Transit Safety: Riders Alliance Announces ‘Riders Plan For Public Safety’

 Riders Plan for Public Safety, a root-cause approach to address the shortcomings of public transit service
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Photos: Rider's Alliance\Wikimedia Commons\Twitter

Brooklyn, NY--The Riders Alliance, New York's grassroots organization of subway and bus riders, with the Street Vendor Project, elected officials and allies, unveiled the Riders Plan for Public Safety, a root-cause approach to address the shortcomings of public transit service, the housing crisis, and other safety challenges facing the several million riders who use New York's public transit system every day.

“Millions of New Yorkers ride the subway every day, nearly all without incident,” said Riders Alliance Policy & Communications Director Danny Pearlstein. “But the subway must be safe, welcoming and inclusive for everyone. To reach that point, Governor Hochul should run more trains so riders spend less time on platforms and the subway can compete better for more riders, creating safety in numbers. Meanwhile, Mayor Adams should direct the thousands of police officers in the subway to zero in on violence and harassment rather than playing a numbers game by stopping turnstile jumpers and food vendors. City and state leaders must also fund single-occupancy Safe Haven and stabilization beds and permanent supportive housing so our transit system is no longer the shelter of last resort for vulnerable, unhoused New Yorkers.”

Riders crafted the safety plan this spring as a rash of high profile crimes underground was met with a revival of broken windows policing to project a sense of order. The murders of Michelle Alyssa Go and Daniel Enriquez bookended the subway’s only mass shooting in several decades on an N train in Sunset Park. Meanwhile, with 3,500 officers – 10% of NYPD headcount – patrolling the subway, a new batch of viral videos show police tackling and handcuffing turnstile jumpers and arresting immigrant women food vendors and confiscating their wares.

Michelle Alyssa Go

"History has shown us that when more people are using transit, crime rates decrease, even when there are fewer police patrolling the system. We also know the best way to get people back on transit is to improve the frequency and efficiency of service," said Renae Reynolds, Executive Director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign. "Many of the issues plaguing the city's transit system today have root causes that require comprehensive solutions, and the Riders Plan for Public Safety lays out a blueprint for how the city, state, and the MTA can work together to create a safer and more equitable riding experience for all New Yorkers."

The perils of weaponizing subway safety for political ends

Aboveground, New York’s subway is perhaps the most visible symbol for certain politicians and media outlets of crime and disorder, cited time and again to condemn progressive public policies and their proponents. The subway and its problems are constantly invoked to justify more intensive and harsher law enforcement and a rejection of candidates and elected officials who oppose such moves.

As George Floyd’s murder recedes in public memory, images of trouble in transit, particularly in New York, make the case to “refund the police” and elected putatively tough-on-crime conservatives to public office. But weaponizing subway safety comes at a real cost to New York's millions of daily transit riders, in discouraging people from using public transit, and threatening the precarious finances of a transit system recovering from its worst ever fiscal crisis.

“Right or wrong, the media tends to report on the most important/significant crimes that occur in our subway system. Yes, we have had numerous (high-profile) incidents in recent months that have given all of us who ride our beloved subway cause for concern/fear. There is good news though, the overall number of crime victims is very low for our busy transit system. The reality is that subway riders have a much better chance of winning the NY Pick Six lottery than being a victim of a felony crime in our subway system. Recent research shows that there was a victimization rate of 1.63 violent crimes per one-million riders, these are numbers that we should all feel very safe about (and we should keep track of),” said Dr. Christopher R. Herrmann, Assistant Professor, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Department of Law & Police Science.

Going beyond the limited tools of law enforcement

The Riders Alliance plan, and speakers at its announcement, acknowledged legitimate safety concerns but warned against demagoguery and distraction founded on subway crime. As the product of months of consultation with Riders Alliance members and expert partners, the ten-point plan looks beyond the headlines and the limited tools available to law enforcement to propose thorough solutions to the intersecting crises playing out underground.

The plan is divided into sections addressing transit, housing, and mental health care policy and policing strategy. Many of the sections are broken down further to acknowledge the role that the state and city governments each play in resolving the problems identified. For example, the plan charges the governor with running more trains to reduce sometimes lonely platform wait times, cut riders’ anxiety and frustration, and make the subway more competitive with other modes of transportation. Also with respect to transportation, the plan urges the mayor to rapidly implement the NYC Streets Plan to make it safer to walk to the subway and speed up bus service.

While New York’s governor controls the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the subway, New York City’s mayor appoints the police commissioner in whom the state constitution vests the “cognizance and control” of tens of thousands of armed NYPD officers, including the thousands of Transit Bureau officers who patrol the subway system.

Addressing the acute needs of the most vulnerable riders

With homeless New Yorkers among the most vulnerable transit riders, and police officers unable to provide the housing services they need, the riders plan argues that creating acceptable temporary and permanent housing solutions separate and apart from law enforcement are essential to subway safety. Experts at the Coalition for the Homeless advocate the creation of at least 3,000 private, single-occupancy Safe Haven and stabilization shelter beds, and setting aside at least 6,000 affordable apartments each year for homeless New Yorkers.

“No one wants to sleep in transit facilities or the subways, but many homeless New Yorkers do so because they feel they have no safe alternatives. Rather than continuing aggressive policing tactics and sweeps, the City and the State must address the root causes of homelessness by offering people permanent housing, low-barrier shelter beds in single-occupancy rooms, and accessible mental health services,” said Jacquelyn Simone, Policy Director, Coalition for the Homeless.

A safer walk to transit to complement a safer ride

The plan also tackles the traffic violence crisis aboveground, which impacts millions of transit riders on the walk to and from the train. With hundreds of deaths each year on city streets, the full funding and rapid implementation of the NYC Streets plan is a top safety priority. Not only will the streets plan help eliminate speeding and reckless driving, it will also improve the reliability of bus service by prioritizing bus riders over other traffic in congested areas, better complementing and supplementing subway service, and reaching every city neighborhood with affordable public transportation.

“New York's lifeblood is public transit. Our city cannot exist without reliable, accessible, and safe transit options. The Riders Plan for Public Safety is a powerful blueprint for real solutions for safety above and below ground,” said Danny Harris, Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives. “Amid alarming traffic violence on our streets, one thing that our leaders must do to protect people walking or biking to transit is quickly implement the NYC Streets Plan. Solutions that address the root-cause are what we need right now.”

Other portions of the plan address the need for more unarmed transit system personnel in stations to assist riders, the importance of up to date and widely shared evacuation procedures, and the growing need to make the subway resilient against extreme rainfall and other weather events. The plan concludes with a call for accountability and transparency by public officials to build and retain trust and determine which policies have the greatest impact on safety and ridership.

"When we talk about public safety in the transit system, we need to talk about accessibility, supporting people's physical needs, and getting them home quickly after a night shift,” said Brooklyn Assemblymember Phara Souffrant Forrest, a former nurse, in whose district Sunday’s rally took place. “That's what real safety is. That's why I'm proud to join the Riders Alliance as they launch the Riders Plan for Subway Safety, and fight for real solutions to create a safer subway.”

The full Riders Plan for Public Safety is linked here.

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