Critics Claim MTA’s Survey, Used to Justify More Police, Overplayed Riders’ Fears

It’s been nearly a month since the NYPD’s transit chief accused the MTA of “fear mongering” over crime in the subways, in a showdown that eventually led to 250 more police being added to subway patrols. But even before that, the MTA was pointing to its customer survey, which shows 87% of 33,000 current and former subway riders say safety is a “very or extremely important factor” in deciding if they’ll ride transit again.

The MTA used that survey to justify the need for more policing. But since then ridership has steadily increased. And a closer look at the demographics, as well as another survey taken around the same time, show the MTA may have been overplaying the public’s fear factor.

Gothamist saw a demographic breakdown of the response to the survey, which the MTA has not posted publicly. It shows half of the respondents are white. While that roughly matches the overall subway ridership at the moment, it’s also a group that’s least likely to be targeted by police for minor infractions, like fare evasion. Recent reports show 92% of people arrested for fare evasion were Black and Hispanic, groups that don’t always feel safer seeing more police officers.

“It doesn’t take a fully qualified police officer to give people a sense of security,” said David Jones, an MTA board member and president and CEO of the Community Service Society. “Uniformed personnel on platforms and in front of gates are just as effective.”

The Regional Plan Association (RPA) recently conducted its own survey of commuters across New York, New Jersey and Connecticut in March and came away with very different results. While it only surveyed 804 adults, it found just 19% of its respondents were concerned about crime in the subways. The number one factor holding commuters back from riding was an ongoing fear of COVID-19, followed by a preference for driving. 

The RPA survey found 26% of New York City residents were concerned about crime, and a quarter of them were people of color. Just 14% of the overall respondents were white, a much smaller portion than those in the MTA’s survey, although many of the RPA respondents live on Long Island, the Hudson Valley, New Jersey, and Connecticut. 

Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director with Riders Alliance, called the RPA’s survey scientific, but said the MTA’s survey was “long and confusing.” He questioned whether it accurately captures the feeling of current and former commuters.

“More than two million people take the train every day, overwhelmingly without incident,” Pearlstein wrote in a statement. “The governor owes real riders fast, frequent, reliable, and affordable public transit service. Discouraging people from riding the New York subway does the city an immense disservice and it puts riders in harm’s way.“

The MTA has hired more than 200 private security guards to patrol the subways, and the NYPD agreed to add unarmed volunteer officers to patrol as well. Though Mayor Bill de Blasio says the police presence “makes up the largest NYPD Transit Force in 25 years,” the agency still wants more officers.

“I want when you’re pulling into a station, I want people to feel a presence,” Interim New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg said last week. “I want people to know if they don’t see a police officer on that platform they’re likely to see one at the next station they’re likely to see one walking onto their train.” 

“How do you make sure that you’re bringing riders back, that you’re bringing people who are sitting on the sidelines, haven’t come back to the system yet, how do you bring them back to the system?” she asked. “Bring them back with giving them confidence on being safe from COVID exposure and confidence on crime and harassment, that’s what our customer survey seems to suggest.”

The MTA has been trying to lure riders back as 24-hour service has resumed, while at the same time prodding the city to add more police to patrol stations in an effort to make riders feel safe, and deter some crimes before they occur. The MTA has said the addition of 250 police officers isn’t enough. 

Still, riders appear to be voting with their feet even as a rash of random and shocking incidents in the subways continues. There were five days in a row last week when ridership topped 2 million, a consistent and recent high for the subways. 

The MTA board and top leadership meet Wednesday, May 26th, when they will have a chance to discuss policing in the subways with NYPD Transit Chief Kathleen O’Reilly for the first time since she accused the agency of fear mongering