The Other Safety Crisis in New York’s Subways

A few months before Gov. Kathy Hochul ordered some 1,000 members of the state police and National Guard to patrol New York City’s subway system in response to a string of violent attacks, some of them deadly, I had an unsafe subway experience of my own. It didn’t involve crime — unless you’d call the system’s shameful lack of elevators and accessible stations criminal.

An infection in my 10-year-old son’s leg required us to make regular trips from our Brooklyn home to a hospital on 71st Street in Manhattan. He had been getting around on crutches but these trips were long, so, much to his embarrassment, I loaded him into his younger sister’s stroller and wheeled him to the nearest accessible subway station, at Atlantic Avenue. On a good day, it takes three elevator rides to get from street to platform. We entered the first, a dirty green box tacked onto the side of a warehouse, then wheeled to and entered the second, another metal box reeking of urine and industrial cleaning fumes. When we finally got to the third, we discovered it was out of service.

Before I knew it, my son had stood up on his one good leg and without his crutches hopped down several steps, around a corner, and down a few more. I followed him to the bottom of the stairs, carrying the empty stroller, where he waited, teetering in the center of the narrow platform. I scooped him back into the stroller and stayed put, not daring to navigate the treacherous strip between the broken elevator and the tracks. We’d made it to the platform safely, but our trip involved far more danger than we had a right to expect.

There was a political logic to Ms. Hochul’s decision to deploy troops; it was a response to heightened safety fears among subway riders and workers. When citizens feel unsafe, politicians and city officials tend to act fast to quell those fears. To explain the sudden presence of soldiers in the subway, she described subway crime as “not statistically significant, but psychologically significant.”

For millions of commuters, the current state of the system is an urgent safety matter, too. Nearly three-quarters of the city’s 472 stations don’t have elevators, leaving millions of New Yorkers — including the elderly, disabled and caregivers with young children — with no choice but to avoid the subway altogether. This issue affects far more New Yorkers than does violent crime, but it is treated much less urgently. The number of New Yorkers age 65 and older has increased by 40 percent since 2000, already surpassing the Bloomberg administration’s projection of 1.35 million by 2030. More than 500,000 New Yorkers have a temporary or permanent disability that makes it difficult for them to walk.

The dangers caused by our broken, inaccessible transportation system are very real, but they don’t often make headlines, perhaps in part because they are hard to measure — an unreported tumble on the subway stairs, the monetary, physical or psychic toll of delayed or canceled trips, errands left undone or the exhausting, harrowing and sometimes painful trials faced by vulnerable commuters. Our family has felt some of these costs firsthand: I haven’t taken the subway with my 6-year-old daughter, who has permanent disabilities that require her to use a wheelchair or a stroller every day, for nearly three years. The last time I carried her down the stairs leading to an inaccessible station, I felt something pop in my back. My response has been to avoid riding the subway with her altogether. But the effects of this poorly maintained system affect a broad range of New Yorkers, far beyond those who use wheelchairs.

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