Nicole Gelinas joins City Journal editor Brian Anderson to discuss how New York City saved its subway system after decades of decay and rampant crime from the 1960s to the early-1990s.

This episode originally aired on October 20, 2016.

Nicole Gelinas is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and a columnist at the New York Post. Her story “How Gotham Saved Its Subways” appeared in the Summer 2016 Issue of City Journal.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: The New York City subway system is one of the oldest public transit systems in the world.  During the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the system, like the city itself, had fallen into a very serious state of decay.  Now New York City has since recovered from its darkest days, as everyone knows, and subways have improved along with it.  Last year the subway serviced nearly 1.8 billion rides.  That was the highest number of annual riders since 1948.  Joining us to talk about crime in the New York City subway system and other subway-related issues is Nicole Gelinas.  Nicole is a City Journal contributing editor, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow, and a regular New York Post columnist.  Her recent piece, "How Gotham Saved Its Subways," was featured in City Journal's summer 2016 issue, adapted in the New York Post, and it can be found online in its full-length version at  Nicole, welcome to 10 Blocks.

Nicole Gelinas: Good afternoon, Brian.  Thanks for having me on.

Brian Anderson: New York City subways are experiencing, as I just mentioned, levels of ridership not seen since the years immediately after World War II.  Just how bad did the subways get during their nadir, which was probably when, in the mid-80s?

Nicole Gelinas: Yes, 1990 was the worst year.

Brian Anderson: Just as it was for crime, generally.

Nicole Gelinas: Yes.  And the short story is things got pretty bad.  In September 1990, a 22-year-old college student named Brian Watkins was visiting with his parents and the rest of his family from Utah, and he was entering the Sixth Avenue subway in Midtown, waiting on the platform for his train, and he was set upon by a group of teenage muggers who went after his parents.  He intervened and he was stabbed to death on the subway platform.  Now that was in 1990.  The death got a tremendous amount of attention.  This was what caused Time Magazine to run its famous rotten apple cover, which harmed tourism in the city that was already suffering.

Brian Anderson: Right, the perception was that the city had become ungovernable.

Nicole Gelinas: Right, but what was interesting about the Brian Watkins killing is that it wasn't unusual.  He was not the only person to be killed on the subway system that year.  In fact he was the eighteenth person to be killed on the subway system in 1990 and by the end of the year 26 people would be killed on the subway.  And just as a point of comparison, in the past eleven years, 26 people have been killed on the subway.  So it took more than a decade to get us to the number of murders that occurred just in that one year, 1990.  And today one or two people, at most, is killed on the subway system every year.  Now, of course if you're from a small town you may think well that sounds dangerous but again, as you mentioned, we had 1.8 billion rides.  Everyone who lives in the city and everyone who visits the city goes on the subway and goes through the system, and so to have one or two killings on the system compared to what we once had is a great achievement for the city.

Brian Anderson: This reign of terror, in a way, on the subways in 1990 and in the 80s in particular, how did it affect ridership?  Ridership was down, right?

Nicole Gelinas: Well, ridership fell from 1.3 billion rides a year in 1970 to one billion rides a year in 1980.  That was more than double the city's population loss.  The city population also fell and ended up being just a little bit above 7 million in the nadir years of the early 1980s, but people fled the subway in even greater numbers.

Brian Anderson: The story about how the city got control of its streets in the 90s is something we've talked about a lot at City Journal.  I think less well understood is how it specifically got control of its subways, which preceded its efforts to bring down crime across the city.  When did the NYPD first prioritize taking back the subway system and who was behind that?

Nicole Gelinas: Yes, and some of the techniques that the police department used underground they later used above ground to try to control crime in the rest of the city.  So you asked when did the police start to see that this was a serious problem.  Well, the first thing that had to happen was the state and the city had to rebuild the subway system itself.  By 1980 the subways were in a physical state of disaster, the trains did not run anywhere near on time, there was graffiti all over the outside and the inside of the train cars, derailments were common, the doors would get stuck, people would have to get off the train in the middle of their commute and wait hours for a new train because something had happened to the train they were on, so commuting itself was not an enviable experience.  And the turnstiles were broken, 250,000 people a day were estimated to be stealing the fare, sometimes because they had no way of paying the fare at a broken turnstile.  So the first thing city and state did was say we're not going to give up on our city.  We're going to start to fix the situation and rebuild the subway system.  State-approved a series of taxes in the early 80s so that the subway system under Dick Ravitch could begin to rebuild itself.  So without some basic working reliable subway system, it would have been hard to begin to police the system.  And that's exactly what they had when the police began to pay more attention to the system, that already the subway managers were starting to clean the trains of graffiti, making sure that they only sent clean cars out because it sent a signal that this is a place of law and order, not a place where people can use the subway cars as canvases without regard to anyone else's rights.  And so what happened in the mid-80s is the subway managers had made a lot of headway with the graffiti but they said there are some things that we can't do.  We can't deal with the vagrant issue.  We can't deal with the aggressive panhandling issue.  We can't deal with the robberies and the thefts and the violent crime.  We need the police to do this.  And they talked with George Kelling, who is a friend of the Manhattan Institute and one of the pioneers in good policing, and he said you don't go after people, you go after behaviors.  And so, for example, you don't go after a person because he is homeless.  You go after a person because he's aggressively panhandling or he's publicly drinking or urinating and so forth.  And if you go after some of these smaller bad behaviors you create an environment that encourages people to be law-abiding.  And the subways had one advantage in that they are a closed system.  You have to pay to get in.  The subway system has certain rules and regulations that don't exist upstairs.  For example you can't walk between subway cars, that's illegal.  And so the police can stop you.  And by making these stops, the police found they would often find illegal weapons, guns, knives, they would find people who were wanted on violent charges.  Even just standing at the subway gates and waiting for people to enter without paying, a disproportionate number of those people were entering without paying so that they could commit other crimes.  The people who killed Brian Watkins had entered the system without paying.  So just stopping the fare-beating and stopping the smaller crimes prevented much larger crimes.

Brian Anderson: Now the police commissioner at this time was - what year are we talking about, specifically here?  The head of the subway police was Bill Bratton, right?

Nicole Gelinas: Yes.  And the police began to think about these issues in the late 1980s but it wasn't until 1990 when Bill Bratton came along and was hired to head up the transit police, which was a separate arm from the NYPD at the time that he was really able to put these theories into practice.  And just in that first year, in 1990, when Bratton began to enforce the laws against fare-beating, walking between cars and so forth, felonies fell by double digits and they continued to fall.  And the system used to have 50 felonies every day, and now it has five or six felonies a day.

Brian Anderson: Which is truly remarkable for a city of this size with that many riders.

Nicole Gelinas: Yes.  And today the felonies tend to be thefts of expensive electronic devices and people are so comfortable on the subway they'll stand right by the doors with a phone that can be sold on the black market for five, six, seven hundred dollars.  And so the police try to have public information campaigns and, of course, no one - it's never your fault if you are the victim of a crime, but the crimes have certainly changed from the 80s and 90s with violent robberies, beatings, stabbings, shootings, and now much more focused on the pickpockets, the stealing of electronics, and also the sexual assaults, where George Kelling mentioned to me back in the early 80s women would often say they didn't like to take the subway because they would feel insulted.  And he never knew what they meant by saying that they felt insulted but he says now he thinks they were being groped or brushed up against and they were just too embarrassed to say so, and plus they knew the police would never do anything about this.  They had too many other things to worry about.  And today the police are very aggressive in going after gropers, people who use the crowded subways as an excuse to unlawfully touch people and they make a good number of arrests.  They'll even put up wanted posters with people who are caught on camera doing this multiple times, whereas once they would only have the wanted posters for someone who had committed a murder.

Brian Anderson: In an earlier essay in City Journal called "The Fourth Urban Revolution," you talked about how technology was transforming city services in a variety of different ways.  Technology has played a role in making the subway safer as well, right?

Nicole Gelinas: Yes.  And it's technology today that is helping the police catch criminals much more quickly before they can commit other crimes.  For example, just last week in an attempted robbery, a young man threw a teenager over the turnstile in the subways but he was caught on camera and the police were able to arrest him within hours.  A similar thing happened over the summer where a woman recognized her son on a transit camera as wanted in a violent crime.  And so we see this happening in the subways as well as in the rest of the city, that if a person is committing a crime or has just committed a crime, there's a very good chance that he's caught on camera, whether official transit camera or somebody snapping a photo of that person, if the person has just sexually assaulted a person or so forth, people take pictures of them exiting the train and they can be caught very quickly.

Brian Anderson: Things have, in fact, gotten so safe underground that there's a risk of complacency, isn't there?  Last year the New York City Council floated the idea of decriminalizing fare-beating in the subways.  What's your view of that idea?

Nicole Gelinas: Yes, I think there's a real risk of complacency.  The city council only backed down because this isn't their jurisdiction.  This is state property and it's governed by state law, but it is a risk.  And first of all, fare-beating by itself is a crime.  You are stealing nearly three dollars from the state-run transit system if you beat the fare, and obviously everyone else has to pay more, the more people beat the fare.  Now, of course it's not the worst crime in the world and most people, the vast majority of people who are caught beating the fare each year, they're not arrested and put on Rikers Island.  They're given a criminal summons, they go to court, they can contest the summons.  But if you are a first-time fare-beater, by no means - it's a misdemeanor.  And this is not going to ruin your life, as some of the people in favor of decriminalization would say.  Now, if you've been arrested for this before or if you are wanted for other crimes, and so forth, then yes, you will be arrested.  But it's a myth that a poor student who can't afford to get to school is going to be thrown in jail because he beats the fare just once.  That is not going to happen.  And the other issue is if we are not able to go after the fare-beaters, the police aren't able to stop a lot of other crimes.  Every year they find dozens of illegal guns, hundreds of knives, people - a man this year was wanted on a murder charge.  He was caught beating the fare, so, just like when you stop drivers for speeding, sometimes - over the J'Ouvert holiday where we had two murders, they caught the murderer because they arrested him for driving erratically.  So if you're not able to catch people in these seemingly smaller crimes, it really hurts your ability to prevent and catch people committing the larger crimes.  Now, of course the police have to do this respectfully and treat everyone well and so forth, but the answer is certainly not to stop doing this.

Brian Anderson: What problems or challenges do you see on the horizon for New York's subway system?  It is truly essential to the city's prosperity, so where is it heading?

Nicole Gelinas: Well, one of the problems is just the overcrowding situation.  And, in fact, this year we've seen the subway ridership numbers fall off a little bit for the first time because they are just too crowded.  You know the old joke they are so crowded nobody goes there anymore, but people are starting to find other ways of getting around because they really can't fit themselves onto these overcrowded trains.  So we really need to do what we did in the 80s and have another massive investment program to expand capacity on the subways.

Photo: David M. Grossman/The Image Works

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