To stem transit crime, city leaders must correct balance among lower ridership, higher crime, and proactive law enforcement
NEW YORK, NY — These days, New York’s subway system has fewer passengers and less crime—yet is more dangerous. Ridership has remained at 42% of its 2019 levels as the city has emerged from the pandemic, which means a topline decrease in crime belies a much higher per-capita risk of facing violence for the average rider. New Yorkers understand this: according to an April 2021 report from the MTA, just 26% of riders feel safe on trains and 34% feel safe in stations, just under half of pre-pandemic figures. In a new report for the Manhattan Institute, Senior Fellow Nicole Gelinas traces the history of subway crime and transit law enforcement, examines the crime-reducing effect of high ridership, and describes how the city can return to the policies that once made the transit system so safe.
The next mayor should recognize that when the system loses riders it needs more interactions between police and lawbreakers, as criminals lose the deterrent of large crowds. When these officers interdict perpetrators of nonviolent misdemeanors and civil offenses, they often identify criminals and illegal weapons, and deter both minor rule breaking and serious crime. Ultimately, an increased police presence and higher enforcement at both the civil and criminal level can improve the perception of public safety, driving ridership higher, which in turn reduces crime. The subway system will take one of two tracks in post-pandemic New York—either sustained public hesitance and chronically higher crime, or a virtuous cycle of improved public safety and higher ridership. It is up to the next generation of city leaders to decide which path we’ll take, but the solutions in Gelinas’s issue brief offer time-tested recommendations for renewing public safety in the largest American transit system, and the Big Apple would be wise to heed them.