How Safe Is The New York City Subway?
by AK Thornton
First-time visitors to New York City often think that the New York Subway is a dangerous and desolate place with poorly lit platforms, graffiti-strewn walls with roving gangs of teenage thugs looking for their marks - this image is something out of the 1979 movie "The Warriors". There was some truth to this image during a particularly unpleasant period from the '60s to '80s when even hardened locals avoided the underground. The New York City subway system has since been transformed.
Biggest New York Subway Crash in History
28 August 1991
Five people were killed and more than 200 injured when a southbound No. 4 train derails going over a switch just north of Union Square. Service on the Lexington Avenue IRT, was disrupted for six days as transit workers toiled around the clock to clean up the wreckage.
The motorman, Robert Ray, who was drunk and going more than 40 mph where the speed limit was 10 mph, is later convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years in prison. It was the worst subway accident in 63 years.
(Photo courtesy New York City Transit)
Robert Ray was released from prison in April 2002, after serving two-thirds of his maximum sentence. He behaved well in prison and had no disciplinary record, but the parole panels had rejected all his parole requests because he continued to show ''a depraved indifference for the lives of his victims.''
In 1993, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani took office and quickly enlisted the transit police (which merged with the NYPD in 1996) to use innovative means to get the vandals and the punks out of the subway. The basic idea, based on what is known as the "Broken Windows" theory, was to crack down hard on petty crimes -- defacement of property and turnstile jumping, for instance -- to create an appearance of order that would gradually deter more serious would-be criminals. The approach was remarkably successful, and in 1999 Mayor Giuliani reported some impressive statistics: "Crime in our subway system has declined dramatically in the first four months of this year, continuing a multi-year decline that is even steeper than the City's overall crime decline. Robberies declined 17 percent from last year to this year… grand larcenies by 12 percent… assaults by 18 percent. Reported robbery in the subways has now declined by 68 percent over the last six years."
If you look at the statistics, the New York Subway has only continued to become safer over time. In 2004, Giuliani's successor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, boasted that "Today, the subway system is safer than it has been at any time since we started tabulating subway crime statistics nearly 40 years ago."
Accidental Deaths and Subway Suicides
While there is the occasional murder, it seems that most of the deaths that occur in the subway are due to sickness, accident, or suicide. The Metropolitan Transit Authority does not keep these statistics, and undoubtedly many cases go unreported, so the stats are extremely difficult to ascertain. But recently amNewYork reporter Chuck Bennett wrote that, in a review of news stories and police reports filed in 2006, he found that 23 people had died in the subway during the year. "Natural causes" or illness accounted for the largest number, five were accidents, and another five were suicides. One of those cases was a murder-suicide committed by Frantz Bordes, a man who drowned his girlfriend's children, and then went down to the Church Avenue station and jumped in front of a Q train. He left seven different suicide notes, claiming that people were out to get him and that his girlfriend's family had been using voodoo on him.
A handful of the deaths uncovered by amNewYork's research were technically due to unknown causes, because the police were unable to determine whether they were accident or suicide. Oftentimes when someone is killed by a train, it's hard to be sure whether they slipped and fell on the tracks or if they did it on purpose, unless there is an eyewitness or a suicide note. Even in cases where the person deliberately leapt onto the tracks, it may be ruled an accident if it appears that he was just (stupidly) goofing around or trying to retrieve a dropped item. Although jumping in front of a train is often thought to be a popular method of committing suicide, a New York City Department of Health report determined that, in 1998, less than four percent of NYC suicides involved jumping in front of a moving object.
New York Subway Worker Deaths
Following the deaths of two MTA employees, Daniel Boggs and Marvin Franklin, within days of each other in the Spring of 2007, the MTA released a report revealing that 238 NYC subway workers have been killed in work accidents since 1946. The report showed that in the majority of cases the victim was hit by a train while working on the tracks, but many have also been electrocuted on the third rail and numerous others have died from falls. A few workers also perished in train collisions, and some were even fatally shot during robberies. Half of the total number of deaths occurred in the 1940s and '50s alone, indicating that safety has steadily improved through the decades (nine subway workers have been killed so far this decade). But the tragic loss of Mr. Boggs and Mr. Franklin was a reminder that the subway is a dangerous place to work, and as a result the MTA has been reassessing its safety standards.
Crime in the New York Subway
From 2005 to 2006, major crimes declined once again (by over 18%) in the New York City subway system, leaving the numbers of reported crimes amazingly low for a city of this size. The Transit Bureau employs some 2,500 officers to continue keeping the subway safe, but of course they can't be everywhere at all times and it's in the emptier stations, late at night, where riders are most at risk of being robbed by force. Of course, when it comes to pick pocketing, the busy stations are much worse. Rush hour -- which has commuters packed in like sardines -- is an open invitation for wallet snatching, so it's no surprise that the NYPD stats show that grand larcenies are more common in high-traffic stations like Port Authority, Times Square, Penn Station, Grand Central Station, and the 59th Street and Lexington station.
One of the recent blows to the safety of today's New York subway user is the loss of many booth attendants. The MTA has been tightening the purse stringers to avoid further fare hikes, so many stations are not manned by a breathing human anymore. When you look at the major incidents in the subway, it has been this person who has raised the alarm. In lieu of booth attendants, each station has one or more machines that people can use to purchase Metrocards with cash or credit cards. This creates yet another ripe opportunity for muggers.
Summoning Help in the New York Subway
The MTA has installed pay phones and talk-back boxes on poles of subway platforms so that riders have a way of calling for help if necessary themselves. However, the fact that these things exist is no guarantee that they actually work. The pay phones are notoriously problematic -- in fact, a recent survey by the Straphangers Campaign showed that roughly one in four aren't functional. And many locals (not to mention tourists) aren't even aware of the call-boxes and how they work.
Cell phones, which people have become increasingly dependent on for summoning help in the everyday world, rarely work in the underground trains and stations, making it difficult for riders to contact outside help when necessary. (Many trains in upper Manhattan and other boroughs go above ground, so cell phones can be used on those.) The good news is that the MTA has accepted bids from cell phone companies, so soon it will, like many other cities, allow passengers a way to communicate with the outside world via cell phone. Blackberries have also been shown to work well in the New York Subway system, even a few feet below ground.
Terrorism and the New York Subway
Since the 9/11 terror attacks, the New York City subway has been considered a major terrorist target. The subway is an especially desirable target for terrorists because it is the lifeblood of the city, and it has large numbers of people concentrated in small spaces. It also allows easy access since there is no mechanism for keeping weapons and explosives out (there is no formal security check, and bag searches are very rare). So far there has yet to be a successful attack on the NYC subway like the deadly London Underground bombings on July 7, 2005 that claimed dozens of lives, but there has already been a foiled attempt: Shahawar Matin Siraj and James Elshafay were in the early stages of planning to bomb the Herald Square subway station when they were caught thanks to the work of a police informant.
And bombings are not the only terrorist possibility in the subways. There is also concern that deadly nerve agents could be effectively used in attacks, much like the sarin gas used by the Aum Doomsday Cult in a 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway, which resulted in 12 deaths and thousands of injuries.
Violent Assault and Murder in the New York Subway
The most terrifying incidents in the NYC subway have been completely unpredictable, and often at the hands of the mentally ill. In the summer of 2006, there were two separate, very disturbing cases on the New York Subway - the "Boston Stabber" and the "Power Saw Slasher ". The first involved a Boston man named Kenny Alexis, who went on a stabbing spree, first stabbing a tourist on the C train in Harlem, then several hours later stabbing another man waiting on a platform in the Rockefeller Center station. Alexis went on to attack two women in Times Square before finally being apprehended. Only two weeks later, Bronx man Tareyton Williams attacked postal worker Michael Steinberg with a power saw in the 110th Street and Broadway station, cutting into several of Steinberg's ribs and puncturing his lungs. (Williams was later handed an 18-year prison sentence for second-degree assault.) Commented Police Commissioner Ray Kelly at the time: "When you get four and a half million people a day into the system, every once in a while a really bizarre thing can happen."
Kendra Webdale and the advent of Kendra's Law
A pair of truly alarming New York subway murders occurred in 1999, when two people were shoved in front of trains within months of each other. The first incident took place on January 3, when Andrew Goldstein pushed Kendra Webdale off the platform to her death in front of an oncoming N train at the 23rd and Broadway station. A diagnosed schizophrenic, Goldstein had been left unsupervised and wasn't taking medication for his illness.
The second incident happened on April 28, when Juilo Perez, a schizophrenic homeless man who had also slipped through the cracks of the mental health care system, shoved Edgar Rivera in front of a 6 train at the 51st Street station. Mr. Rivera survived, but his legs were severed. The combination of these two tragedies raised public awareness of the fact that many mentally ill people are going untreated and, without proper care and medication, can become violent. This led to the establishment of Kendra's Law (named for Ms. Webdale), which allows doctors to insist that people with potentially dangerous mental problems be given assisted outpatient treatment.
New York Subway - Most Dangerous Stations
The incident data makes It quite clear that the most dangerous place on the New York Subway system is the train platform. Although some incidents may start on the train itself, or even on the street, its the platform where the body of the incident will most likely transpire - 90% more likely in fact.
The most dangerous stations in the New York Subway system are, surprisingly, in many affluent areas of the city. In 2005 and 2006, the largest numbers of reported assaults occurred at the West 4th station, Penn Station, 2nd Avenue Station, Grand Central Station, and the 86th Street and 125th Street stations on the East Side -- but even those were very small numbers when compared to the total amount of travelers in the New York Subway System - which totals over 4 million a day. Homicides and rapes in the subway are, thankfully, extraordinarily rare. Not surprisingly, most criminal incidents occur at the busiest stations, where there are the most people. Analyzing criminal incident data from the last 10 years, the 23rd Street stations at Broadway and 6th Ave have had the single worst most shocking incidents - Penn Station has experienced the highest amount of incidents per subway traveler, giving it the most dubious accolade of most dangerous station in the New York Subway System - having said that, walking along any street in New York City may have a higher risk.