Many women riding New York’s subway have stories of being leered at or harassed and have become used to raising their guard on public transit. Now, some women say safety concerns, which climbed among passengers during the pandemic, have pushed them to find other ways of getting around.
The most cautious among them have shunned mass transit altogether. Those who can afford taxis take them, while others ride bicycles. Some travel only in daylight or with a companion.
“I feel like, as women, we have to take a lot of precautions,” said Stephanie Ng, 30, who left her job working late shifts at a furniture store in Manhattan, in part, because she did not want to commute at night.
Their reluctance to ride presents a pressing challenge for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state agency that runs the city’s transit network. Before the pandemic, nearly 40 percent of the agency’s operating revenue came from fares. Today, that share has sunk to 23 percent as ridership has slumped, largely because of remote work.
Now, as ridership is slowly recovering — it rose 39 percent from January through October 2022 compared with the same period in 2021, according to the authority — those women whose relationship with the subway was always troubled may be the hardest to persuade to come back.
The return of female riders, in particular, is essential for the authority because, globally, more women use public transit than men. Experts cite a variety of reasons, including that women leave home more often to perform a greater share of household tasks.
“Bringing riders back, whether they’re women or just all New Yorkers — it is key and essential for us,” said Shanifah Rieara, who oversees rider satisfaction efforts for the authority.
The M.T.A. doesn’t track ridership by gender, so it is unclear whether women have abandoned the transit system in greater numbers or have been slower to return than men. Many women have returned to the subway, either by preference or necessity; many never left.
But interviews with a dozen women, community leaders and transportation experts suggested that an uptick in subway crime during the pandemic has only deepened a longstanding wariness that is second nature for some women on public transit.
City and state leaders face a difficult task in persuading female riders who have left the subway because of safety concerns to return, said Andy Byford, New York’s former subway boss, who has also overseen systems in London, Australia and Toronto.
Transportation in New York City
- Subway Safety: A 34-year-old man was shot on a subway train in Lower Manhattan on Jan. 28, an attack that happened hours after Mayor Eric Adams touted a decline in subway crime.
- L.I.R.R. Project: An expansion of the Long Island Rail Road into Grand Central Terminal finally opened to the public after years of delays and soaring costs.
- Ride-Hail App Drivers: Drivers in the city say they are struggling, faced with inflation, hefty fees and Uber’s efforts to block the taxi commission from raising their pay.
- Holland Tunnel: New Jersey-bound traffic through the tunnel will be barred for several hours six nights a week while crews repair damage from Hurricane Sandy.
“Transit chiefs ignore such concerns at their peril,” he said. “Women make up a large proportion of ridership in any transit system, and so for financial reasons, as well as moral reasons, it’s essential to create a safe environment and to create a perception of a safe environment.”
Women surveyed in the New York City region before the pandemic were three times as likely as men to be concerned for their safety on public transit, according to a report published in 2018 by New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation.
To travel safely, some women may pass up jobs in certain areas, choose lower-quality schools for themselves or their children or spend money on taxis. The result, researchers wrote, can be a lifetime of lower earnings and higher spending.
“It does limit economic opportunity,” said Sarah M. Kaufman, an author of the report and the Rudin Center’s interim executive director. “We’re paying in time and/or money for our own safety.”
City, state and transit officials have recently moved to make riders feel safer. Last month, Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams said crime had fallen on the subway since the start of a safety initiative in October that filled the system with more police.
The mayor and governor said that rates of major crimes had dropped 16 percent from Oct. 25 to Jan. 22, compared with the same period a year earlier. Overall, since 2019, the rate of violent crimes — murder, rape, felony assault and robbery — has more than doubled in the New York City system, even as ridership has decreased. There were 10 killings on the subway last year, compared with an average of two annually in the five years before the pandemic.
Despite those trends, a New York Times analysis of M.T. A. and police statistics published in November showed that the possibility of being a victim of violent crime in the subway was remote. The analysis found that the rate of 1.2 violent crimes for every million subway rides roughly equaled the chances of getting injured in a crash during a two-mile drive.
For some women, the subway feels no more dangerous than any other part of the city, or even less dangerous. Molly Maguire, 25, said she is more comfortable traveling on the subway than on a walk home from her stop in Brooklyn.
“I do mostly feel safe on the subway,” said Ms. Maguire, a paralegal. “If I’m going to be considering safety, it’s really more about walking for 10 minutes and I’m the only one on the street.”
Even so, some riders remain nervous. Some are uneasy waiting for trains at sparsely populated stations or unnerved by homeless people behaving erratically. High-profile shoves, stabbings and shootings on trains and in stations have shocked New Yorkers, notably those of Asian descent because some attackers have targeted them after the pandemic led to a surge in anti-Asian hate crimes. Many subway users were deeply disturbed by the death of Michelle Go, who was shoved in front of an R train in January last year by a homeless man who police said had a history of crime and mental illness.
“Dramatic tragedies like the killing of Michelle Go have really hit home with women despite the fact that crime numbers are relatively low compared to the past,” said Kathryn S. Wylde, the chief executive of the Partnership for New York City, an influential business group.
Haruko Kori, 42, stopped using the subway to commute from her home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to her job as a nanny in Park Slope and only uses transit for the occasional daytime errand. Ms. Kori, who is originally from Japan, said she used to feel comfortable, but after a group of men taunted her on the street at the height of anti-Asian attacks, she decided not to take the subway at night.
“I’m afraid,” said Ms. Kori, who has also taken self-defense classes.
Many other transit riders, both men and women, appeared to share that sense of unease. Nearly three out of four respondents of a poll of 9,400 working New Yorkers commissioned by the New York Partnership and published last March said they believed safety on public transit had gotten worse since the pandemic began.
And a survey of nearly 270,000 M.T.A. customers conducted in June found that 45 percent of respondents said they were using the subway less frequently than before the pandemic. Of that group, 61 percent said that personal security was a reason, while 47 percent said they were working from home and 37 percent cited Covid concerns.
But more recent surveys from the authority suggest that safety concerns are lessening: One scheduled for release later this month found 41 percent of respondents said they were using subways less frequently, and out of that number, 44 percent cited personal security.
And in early December, transit leaders touted reaching 3.93 million riders on the subway on a single day for the first time since March 2020. Before the pandemic, average weekday ridership totals routinely exceeded 5.5 million.
Ms. Kaufman, of the Rudin Center, said that safety issues are particularly profound for women with disabilities, women of color and trans women, who have greater fear of being targeted.
Nelima Kerre, 44, stopped riding the subway home to Bushwick, Brooklyn, from her late-night job as a manager at a Manhattan jazz club. Sometimes, she splits a cab with other female employees. Ms. Kerre, a Black woman, said that in 2021, a man singled her out of a crowd and threatened her at a subway station in Greenwich Village, shouting the words “African American.”
“I was just like, ‘Oh, my God,’” Ms. Kerre said. “Is this how I go out?”
Jahaira Gonzalez, a transgender woman who directs outreach efforts at Destination Tomorrow, a center serving the city’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, said that she has stopped riding the subway past 6 p.m. during the pandemic.
Ms. Gonzalez, 43, from the Bronx, also avoids packed cars. She said strangers often harass her on the subway because of her gender identity. “I always feel the need to be on the defense.”
Women endure harassment in transit systems around the globe. In Mexico City, the Sistema de Transporte Colectivo has barred men from some cars for decades in an attempt to avert groping by male passengers. In Tokyo, police released an app called Digi Police in 2016 that allows users to alert people around them that they are being victimized.
Two years ago, Peter Kerre, an activist who is Ms. Kerre’s brother, created the group Safe Walks NYC, a network of volunteers that escorts people — mostly women — to or from the subway.
Erin Hill, who works for a software company in Midtown, said she offered to volunteer with Safe Walks. But sometimes her resolve is tested by memories of an incident in 2020, when a stranger groped her at Brooklyn subway station while she was heading to the beach. Ms. Hill, 26, has avoided traveling to that station ever since.
“I get really angry when people feel like this power has been taken away from them to simply just exist in public and to go places,” she said.
Hisako Ueno contributed reporting.