Transit officials in New York City celebrated a major milestone last week: The subway system recorded 3.6 million rides in one day, a pandemic-era record.
Three days later, a Goldman Sachs employee was fatally shot on the Q train on his way to brunch in an unprovoked attack.
The murder was the latest in a string of violent episodes — including a shooting on a Brooklyn train that injured at least 23 people in April and the fatal shoving of a woman at a Times Square station in January — that worried subway travelers about their lives. security at a loaded moment for transit.
Passenger traffic fell early in the pandemic, and some riders are still concerned about being on overcrowded trains next to people without masks; many commuters have not returned to the office or come only a few times a week; and the system has suffered massive revenue losses and could run out of federal pandemic funding after 2023.
This week’s shooting was a major setback in the city’s campaign to return workers to offices in Manhattan, Mayor Eric Adams said. And the victim, Daniel Enriquez, was exactly the type of employee he was trying to convince to return to the subway.
“The call is to get back to work, and the safe subway system is a key driver for doing that,” said Mr. Adams at a press conference on Monday. “When you have an incident like this, it has a chilling impact. You cannot escape that.”
Two years after the pandemic, less than 65 percent of passenger numbers have returned, with many riders taking the subway and living in working-class neighborhoods — New Yorkers having no choice between staying home or buying a cab.
The mounting pressure facing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state-run agency that manages the transit system, now threatens to fundamentally change the subway, long regarded as the city’s great equalizer, where New Yorkers of different backgrounds gather in the city. take train.
The subway is still overwhelmingly safe. While direct comparisons are challenging, far more people are killed on the streets of New York City than on the subway. The number of road deaths in the city rose to 273 last year during the pandemic, the highest level in eight years.
And the system is much less dangerous than it was in the 1980s and 1990s, when robberies were common. In 1990, there were 26 murders on the subway.
Still, data shows that violent crimes have increased since the start of the pandemic. There were an average of two homicides a year in the five years before the pandemic, compared to six homicides in 2020, eight in 2021 and four this year.
Even more worrying: Those numbers rose even as passenger numbers declined during the pandemic.
Richard Ravitch, the former MTA chairman to whom the subway was credited in the 1980s, said it could be years before passenger numbers return to prepandemic levels. He said he was concerned about his 15-year-old grandson taking the subway to school.
“Every time I hear about a shooting on the subway, I feel like calling my son and saying, ‘I’ll pay for an Uber,’” he said, though noting that his grandson usually turns down the offer.
In surveys, transit drivers and employers have repeatedly said that subway safety was a top priority. About 31 percent of employers said reducing the presence of the homeless and the mentally ill on streets and subways would be the most effective way to get workers back to the office, according to a survey by the Partnership for New York City, an influential business group. .
The city announced on Tuesday that it has persuaded nearly 1,400 homeless people living on the metro to move to shelters since February. It didn’t say how many were staying in shelters, a number that is typically smaller: In January, two-thirds of those going from the subway to shelters left by the end of the month.
At the same time, the fear of the coronavirus has not disappeared. About 79 percent of subway travelers who failed to return to the train said social distancing concerns were among the top factors keeping them away, according to a customer survey conducted last fall.
Michelle Lim, 39, lives in Manhattan and stopped taking the subway for nearly two years during the pandemic. She and her husband started biking or walking everywhere and bought Citi Bike memberships.
“I started covering distances I never thought were bikeable before,” she said.
Ms Lim, who is of Asian descent, said she was also nervous about the possibility of violence on the subway, especially given the increase in indiscriminate attacks on Asian residents.
“You can’t get punched on a bike,” she said.
The MTA is also facing a potential existential crisis after massive revenue losses during the pandemic. An infusion of state and federal money helped the agency avoid a deficit expected to reach $2 billion by 2026.
But the biggest source of funding is money raised from customers. Once the government’s pandemic aid runs out, transit officials may come under pressure to increase fares or reduce service. Metro leaders worry about creating a ‘transport death spiral’, with cuts in service making public transport a less convenient option, leading to a further drop in passenger numbers.
The metro service is also often unreliable and passengers sometimes wait 15 minutes between trains. Only about 82 percent of weekday trains were on time in April, up from about 91 percent in April.
As Hosea Roxbury, 57, waited this week for a B train at Manhattan’s 86th Street Station, he said reports of violence made him nervous and noted that there were no police officers at the station. Over the past year, he began to move as far as possible from the edge of the platform.
“It’s sad you really have to think twice before getting on the tube,” Mr Roxbury said.
Bonnie Hefferman, 29, says she rarely takes the train after 9 p.m. Instead, she said she started walking and cycling more, or chose to stay at home instead of going out.
“It’s rough,” she said. “It’s very different from prepandemic.”
Danny Pearlstein, policy director for Riders Alliance, a transportation advocacy group, said that despite well-founded concerns about an increase in subway crime, people would return to the system because it is still the most efficient and inexpensive way to get around the city. to travel.
“Riders are much more at risk from cars and trucks on their way to the metro than they are on the trains,” he added.
Mr. Adams, a Democrat who ran for mayor over a public safety message, has said he would work to make the subway safer by relocating police officers where they are needed and installing mobile weapon detectors in stations. Mr Adams has urged business leaders such as Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase to take the subway to show it is safe.
“We tell our business leaders, ‘Hey, get on the train!’” Mr Adams said in an interview with The Financial Times before Sunday’s Q train shooting. “We need to advertise that New York is back.”
At a press conference on Tuesday to announce an arrest in the deadly shooting, Janno Lieber, the director of the MTA, thanked the mayor for sending more police officers onto trains and platforms.
“Over time, I believe we will help with the strategy of the Mayor and the Police Commissioner to restore the drivers’ sense of safety that has been so damaged, so eroded by this terrible incident and to build confidence in the safety of the public transport,” he said. said.
Robert Paaswell, a City College professor and former executive director of the Chicago Transit Authority, said the subway shooting could put some riders off for a few days, but the effect probably won’t last long.
In New York City, “everyone is a little nervous,” he said.
“One of the things that would help is a more visible police presence in the subways,” he said. “They need to make it clear to the public that this is a one-off, random, rare event and they’re doing everything they can to prevent it.”
Andy Newman reporting contributed.