-hour capacity means tense crowds and confrontations that can spiral out of control quickly. This too is not something an infrequent rider would immediately notice.

So what’s the solution? I don’t believe we should force politicians to take the subway. Such a requirement leads to disenchantment and bitterness, and it doesn’t help anyone understand the ins and outs of daily life with the subway. Rather, officials and politicians should take the subway because they want to learn and understand what their constituents experience and want to see the city through the eyes of its millions of transit riders. It’s an instructive way to understand the concerns of the millions of people who ride the subway each day. Thus, politicians and key officials would learn how safety concerns are implicated and what crowded trains mean, and subway riders would become the Normal rather than the Other. As the Other, we’ll be treated at arm’s length. As the Normal, conditions can improve in the right way for the better.

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Alex February 1, 2016 - 12:17 am

The tone deafness of these officials when it comes to the subway always astounds me. You’ve got Cuomo who clearly can’t wrap his brain around them but still uses them as a photo opp when it’s convenient. Then you’ve got de Blasio who tries to project that he gets everyday New Yorkers, but clearly has not been a regular train raider in a long time, if ever.

Meanwhile, most of the VPs in my division at my work (a major media company) ride the train as well as many higher ups at companies I’ve worked for in the past. Yet many of our public officials can’t be bothered and think its somehow beneath them. It’s an odd dichotomy that I wish we could overcome. Say what you will about Bloomberg riding the 6 train to City Hall. Security detail not withstanding, he had a much better sense of what commuting on the train is like than most of our current ruling class.

Bolwerk February 1, 2016 - 2:16 pm

It’s availability heuristic run amok. BdB’s idea of “everyday” New Yorkers are his neighbors in Park Slope. They drive. Or the people he sees at work. They drive. TBF, de Blasio is old enough and has been doing it long enough that it’s a bit expected of his generation.

It’s actually the same type of fallacious thinking that goes into crime. In real life, crime ranks somewhere below household and environmental hazards as an existential threat to your life. On TV and in the papers, crime is everywhere.

Seems to me a lot of corporate types see much less status gained in driving nowadays than politicians and bureaucrats do. Though, corporate types are probably more time constrained too and will just take the best option.

Alex February 1, 2016 - 5:05 pm

It’s such an odd disconnect. Best explanation I can come up with is that the NYC political class largely comes from a segment that came of age (or whose parents came of age) in a time when the subway was dangerous and car ownership in NYC was aspirational. Call it a Robert Moses hangover if you like. They still view public transit as something that mostly poor and lower middle class people use out of necessity. The notion that someone making six figures would choose to take the train baffles them.

But in reality you’re dead on about the reduced status of car ownership and demographic trends and studies on the matter back you up. Less prestige combined with simple pragmatism results in high earners being more than happy to take the train. If only the political elites could wrap their brains around that.

SEAN February 1, 2016 - 8:17 pm

The political world be it on a city, state or federal level is far different than the world the rest of us live in, as this photo-op reviels. And you wonder why Trump is doing so well across the country despite his own disconnect from the reality world? He has mastered the exploitation angle & it’s working for him. But to the republican higher-ups there’s nothing but shock & dismay.

Walt Gekko February 3, 2016 - 10:38 am

Excellent point:

Many of these pols likely grew up in the 1960’s, ’70s and early ’80s when the subways were at their absolute worst and like some likely still think of the subways the way they were 30-40 years ago. It likely won’t be until we get a later generation of pols in place that actually grew up using the subways in later years that attitude will change.

Vin February 5, 2016 - 11:58 am

I don’t know that that is entirely accurate. I see plenty of upper-middle-class people around de Blasio’s age riding the train every day at the Union St. R stop. Most people in that cohort seem to commute on the train into Manhattan, but mostly drive (or walk) on the weekend. Still, one would think this would leave them with an awareness of the subway’s problems.

I suspect that the tendency to give high-ranking civil servants parking privileges has a lot to do with this – although it’s also partly generational.

Jeff K. February 1, 2016 - 4:13 am

Requiring our “powers that be” to ride the subways – or encouraging them to by severely curtailing their city drivers/cars/free parking would actually be a great idea. It would be nice if they voluntarily rode the trains to see how the “other half lives,” but there’s no way that they would give up an entitlement like free cars. For better or worse, they would see the riding conditions firsthand, and have an incentive to hold the MTA accountable that they would never have otherwise.
As long as our politicians are ever sealed away from their constituents (city drivers, fenced off City Hall, etc), the city that employs them will never be much more than a set of statistics.

tacony February 1, 2016 - 10:22 am

Yeah, there’s a big gulf between requiring electeds/politicos to commute by transit and subsidizing their driving with free parking, free cars, free drivers, etc. It’s not an either-or scenario.

Getting rid of all the driving and parking freebies would lead to a lot more public servants taking transit without a requirement that they do so. It’d also save the city a lot of money!

San Francisco actually has an “advisory” law on the books requiring that the city’s “Supervisors” (kinda their equivalent of our Councilpeople I guess) ride transit at least twice a week. It’s not really enforced at all though.

Robert LaMarca February 1, 2016 - 12:53 pm

Could not agree more.

Except, why NOT require. It should just be part of the job. If someone gets ‘disenchanted’, well we all have things we don’t like about our jobs and are seldom in a position to make them better.

New York politicians already have so many privileges from their jobs, not the least of which is a national platform and ready access to funds.

Three of the major presidential contenders, Trump, Clinton, Sanders and possibly Bloomberg have some ties to NYC.

Imagine if someone positioned for national office while at the same time embracing the life of a city whose subways move more people than live in some states. Why should that not be seen as egalitarian an act as any other campaign image.

Sorry guys.. too long a comment to a comment, but really why not a little imagination.

Larry Littlefield February 1, 2016 - 6:57 am

A tale of three cities. The executive/financial class, the political/union class, and the serfs.

With just about everyone under 30, including new unionized public employees with lower pay and benefits under “screw the newbie, flee to Florida” deals, being a serf.

How the three classes get around is just one aspect of the division, but a telling one.


The serfs are either apathetic non-voters, certainly people who wouldn’t consider running for office, and can be manipulated. Trump and Sanders have got them excited by pretending they don’t primarily represent the interests of the executive/financial class, the political/union class, and Generation Greed in general. Don’t kid yourself.

In particular, unionized public employees are completely out of solidarity with other workers. And those at the top in large corporate organizations are out of solidarity with real entreprenuers.

Ryan February 1, 2016 - 7:02 am

I don’t believe we should force politicians to take the subway. Such a requirement leads to disenchantment and bitterness, and it doesn’t help anyone understand the ins and outs of daily life with the subway.

It would certainly help cultivate more of an understanding than currently exists for our driven elite, who have no frame of reference for what life is like as a commuter on any mode. That aside, maybe a little disenchantment and bitterness is just the thing that needs to be injected into the lives of they who know what’s best for the rest of us.

Rob February 1, 2016 - 8:37 am

“apparently news to the police official in charge of the entire department that the subways are crowded” — must say, it reminds me of hillary when she was first running for senate saying that she was surprised to learn that taxes were high in NY. But her ignorance was evidently not a problem!

Chris C February 1, 2016 - 8:52 am

I thought it was a rule for police officers not to have their hands in their pockets?

Politicians SHOULD be riding the rails. You can’t compel them of course but it really is in their own interests to do so when the journey they are making can be done by public transport. It means they can speak with authority on the issues and not just generalisations

When he was Mayor of London Ken Livingstone used the buses and tubes all the time (with no gaggle of aids or ‘security’ staff accompanying him) to get to City Hall from his home or to events he was attending.

Tower18 February 1, 2016 - 6:37 pm

“Speaking with authority on the issues” is not even at the bottom of a politician’s list, it’s off the list. Someone can tell them what to think when the time comes.

JJJJ February 1, 2016 - 9:33 am

The fact that there are so few cops walking around the subway system is all you need to know for how much NYPD leadership thinks about it. Anyone ever seen a cop on a bus? Ever?

Roger February 1, 2016 - 10:50 am

Why do you want cops on buses? Do you also want cops in every public restroom? Or even better, surveillance camera in every restroom and homes, all of them hooked to NSA’s Utah data center?

The NYPD is already extremely militarized (Bloomberg declared NYPD as the 6th or 7th biggest army in the world years ago) and even has backscatter X-ray vans that can see inside vehicles. Yet there are people who want to push the police state to even new heights.

But the sacred safety and security! I hear you screaming.

A small dose of crime is like a safety valve: it is a way for some people to vent. A small dose of crime is the sign of a free, healthy and vibrant society. Without crimes, a society will explode. Do you prefer petty altercations on a crowded 4/5/6 train, or a riot 1000x that of Ferguson, MO that will ruin America to ashes?

So unless we can really fix the stagnating economy, an expansion of the police state will not work on the long run. If you really love a police state, you should be deported to North Korea. Pyongyang’s subway is indeed much safer than NYC’s.

Thomas Graves February 1, 2016 - 11:02 pm

Probably the most ridiculous comment I’ve read in a long time. Crime is a sign of a “free, healthy and vibrant society”? Right. Free to die, free to get stabbed or be raped or robbed. Yeah, we sure need that kind of freedom…

Thank God that a multi-racial society like Singapore (where I live) is not “free” according to your warped definition. 3 million daily riders & far fewer than the 7 major felonies every day trumpeted here as proof of how safe the NYC Subway is.

Spendmor Wastemor February 2, 2016 - 6:29 pm

” crime is the sign of a free, healthy and vibrant society. ”

That’s an accidental slip of how people of what people of that mindset actually think. They believe you deserve to be hit with some amount of crime, while at the same time knowing that they will probably not suffer the consequences themselves.

Bolwerk February 4, 2016 - 5:45 pm

I don’t agree with his stance about venting, but crime is a symptom of freedom. The freedom to possess guns in America is an object lesson in that. The guns could be taken away, and the gun violence would surely go down, but some freedom would be lost in the process. Granted, some might be gained. My take is being allowed to live in a bullet-free community is a freedom too.

Esteban February 3, 2016 - 2:00 pm

Bus crime has never been a huge problem, even during the bad old days. My dad was a Captain in the transit police (retired in ’95 right after the merge), and was on the job for 30 years. It would be a bad use of limited resources.

Bolwerk February 4, 2016 - 5:39 pm

Good, actually. In dozens of incidences of witnessing everything from bar fights to protests to neighbors’ domestic violence to gang/youth fights, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a situation where cops showing up actually made a situation better. Seriously. Every time I’ve ever seen it happen cops either showed up too late to be of use beyond taking a report* or, perhaps nearly as often, a tense situation involving fists or knives suddenly was joined by people with guns and the stakes just went up.

People who expect police to solve social problems are people who watch too much TV.

* in those cases, they often just started badgering other people

Nathanael February 8, 2016 - 3:09 am

I have seen cops make things better, but that’s in certain small towns.

The problem is that you have a defective police department. The cops are not equipped right, they are not trained right, and they’re not deployed right.

Nathanael February 8, 2016 - 3:10 am

(This is why I support dissolving the NYPD completely. It’s an organizational culture problem. The way you solve that is by flushing the organization down the drain and starting a fresh organization — call it PDNY, perhaps, and model it on FDNY.

Also, anyone who is a member of the crime gang called the “Fraternal Order of Police” needs to be prohibited from being a police officer. Permanently.)

Bolwerk February 9, 2016 - 4:32 pm

Well, they are equipped to do things like write tickets or investigate crimes. They are probably fine for the Norman Rockwell stuff too.

But in actual situations with potential hardcore violence, they aren’t very well equipped. In fact, they are often potential victims themselves.

Jonathan R February 1, 2016 - 9:52 am

Politicians rarely sighted on the bus system, either.

tacony February 1, 2016 - 10:52 am

The funny thing is that Bratton was the Transit Police Chief from 1990 to 1992, before he left NYC to return to Boston. Maybe he hated it so much it drove him back to his stomping grounds? This was before he then returned to NYC when Giuliani was elected and both made him NYPD chief and merged the Transit and Housing Authority police with the NYPD. I assume that Bratton is comparing things to 1990-92 when says he’s surprised how crowded the trains are.

His tenure as Transit Chief was judged pretty favorably in the media when he resigned from that post to head back to a lesser job in Boston: http://www.nytimes.com/1992/01.....onths.html

Michael549 February 1, 2016 - 11:30 am

Tone-deaf comments aside – there are simply different ways of “knowing” something.

To say or “know” that the subway trains are “crowded” on a once in a while trip is not the same is KNOWING that the trains are very crowded on the day-to-day riding the subways at 7:45am every day way.

Sure one can read the reports, hear statements from your fellow officers, etc. – but that’s not the same as “knowing” or learning with your own senses, or experiencing the situation on a daily basis.

On the idea that political or government leaders should ride the subways or some way experience the lives of the folks that they lead – there is some merit to that idea. There’s also merit in being able to look at a broader set of concerns – which is something that leaders are often called upon to do.

It is also true that often these political or government leaders have to be at or go to places where mass transit is simply not helpful or available. For the decades when the ferries ran on an hourly schedule I’ve dreamed of our political or government leaders actually waiting in the terminals along with us regular folk – that would teach them!

On the other hand – not doing the thing that “regular people have to do” is often seen as “making it”, arriving at a status separates one from the common man.


Rob February 1, 2016 - 11:54 am

The Bratton tone-deafness reflects a real ignorance about Sexual Assault. Sexual assault, as you mentioned, is a huge issue and happens every day on crowded trains.

Someone close to me literally had an object shoved up her anus just as the doors opened at a major station, and people pressed to get out. She couldn’t see who was doing it, and it required medical attention.

She has never gotten over it, especially how: (a) it happened in plain sight on a crowded train; and (b) it was incredibly difficult to get the NYPD to take it seriously. Those assaulted like her are under a variety of pressures, asking themselves: Was this a sexual assault? Where is the cop in the subway?

She found a cop and was told to call the precinct from her office. Then she was told that a detective could not meet with her outside of 9-5 hours (to fill out paperwork, and go over camera footage), so she had to miss time from work that she couldn’t afford. (I’m sure if Bratton were assaulted, a detective would be asked to work after 5pm.)

Jerrold February 1, 2016 - 12:00 pm

In other words, she was violated a second time by typical bureaucratic bullshit.

Eric February 2, 2016 - 6:04 am

It’s a universal problem, even in low-crime countries like Japan.

Douglas John Bowen February 1, 2016 - 12:36 pm

Man, I miss Mayor Mike. Yes, yes, he had his entourage with him, and ready auto transport at either end of his ride. But he chose to ride, the subway, more than once, to get (at least) the feel of what “other” was experiencing. That’s better than many, most, in his financial weight class.

Man, I miss Mayor Mike.

Alex February 1, 2016 - 5:16 pm

Yup. And if we’re being realistic, I get why the mayor can’t just casually hop on the train the way most of us do. But the fact that Bloomberg made a point to do it on a regular basis showed that he grasped how integral the subway is to the lives of New Yorkers. It’s not something that a few or some people in the city use. It’s something MOST people use. That seems to completely escape de Blasio whose perception appears to be that driving is important to far more city residents than it actually is.

adirondacker12800 February 2, 2016 - 7:30 pm

it’s easy to lose any hope if the Republicans say no to anything any Democrat proposes. And difficult to make any changes.

Nathanael February 8, 2016 - 3:15 am

There was stuff Obama could do by executive order…. like cleaning up the crime spree within the military and “intelligence” sectors of the government, or withdrawing the US from corporate-sellout “trade” deals.

Instead, he chose to drone-murder people without trial, protect the Constitution-violating traitors at the NSA, attack whistleblowers, and make more corporate-sellout “trade” deals.

Oh, and then there’s a case where he could have made a big difference by doing NOTHING. The Bush tax cuts for the superrich were going to expire. Obama made a special intervention to make them permanent. Utterly evil.

Honestly, sometimes it felt like President Obama was the third and fourth terms of President Bush.

Well, I’m voting Bernie this time, because he has a record of consistency.

Bolwerk February 9, 2016 - 4:39 pm

Obama dogwhistled to “progressives” and they bought it. I was glad to see Bush go, but I never thought for a second he was going to change anything.

Felt the same way about de Blasio too, BTW. It’s just a given that people who just dogwhistle about change aren’t about to deliver any. Fucker immediately announced he would appoint Bratton AFTER he was elected too. Would have been nice to know before, not that there was an alternative anyway.

Ed February 3, 2016 - 1:12 pm

“or encouraging them to by severely curtailing their city drivers/cars/free parking would actually be a great idea.”

This is the key point. The problem is not the absence of some formal and unenforceable requirement that these people ride the subways. The problem is that car use is actually subsidized too much for city officials, if only through free parking alone.

That said, in the case of the Police Commissioner, he has a legitimate need for a car/ driver, and even if you took that away he could always get around in a police car or van. But there would be some progress if you restricted the car/ driver only to the half dozen or so highest ranking city government officials, and took the free parking away from the second and third tier guys.


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