Richard Kalvar / Magnum Photos

It’s the Subways, Stupid

Tim Tompkins

May 30, 2024

Many people don’t feel safe in New York’s most important

Many people don’t feel safe in New York’s most important

common space. How do we fix the problem?

How safe people feel in a city’s subways, streets, parks and public spaces determines whether they feel city government is in control or out of control.

More than three decades ago James Carville’s comment, “it’s the economy, stupid,” helped propel Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign to victory. The same focus is essential for any politician and policymaker who wants to be elected in any major city. The experience of being in a public space, or a quasi-public space like a subway or the elevator of a public housing project, in many ways defines whether the city is functioning properly or veering off course. In a place like New York, the subway is the totemic urban space, the place where society’s success or failure becomes crystal clear. 

It is in a city’s public spaces that what is working or not working about our society, our city, our government and our economy is made manifest. 

Millions of people use the subways daily. And whether it is shouting or shooting, when some sick and suffering soul lets loose in a crowded subway car, there is nowhere to go until the doors open at the next stop. And I say “sick” with purpose: The solution is not stigmatization or incarceration, but to apply the full force of our scientific and economic energy to addressing society’s exploding mental health crisis. That, and building supportive housing, will take years. Does that mean ignoring extreme recidivists whose addiction or illness results in repeated violent behavior? It cannot. A tiny fraction of people, if carefully assessed to be a threat to themselves or others, may have to be detained against their will. But there are so many other things that can and must be done first.

Yes to dealing with root causes! For God’s sake, yes! But yes, too, to dealing with the pain that is right in front of us, like a man with eyes glazed over who smells like feces, or another man ranting incoherently about “faggots” 10 feet away on a crowded subway platform as a train approaches. 

Yes, the statistics tell us that violent crime is rare on our subway system. Facts matter — and they sometimes conspire with feelings in ways that matter. Humans, thanks to millions of years of evolution, and contrary to the condescending dismissiveness of many ideological extremists on both the left and the right, are remarkably nuanced in discerning whether an environment feels safe and welcoming or not. They can tell the difference between an innocuous (if occasionally annoying) disruption — the not-ready-for-prime-time musician on the platform, the teenage aerialist hustling for bucks, the way-too-loud evangelist imploring or insisting that I accept Jesus right now — versus the potentially dangerous disruption: the person speaking angrily to no one in particular, the normally nodding addict who explodes with rage at his regular companion just outside the subway entrance.

In a place like New York, the subway is the totemic urban space, the place where society’s success or failure becomes crystal clear.

Most of all, people notice when something in a public space is not being dealt with. Again and again. And they notice, in that context, as it increases over time. It is not just whether something disruptive happens. It is whether it happens repeatedly in the same context and with growing frequency. And the “it” is not what the police call “index crimes” — things like robbery, rape and murder. “It” is the cumulative aggregation of aggravations and threats that convince us that no one is minding the shop. That no one minds. That no one cares.

By “no one cares,” I don’t just mean “about me.” I mean no one cares “about them.” By what measure of humanity can we accept that government is working well when for not days, but decades, it allows people to live outdoors in streets and parks and subway stations? 

That is why the recently released Residents’ Survey by the Citizens Budget Commission is so interesting. It notes that “in 2008 the Mayor’s Office commissioned the NYC Feedback Citywide Customer Survey” to gauge public perception of the overall quality of life in the city and the quality of local government service delivery.”

What a radical idea! Measuring how people feel about their experience living here and whether government is addressing their concerns through their own observations, and noting the differences by neighborhood. 

To pull out just one indicator, this year the percentage of people who feel “very unsafe” riding the subway at night was 53%, up from 21% in 2017.

People notice when something in a public space is not being dealt with. And they notice, in that context, as it increases over time.

What if this survey was conducted not once every few years, but once every year? What if it went deeper than a small sampling by neighborhood so that there was a statistically valid sample of residents who told city government “how youze doin’” (to bastardize a bit of Brooklyneze with Ed Koch’s famous “How’m I doing?”).

In addition to asking about safety in the subway and on the streets, the survey’s three core questions would be asked annually in every neighborhood: How would you rate your neighborhood as a place to live? How would you rate the quality of life in New York City overall? How would you rate the overall quality of New York City government services? 

Government could then organize its information — and its actions — by places and the people in those places, in a holistic, integrated and ongoing way. So that the subway station that feels like the first two circles of hell could be actually managed by someone who thinks of it as a coherent space — someone who, unlike the MTA’s experiment with station managers decades ago, actually had unified authority over all of the workers who are charged with caring for that space. We could repeat the exercise for parks and other public spaces throughout the city.

All of that would be a first step in breaking down what Jane Jacobs more than half a century ago bemoaned as the “fragmentation” of city services, where countless agencies (and, in this era, the non-profits they fund and the philanthropies they partner with) each focus on the fingernails of the proverbial elephant, but are blind to its health holistically. 

To address the city’s ills, we must begin by asking people about their experience. And inevitably, that will begin with the places they use in common — our public and semi-public spaces: our streets, sidewalks, parks and public spaces, and, in particular, our subways. It is there that people experience, see and feel what is going on. 

We should not dismiss what New Yorkers feel in their gut by citing statistics. We should organize that information by place, and by the people in that place, starting with the experience in public spaces. And then we should organize government, and the entities it funds and the philanthropies it partners with, to respond in an integrated and holistic and continuous way, in that place.