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Progressive Cities Have a Public Order Problem on Mass Transit

During the pandemic, sparse crowds on transit systems gave way to uncivil behavior and crime. Today, debates are breaking out around the best policy to fix the problem while figuring out the role of law enforcement.

A man sleeps on a subway train in Chicago.
A man sleeps on a subway train in Chicago.
(Jose M. Osorio/ Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Andrew Gillick is among the few New Yorkers who kept riding the subway in 2020. For much of the past two years, as the city panicked, convulsed and emptied, he took the train from Brooklyn to his business in Manhattan.

During that time, Gillick had a front row seat to the collapse in ridership, deteriorating social conditions, and the struggle to return to a stable state of normalcy on mass transit.

“There’s no security on the trains, no one enforcing any laws, it’s like a free for all,” says Gillick. “A lot of people drinking out of open containers, smoking, smoking weed, doing whatever they want. It’s getting less now, as it’s getting busier, and there’s slightly more security presence. But I still feel it’s not enough.”

For Gillick, conditions on the subway did not dissuade him from riding. But his wife is hesitant to use the service now and he knows people who bought cars during the pandemic for fear of COVID-19 or crime.

There are many reasons why transit ridership has not returned after the pandemic. The major factor, most experts agree, is the rise of remote work for many white-collar professions. With so many desk-bound workers operating out of their homes, and office buildings sitting half empty, a huge constituency for America’s major transit systems vanished overnight.

But remote work isn’t the only culprit. Despite mass vaccination, COVID-19 is still at large and surges, like the January omicron wave, periodically reduce ridership. (Infection anxiety no doubt provokes some would-be riders to find alternatives even at the disease’s low ebbs.) Then there is the fear of crime and disorder, which engulfed mass transit systems along with the rest of society but seemed to linger longer in train tunnels and bus stops.

“Homeless people and me on the train, that was it [in 2020], a lot of people not wearing masks, it was really dirty and pretty eerie,” says Gillick. “It’s better now, although when I travel late at night, I’m definitely paying more attention. I feel pretty safe, but not as safe as I used to feel.”

New York City and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) have become the face of this conundrum, largely because Mayor Eric Adams won his election with promises to save New York and its subways through a judicious application of law and order. Under his watch, the New York Police Department began pushing homeless people out of the system and stepping up enforcement of low-level infractions like turnstile jumping or selling food.

Six months into Adams’ tenure, crime rates on the MTA are elevated in comparison to the 2019 levels. But some trend lines seem to be moving the right way. The police presence in the subway stations is noticeable, and ridership is on the upswing although still at just 60 percent of 2019 numbers. No train line feels like the ghostly conveyance of Gillick’s 2020 memories.

Still, advocates from across the ideological spectrum are unhappy. Conservatives feel that Adams hasn’t put enough officers in the subway system and is too focused on social services as an answer. Progressively inclined activist groups argue that while they are not anti-police, overly broad orders to crack down on minor offenses are oppressive and likely to disproportionately target Black riders. Homeless advocates point out that booting someone off the train for sleeping does not solve the actual problem, and that there is little evidence such riders are winding up in shelters.

“Just as you see police in Times Square, a core public space in the city, it makes sense to see police in the subway,” says Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director for the Riders Alliance. “But there’s got to be a better way than zero-tolerance broken windows policing to address anti-social behavior on the train, whether it’s smoking or littering or playing a loud stereo.”

The United States has seen persistent examples of zero-tolerance policing ending in tragedy. In 2014, Eric Garner’s death at the hands of a New York City Police Department (NYPD) officer — for the crime of selling illegal cigarettes — proved to be a catalytic moment for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Now, many urban leaders are trying to move away from using the police to address every social issue. They argue that alternative responders like social workers and unarmed outreach personnel will give police the chance to focus on violent crime.
LAPD officer Ian Cochran, middle, and LAPD officer Yolanda Gutter walk into the subway on Jan. 31, 2018, in Hollywood, Calif.
LAPD officer Ian Cochran, middle, and LAPD officer Yolanda Gutter walk into the subway on Jan. 31, 2018, in Hollywood, Calif. Gutter is a Mental Evaluation Officer with the LAPD. They are working as part of the Homeless Outreach Partnership Endeavor in the subway. The team works with homeless people in an effort to provide them access to food, shelter and medical services.
(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
But that may not be enough at a time when anti-social behavior is on the rise everywhere, from reckless driving to gun crime to aggressive misbehavior on airplanes and subway cars.

“You can’t leave it up to citizens on the train to tell the smoker to put a cigarette out or to tell somebody to stop injecting drugs,” says Brandon del Pozo, a former NYPD officer and former police chief of Burlington, Vt. “In lots of cases where people have tried that, they’ve gotten hurt. There’s a role for the police in this very public, very tight, very critical space.”

Maintaining order is always fraught, but a sense of safety is essential for a healthy public sphere. If the average citizen feels unsafe, they may abandon shared spaces, public amenities and the democratic responsibility to their fellow citizens. But an aggressive police presence will make some riders feel unsafe too. Younger Black and Latino residents are most likely to be profiled, and notably have been much more skeptical of Adams’ law-and-order rhetoric.

No one has a clear answer to this challenge. As transit agencies face fiscal realities borne of fare losses, they must also confront an existential question of public order alongside the law enforcement institutions that are suffering their own legitimacy crisis.

Plummeting Ridership, Pervasive Unease

From San Francisco to Minneapolis to New York or Atlanta, major U.S. transit agencies saw a surge in anti-social behavior during the pandemic. That ranged from serious incidents of violent crime, often heavily covered by the media, to a more pervasive atmosphere of incivility and unease. It’s impossible to know the full scale, because cases of harassment are rarely reported and law enforcement often never learns of less serious crimes either.

“People got accustomed to a different degree of anti-social behavior than before the pandemic,” says Pearlstein. “Especially in a place like New York, that was hit so hard and so early, there was a sense of panic and of abandonment in public spaces like the subway system. These are habits that are easy to form and hard to break.”

As ridership plummeted during the first wave of infections, the people left on the systems were often those with nowhere else to go. Then as some riders returned, the still mostly empty subway cars were less policed by both officers and the still absent general public. That reinforced a historic pattern: the fewer the riders, the greater the likelihood of crime.

Empty bottles and other viscous refuse accumulated on trains and in stations. Passengers began to light up cigarettes and joints as though an MTA train were a downtown bar in the pre-Bloomberg era. In cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco, where the opioid epidemic raged further out of control, open air drug use became common.

But at the same time as conditions on mass transit were falling apart, the NYPD and its counterparts across the country were coming under unprecedented scrutiny. The murder of George Floyd, and the heavy-handed response to the protests against his killing, sent trust in the police plummeting. Officers in many jurisdictions appeared to pull back from a freshly skeptical public, even as the stresses of the pandemic kindled anti-social behavior everywhere.

For some observers, urban leaders are simply not acknowledging the complexity of the challenge they face. In the age of Black Lives Matter, Democratic-aligned constituencies express a desire for less reliance on the police and greater investment in alternative solutions. But they also want to maintain order within essential public services, like mass transit, and ensure that their communities are justly policed.

That seemingly simple combination of goals has proven difficult to deliver.

“Progressives would do a better job of connecting with the public if they acknowledged that everybody at all levels of society benefits from a safe public transportation system,” says del Pozo. “[If] voters feel progressives are turning their back on the problem of disorder and disruption on public transportation, [they will] become very frustrated with progressive elected officials.”

Mayor Adams and His Transit Strategy

That’s where Eric Adams comes in. He won the 2021 Democratic primary by promising to crack down on violence and the kind of minor infractions that made the subway feel unsafe. He was — and remains — unpopular among the city’s increasingly powerful left-wing voters and, relatedly, its white-collar professional class. But among constituencies more likely to have continued riding the subway, like older working class Black and Latino voters, his calls for law and order on the MTA rang true.

“No more smoking. No more doing drugs. No more sleeping. No more doing barbecues on the subway system. No more just doing whatever you want,” Adams said early in his administration, as he announced his subway safety plan. “Those days are over. Swipe your MetroCard. Ride the system. Get off at your destination. That’s what this administration is saying.”

Adams’ plan included more enforcement from the police, but he also promised to connect homeless riders with mental health services and smaller-scale alternatives to the shelter system. Teams of unarmed behavioral emergency responders were expanded to better deal with mental health incidents on the system. His office says, four months later, that 1,777 people have accepted placement into a shelter since the start of the plan and that there have been an average of 814 engagements on the subways every day. (The City has reported that, early in the effort, only 8 percent of those who accepted transportation shelters were still in shelters a month later.)

“I will not shy away from fighting for true public safety and improved quality of life for New Yorkers,” said Mayor Adams, in a statement to Governing. “Every New Yorker deserves to ride the subway without fear of harassment and live in dignity with a clean, safe place to rest their head at night.”

But there have also been striking incidents that show the downsides of an all-encompassing crackdown on any illegal behavior. This spring, a food vendor was handcuffed in front of her daughter for selling desserts in a Brooklyn subway station without a permit. In June, a busker was arrested in the station where he had long performed.

For many transit advocates, this is simply policing the wrong kind of behavior. Riders are not avoiding the system because of unlicensed churros or a too loud saxophone. They are afraid of crime and bothered by anti-social behavior, like smoking on trains or aggressive panhandling.

Homelessness advocates, meanwhile, say they salute the mayor’s promise to provide more beds outside the shelter system. But until those materialize, he is cracking down on people who have nowhere else to go. At worst, aggressive policing of sleeping or stretching out on subway trains will push people onto the street or into jails. Even the promise of directing people to services is imperiled if it is too coercive. By embedding police into standard homeless outreach functions, they fear needy residents will be further alienated from the system.

“This criminalization lens is misrepresenting why people are engaging in those behaviors in the first place,” says Jacquelyn Simone, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless. “It’s not because they want to be sleeping on the subways. Rather than trying to deter behavior that is necessary to human survival, let’s give people better options.”

Meanwhile, conservatives feel Adams is not going far enough and hasn’t fulfilled the promise of his candidacy. Felony crime in the subway, according to notes from MTA’s most recent board meeting, is up 55 percent from last year, which was already above pre-pandemic levels even as ridership in 2021 was a shadow of its former self. In May, felony crime increased at a slower rate than earlier months of 2022, but it’s hard to see that as a victory.

“The subway crime plan is failing, or at least it’s not working as well as it should, because it is too dependent on social services and voluntary action,” says Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “There’s still not enough enforcement work going on.”
NYPD Transit Police Officers escorting Taquarious Soto-Burgos in handcuffs.
NYPD Transit Police Officers are seen at Columbus Circle with Taquarious Soto-Burgos, 19, in a subway slashing.
(Sam Costanza/New York Daily News/TNS)
Between January and May of 2019, there were 5,049 arrests in the transit system. This year, during the same months, there were 3,605 arrests. While ridership is admittedly lower, crime is higher, Gelinas says, and the number of arrests don’t show a strong reaction. She argues that it will be hard to get back to 2019 levels of safety without ensuring all riders are following the laws again and that the police aren’t doing enough.

“You could say we can’t arrest our way out of the problem,” says Gelinas, “but they are not demonstrating that they can social service their way out of the problem either.”

The Law Enforcement Conundrum

Policing experts like del Pozo, the former NYPD officer, believe that there is a role for law enforcement in maintaining order on mass transit, but that arrests aren’t the best metric for success. Ensuring quality of life in a shared public space can require the authority of the state, especially in times of upheaval like these, but it is a distinct role from addressing violent crime.

“Violations of public order rules almost always call for education, reminders and warnings rather than arrests,” writes David Thacher, of the University of Michigan, on The Marshall Project’s website. Citations and summons may be more appropriate, he argues; and summons on the MTA are at 2019 levels this year, unlike arrests.

Del Pozo says that a firmer approach to maintaining order is not necessarily the best way to maintain stability in more expansive public spaces, like parks or on sidewalks, but transit is a different question. In the tight confines of a subway car, someone smoking or injecting drugs next to you is orders of magnitude more disruptive than it would be on the other side of a ball field. Especially in a city like New York, where the subway is essential for daily life, maintaining order requires not just social service responders but police.

Many transit advocates agree, but they still say that Adams’ approach has been too broad. Turnstile jumping and illegal snack sales are not the problem.

“The focus on things like fare evasion comes from how it’s traditionally been done by the NYPD, but I don’t know if it’s the tool for this moment,” says Chris Van Eyken, program manager at TransitCenter. “What’s really needed is the NYPD to be patrolling stations and vehicles, making sure people feel safe, and like they’re not under threat of assault — not [cracking down on] fare evasion.”

New York may be closer to a return to pre-pandemic norms than press coverage indicates. Ridership is rebounding even without office workers returning en masse. Tourism is surging, and pedestrian traffic in many parts of Manhattan is approaching or surpassing pre-pandemic levels. Restaurants, museums, theaters and public spaces like Times Square are packed.

In many ways, despite elevated crime levels in comparison to 2019, New York is still nowhere close to the levels of violence and chaos it experienced in the late 20th century. The murder rate is 2.4 per hundred thousand, a fraction of cities like Chicago (11.3), Philadelphia (15.1), and Baltimore (29.1). As one Bloomberg columnist wrote recently, when looking at deaths from external causes (including homicide, motor vehicle crashes and the like), New York City is one of the safest places to live in America.

In a city with one of the lowest rates of car ownership in the country, it makes sense that the subways feel closer to normal even if they aren’t approaching pre-pandemic levels. (Jammed rush-hour trains have not come back, but it’s hard to imagine many people mourning that outside the MTA’s budget office.)

But even if New York doesn’t quite fit its role as the face of the public order crisis on mass transit, Adams’ track record and the results of his subway safety plan will be closely watched. Many other major cities have far worse social conditions on their mass transit systems. From Denver to Philadelphia, many middle-income riders have abandoned buses and trains.

That’s a huge problem in an era where major systems are facing looming fiscal cliffs due to declining fares. A death spiral scenario for large mass transit agencies looms: fewer riders with political and economic capital means fewer fares and subsidies, which means worse service and then still fewer riders.

New York is the Democrat-dominated city most publicly struggling with this tangled knot of policy questions. But all of the nation’s big cities will have to figure out how, or whether, they will have their police maintain the bright lines of conduct on their buses and trains.

“Historically, we had a really heavy-handed approach to disorder control and the criminal penalty was racialized and disparate,” says del Pozo. “We had legitimate reasons to back off from that approach, but we’ve taken it too far on buses and subways and many people no longer feel safe or comfortable using this critical resource.”
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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