Q Train Killing Threatens Subway’s Fragile Recovery From Pandemic

Transit officials in New York City celebrated a major milestone last week: The subway system logged 3.6 million trips in a single day, a pandemic-era record.

Three days later, a Goldman Sachs employee on his way to brunch was fatally shot on the Q train in an unprovoked attack.

The killing was the latest in a series of violent episodes — including a shooting on a train in Brooklyn that injured at least 23 people in April and the fatal shoving of a woman at Times Square station in January — that have made subway riders worried about their safety at a fraught moment for the transit system.

Ridership fell early in the pandemic, and some riders are still worried about being on crowded trains next to people without masks; many commuters have not returned to offices or are coming only a few times a week; and the system has suffered huge revenue losses and could run out of federal pandemic funding after 2023.

The shooting this week was a significant setback in the city’s campaign to bring workers back to offices in Manhattan, Mayor Eric Adams said. And the victim, Daniel Enriquez, was exactly the type of worker he was trying to persuade to return to the subway.

The subway has long been New York City’s great equalizer, where rich and poor ride side by side. But the pandemic and an uptick in crime have threatened that identity.Credit…Andres Kudacki for The New York Times

“The call is to come back to work, and the subway system being safe is a major driver to doing that,” Mr. Adams said at a news conference on Monday. “When you have an incident like this, it sends a chilling impact. There’s no getting around that.”

Two years into the pandemic, less than 65 percent of ridership is back, with many riders who are using the subway living in working-class neighborhoods — New Yorkers who do not have a choice to stay home or splurge on a taxi.

The mounting pressures facing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state-run agency that operates the transit system, are now threatening to fundamentally alter the subway, which has long been considered the city’s great equalizer, where New Yorkers from disparate backgrounds ride the train together.

The subway is still overwhelmingly safe. While direct comparisons are challenging, far more people are killed on New York’s City’s streets than on the subway. Traffic deaths have soared in the city during the pandemic to 273 last year, the highest level in eight years.

And the system is much less dangerous than in the 1980s and 1990s when robberies were common. In 1990, there were 26 murders on the subway.

Still, records show, violent crimes have increased since the pandemic began. There were, on average, about two murders per year in the five years before the pandemic, compared with six murders in 2020, eight in 2021 and four already this year.

Adding to concerns: Those figures increased even as ridership fell during the pandemic.

Less than 65 percent of the pre-pandemic ridership has returned to the subway.Credit…Andres Kudacki for The New York Times

Richard Ravitch, the former M.T.A. chairman credited with turning the subway around in the 1980s, said it could take years for ridership to rebound to its prepandemic levels. He said he worries about his 15-year-old grandson, who takes the subway to school.

“Every time I hear about a shooting on the subway, I feel like calling my son and saying, ‘I’ll pay for an Uber,’” he said, though he noted that his grandson usually turns down the offer.

In surveys, transit riders and employers have repeatedly said that subway safety was a top concern. About 31 percent of employers said that reducing the presence of homeless and mentally ill people on streets and subways would be the most effective way to get employees to return to the office, according to a survey by the Partnership for New York City, an influential business group.

The city announced on Tuesday that, since February, it had persuaded nearly 1,400 homeless people living in the subway to go to shelters. It did not say how many stayed in shelters, a number that is typically smaller: In January, two-thirds of those who went from subways to shelters left by the end of the month.

At the same time, fears over the coronavirus have not gone away. About 79 percent of subway riders who had not returned to trains said that social-distancing concerns were among the top factors keeping them away, according to a customer survey conducted last fall.

Michelle Lim, 39, lives in Manhattan and stopped taking the subway for nearly two years during the pandemic. She and her husband started biking or walking everywhere and bought Citi Bike memberships.

“I started going distances that I previously would have never thought were bikeable,” she said.

Ms. Lim, who is Asian, said she was also nervous about the possibility of violence on the subway, especially given the rise in random attacks on Asian residents.

“You can’t get sucker punched on a bike,” she said.

The M.T.A. is also facing a potential existential crisis after huge revenue losses during the pandemic. An infusion of state and federal money helped the agency stave off a deficit that is expected to reach $2 billion in 2026.

But its largest funding source is money collected from customers. Once government pandemic aid runs out, transit officials could face pressure to raise fares or to cut service. Subway leaders worry about setting off a “transit death spiral,” where cuts to service make transit a less convenient option for the public, prompting further drops in ridership.

Officials are concerned that the transit system, already deeply in debt, could run out of money if ridership does not rebound.Credit…Andres Kudacki for The New York Times

Although subway ridership is up sharply this year compared with 2021 — about 64 percent more people used the subway from Jan. 1 through May 19 compared with the same time period last year — the M.T.A. counted fewer trips than it had projected for this year. Transit officials have blamed the slump, in part, on the Omicron variant and its subvariants, which dealt a blow to the city’s recovery.

Subway service is often unreliable too, and riders sometimes wait 15 minutes between trains. Only about 82 percent of weekday trains were on time in April, down from about 91 percent last April.

As Hosea Roxbury, 57, waited for a B train at the 86th Street Station in Manhattan this week, he said that reports of violence made him nervous and noted that there were no police officers in the station. Over the last year, he started standing as far away from the platform edge as possible.

“It’s sad that you have to really think twice before getting on the subway,” Mr. Roxbury said.

Bonnie Hefferman, 29, said that she rarely takes the train after 9 p.m. anymore. Instead, she said she has been walking and biking more, or opting to stay home instead of going out.

“It’s rough,” she said. “It’s very different compared to prepandemic.”

Danny Pearlstein, policy director for Riders Alliance, a transportation advocacy group, said that despite valid concerns about a rise in crime on the subways, people would return to the system because it is still the most efficient and inexpensive way to get around the city.

“Riders are much more in danger from cars and trucks on the way to the subway than on the trains,” he added.

Mr. Adams, a Democrat who ran for mayor on a public safety message, has said that he would work to make the subway safer by redeploying police officers where they are needed and by installing mobile gun detectors in stations. Mr. Adams has urged corporate executives like Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase to ride the subway to show that it is safe.

“We’re telling our corporate leaders: ‘Hey, get on the train!’” Mr. Adams said in an interview with The Financial Times before the Q train shooting on Sunday. “We need to advertise that New York is back.”

At a news conference on Tuesday to announce an arrest in the fatal shooting, Janno Lieber, the M.T.A.’s chief executive, thanked the mayor for sending more police officers onto trains and platforms.

“Over time, I believe that we will help with the mayor and the police commissioner’s strategy to restore riders’ sense of safety which has been so harmed, so eroded by this terrible incident and to restore confidence in the safety of mass transit,” he said.

Robert Paaswell, a professor at City College and former executive director of the Chicago Transit Authority, said the subway shooting might scare off some riders for a few days, but the effect would not be likely to last long.

In New York City now, “everybody’s a little nervous,” he said.

“One of the things that would help is a more visible police presence in the subways,” he said. “They have to make it clear to the public that this is a one-time, random, rare event and they’re doing everything possible to prevent it.”

Andy Newman contributed reporting.

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