Rising Threats on the Subway Lead Some New Yorkers to Reconsider Mass Transit

A man stands on the subway with his mask around his chin. 

Lucina Chavez, 53, was taking the A train home to Washington Heights earlier this fall. Chavez was trying to get lost in her book when a man—“a gorgeous kid and talented!”—stood up at one end of the car and began singing. Between the 59th Street and the 125th Street stations, he held a stereo to provide the backup music and wore different shoes on each foot. 

When no one in the train offered him money at the end, he grew angry and threatened to start killing people. The subway had passed any opportunity for Chavez to get off or change cars. 

She began to wonder if it was true: If people did not give money, would they start getting killed?

“Is that what it’s coming down to?” Chavez asked herself. “If we don’t give, we’re just going to get hit for it?”

Chavez was in the car another few minutes as the young man continued to threaten to shoot people. Whether the entertainer had a weapon was unclear, but he got off the subway at 145th Street, screaming the whole time — with no one saying a word to him.

Now, she avoids the subway whenever she can. 

Subway ridership dropped when the coronavirus pandemic began last spring, and some New Yorkers have no plans to get on the train anytime soon. Spikes in violent crimes and a lack of mask-wearing have led some commuters to ask if riding the subway is worth risking their life and health. 

Initially, crime rates plummeted along with the decline in ridership. The number of reported crimes on transit between March and August dropped to roughly 1,450, a decline of 38% from the same period in 2019, according to New York Police Department data.

But now, the crime rate does not reflect the fact that subway ridership is still down approximately 70% from this time last year. For instance, nearly as many felony assaults have occurred this September on the subway as last September, the police data shows.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the subways, has called for greater police presence, said New York City Transit Interim President Sarah Feinberg on Sept. 22, noting the police department is responsible for patrolling the transit system. 

“This is crucial now more than ever as we work to bring riders back,” said Feinberg.

The New York Police Department did not immediately respond for a comment.

There’s more opportunity to commit crimes on the subway and on other public transportation, according to Jim Dooley, adjunct assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Criminals are taking advantage of the isolation provided by the lack of ridership.

“I’m totally alone in this car,” said Dooley, recalling his own recent experience on the subway. “If a group of five or six kids looking for problems gets on, I would be very much outnumbered.”

Four murders took place on transit between March and September, compared to only one in the same period in 2019. The increase comes amid an jump in killings around the city. Plus, several high-profile cases of New Yorkers being shoved onto the subway tracks recently have made the news, and in some attacks, the New York Police Department is still looking for those who committed the assaults. Shoving incidents are one of the two main ways that murders underground happen, according to Dooley. The other way is robberies gone wrong.

Still, this doesn’t mean the subway is drastically more dangerous than it was in the past, Dooley said. Riding the subway at normal workday hours would be just as safe as it always has been, he said, but commuting at night or at off-peak hours — when a person might now be more likely to be in a car alone —  could be more dangerous than usual. 

A more packed car may be safer from crime, but riders open themselves up to a new danger that way: New Yorkers worry about the possibility of catching the coronavirus on their commutes. The MTA says riders are safe because the air is being replaced in the cars 12 times an hour and because mask compliance was above 90% across subways, buses and commuter rails in September. But New Yorkers interviewed cite a lack of mask-wearing on the subway as a major concern. 

Melanie Brooke, a 24-year-old teacher, takes the Long Island Rail Road to work every day from the Hicksville Station. She says that she should be taking the subway, as well, as her school is two stops away from Penn Station, but she’s too worried about the lack of mask wearing. Brooke does not even want to take the Long Island Rail Road to work but would not make it to her job on time unless she did.

When she took the train home on a Friday in November, she found what she referred to as “normal Long Island Rail Road behavior:” groups of men drinking beer with their friends after a long day at work. One passenger munched on popcorn. Another ate a slice of pizza. Some did not have masks at all. Others pulled their masks up just long enough for the conductor to walk by and then  pull them back down to keep eating. 

“You would see people not wearing their mask, not over their nose or they would wear their mask intermittently— taking off their mask and putting it back on, eating,” said Brooke, adding she was too afraid to confront them since she’s a small woman.

She has no plans to return to the subway anytime soon, unless there’s a heavy snow and she needs to get to work. 

Both Brooke and Chavez expressed the desire for more policing on the subway. The $50 fines for not wearing a mask did not seem to be high enough to deter someone from not wearing one, Brooke said. The MTA did not respond to whether mask rates will go up in the future.

“There has to be some order,” said Chavez. “Everybody down there is on their own.”

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Jemma Stephenson grew up in southern Virginia and recently graduated from Smith College
with a degree in English language and literature.
Twitter: @JK_Stephenson

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