For some years now, New Yorkers have enjoyed a dramatic drop in the incidence of violent crime in the streets and subways. Whether it’s thanks to “zero tolerance” law enforcement or other factors, as some sociologists argue, the fact that New York is far safer than it used to be is indisputable. The homicide rate has fallen 78 percent over the last 19 years and 2012’s statistics point to about 100 fewer murders than 2011’s 515 — a decline of 20 percent.
But in recent days a new terror has emerged to make traveling in the city feel like Russian roulette — as if the next subway ride could be your last. Two platform pushings, in which subway travelers were murdered by being shoved off the platform into the path of an oncoming train, have occurred within less than a month of each other.
Some will reassure themselves with the odds. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for instance. After the subway death of Sunando Sen, a 46-year-old Indian immigrant who was crushed by a train in Queens on Thursday night, Mr. Bloomberg urged New Yorkers to keep matters in perspective. “It’s a very tragic case, but what we want to focus on today is the overall safety in New York,” the mayor told reporters at a police academy graduation.
While it is true that crime in general is down and that platform pushings in particular are rare, the statistics on accidents involving people hit by subway trains is somewhat less reassuring. In 2011, 147 people were hit by New York City subway trains, a 15 percent increase over 2010. Fifty of them died, according to a recent report. That’s almost three such incidents per week, a third of them fatal.
That some commuters are terrified is understandable. As Elena Rodriguez, a 46-year-old Manhattan accountant, told a reporter this week, she is thinking of leaving the city. “Now with this, I’m thinking twice. Do I want to risk my life living in New York? No.”
But then, the inevitable question: Where to flee to? Maybe some quiet place in suburbia, away from the subterranean menace of the city? Maybe some nice place like…Newtown?
It reminds us of the story of the wealthy man who decided to build a home in the safest, most beautiful place on the globe he could find. He searched travel brochures and real estate prospectuses, compared crime statistics and interviewed residents, until he was satisfied he’d found the perfect spot to make his new home. In 1981, he moved to his dream abode, a serene and beautiful location — in the Falkland Islands. And on April 2, 1982, Argentina invaded…
So we don’t think running away is the solution here. By the same token, we do not appreciate empty assurances from Gracie Mansion.
In the wake of these two deaths, the Metropolitan Transit Authority is reportedly re-considering a plan to install safety barriers on the edges of platforms. Only last March, however, MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota said that the cost and technical difficulty involved in implementing any such plan would be “quite prohibitive.” The MTA estimates that it would cost $1.5 million to install sliding doors along two platform edges in a new station and more to retrofit an existing station. In all, there are 468 stations in the system.
But considering the frequency of people getting hit by trains, as noted above, and with these latest two killings fresh in our minds, the complacency and dubious cost-consciousness of city officials will not do.
We urge that Mayor Bloomberg designate a task force to study the safety barrier plan and make recommendations on it without delay. If installing barriers in all the system’s stations is impractical, then perhaps they can be installed where cost and technical impediments are least prohibitive, as has also been suggested by the MTA’s own experts.
New York would not be the first city to take such measures, which have proved effective elsewhere. A study showed that a safety barrier in the Hong Kong system reduced track injuries by some 69 percent.
A judge has ordered that the woman who confessed to this latest platform pushing and burst into uncontrollable laughter during her arraignment in court must undergo a psychiatric examination. But a possible mental disturbance in no way mitigates the horror. The woman’s stated motive — that she hates Muslims and Hindus ever since September 11 — gives the act the character of a hate crime, making it even more odious than if it were motiveless.
For city officials to try to dismiss the problem is disturbing. This is a matter of public safety — indeed, of life and death — and not something to be mulled over during coffee breaks or papered over with a press release.
We pray that no more incidents of this kind have to occur before the matter is addressed with due seriousness. The next train is on its way.