How Safe Is The New York City Subway

Subway Safety on The NYC Subway System

Is The New York Subway System Safe For Passengers?

Subway safety for first-time visitors to New York City is a big consideration as they often think that the New York Subway is a desolate and dangerous place for travelers with poorly lit platforms, graffiti-strewn walls and roving gangs of teenage thugs looking for their marks. This image is akin to something out of the 1979 movie “The Warriors” in which gangs were running all over the NYC Subway system, like some out-control-hooligans and not a single Police Officer was ever seen. There was some truth to this image during a particularly unpleasant period from the 1960’s to 1980’s when the NYC subway system was a dreadfully neglected transportation system that even the hardened locals of the time avoided like The Plague. During this time, the safety record of the New York Subway System was also abysmal with train delays, cancellations and crashes an all too common sight. Drunk train drivers and inept track and train maintenance kept the New York Subway System just one small step away from complete collapse. Since then, both New York City and the New York Subway System have changed dramatically, but incidents still happen, but what was common then, is now quite rare.

In 1993 Rudolph Giuliani Takes Office and Declared War on Vandals

In 1993, the New York Subway changed dramatically when 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 and improve subway safety for its passengers.  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 on the subway, it seems that most of the deaths that occur in the subway are due to sickness, accident, or suicide and less about subway safety. 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 on subway safety 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 that makes you wonder about subway safety.”

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 and subway safety may actually be higher.