Policing Our Subways

The High Cost of Expensive Surveillance

For worse—there is no better here—the MTA continues ringlead a circus of unconvincing service performance, a rise in non-service incidents and a corresponding media narrative the MTA simply cannot control, and a scold/impish campaign to properly price the cost of driving in and out of Work Island. Congestion pricing is required for a future, functioning system and the agency, despite some great work from some amazing, tireless planners, cannot seem to sell this to drivers…

…who continue to dominate a discourse as though “driver” is a legally protected class, à la race, creed, or gender, as if (de)congestion pricing was the worst possible outcome to a boogeyman of a problem that these “drivers” themselves created. There’s crisis and there’s actual crisis and the MTA cannot tell the story to parse the difference between the two.

The MTA seems to concentrate on everything except its only mandate to do the one thing that will actually, noticeably, and preemptively foster a positive narrative across its lines of business: service reliability. Provide fast, frequent, reliable, accessible, comfortable, safe, and secure service to customers.

Two words right there that are not synonyms, safe and secure, are often, even among transportation professionals, used interchangeably. Before we move forward, and I introduce my thesis statement about how spending more money on policing inside our Subway is a gigantic waste of resources—all resources, let’s define what we mean in a transport context what safety and security mean. A safe system seeks to minimize conflict and incident concerning service. Across any MTA property, can a customer/passenger move without slipping and falling or being involved in a bus or Subway crash; has the MTA invested in enough incident mitigation and told people about it?

A secure system is one that aims to minimize conflict and incident concerning other people. I will always hesitate to call this idea “crime reduction” because a. There will alway be interpersonal conflict when millions of people are packed like sardines thousands at a time, all the time, everywhere, all at once and b. There are various levels of crime in the Subway and conflating them all together is disingenous and misleading. Has the MTA invested enough in reducing these interpersonal conflicts? What’s the best way to do so, anyway? Police?

Recently: an overwhelming media narrative reports the incidents of violent crime in and across our Subway system: murders, assaults, batteries, gun and knife violence are all perceived up in the trailing 12 months. But are they really? Let’s talk more about it in this series. And has the investment in policing made any difference at all in the Subway’s safety and security?

Here’s the thesis: adding more policing without additional service is a double loser of a policy. We’re increasing the cost of providing service per passenger or per revenue-mile, without clearly making clear what benefits we should expect, and how we will measure success. AND AND! Every dollar we spend on policing is a dollar we’re not spending on increasing service and capacity that would serve as the proxy for more police. Is the perception of security worth the cost? 

Every additional police offer in and across our Subway does not marginally reduce crime more than they cost. The economics don’t work; the socio-economics don’t work either. I’ll bet all the money in your pocket against all the money in my pocket that there are certain classes of people who are and will be overpoliced—stopped on suspicion of crime or petty bullshit—for the theater we expect our police to pantomime. 

Just run more damn trains. 

Over the next three week’s I’ll be exploring policing as an ongoing series of articles. Let’s get to the bottom of this debate together.

Sam Sklar is a Partner Writer for Resident Urbanist. Sam is a transportation planner and writer. He's worked on projects all over the world that focus on safety, dignity, economic development, and environmental sustainability. For this publication his focus is on transportation and infrastructure policy. Sam graduated with a Master's in City and Regional Planning from the University of Pennsylvania's Weitzman School of Design and a Bachelor's from Boston University's Questrom School of Business. He also runs the Exasperated Infrastructures blog. You can follow him on Twitter, Threads, and LinkedIn.

Join the conversation

or to participate.