On Saturday morning, Michelle Go, a 40-year-old woman living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was waiting for a subway train at Times Square when she was pushed onto the tracks in front of an oncoming train and killed. The alleged attacker, according to police, was a homeless man with a history of violence who is currently undergoing a psychiatric evaluation but, according to the New York Times, was found unfit to stand trial in 2019 after being charged with drug possession in Washington Square Park.
The killing has received lots of attention in the city because it highlights many of our greatest anxieties and societal challenges. People getting randomly shoved into oncoming subway trains does happen from time to time, a rare phenomenon nearly every New Yorker fears along with an unsecured air conditioner falling onto them or plummeting down an unlocked sidewalk cellar door (New Yorkers fear death from above, death from below, and death from behind). And the specifics of Go’s case further emphasize the urgent need to address the homelessness and mental health crisis in New York City.
While random subway shovings are, thankfully, rare, they happen often enough that the ensuing fallout follows a familiar cycle. Hundreds of people go onto the tracks every year, either willfully or falling on their own. A few dozen per year attempt or commit suicide this way. People getting shoved onto the tracks is even rarer, happening once every year or two. The public asks what can possibly be done to prevent someone from dying in such a horrifying fashion. Transit experts point out there is an available technology used in other subway systems around the world that, once implemented, can guarantee no one will ever die by getting shoved onto the subway tracks again. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which runs the New York City subway, says it will look into it, but ultimately dismisses it as infeasible and expensive. Everyone moves on, until the tragic cycle begins again.
The technology in question is called platform screen doors. They are exactly what they sound like. They are doors of varying heights and widths, depending on the subway system, that are at least waist high and form a barrier between the tracks and the platforms. The doors open and close in concert with the doors of the train. Not only do they eliminate the risk of getting accidentally hit by a train, they also prevent suicide-by-train—which is not only a tragedy but also a traumatic experience for subway operators and bystanders—and litter getting on the tracks, which cause hundreds of track fires a year.
New Yorkers are no strangers to platform screen doors. In fact, we have them right here in the city on the JFK AirTrain. Those are relatively fancy screen doors since they’re integrated into the station design. But simpler designs exist that can be retrofitted onto existing stations.
New Yorkers are also no strangers to debates about platform screen doors. In an invaluable 2017 article on the subject, Yonah Freemark, who was then an MIT graduate student but is now a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, documented the many times MTA officials ignored or outright dismissed calls for platform screen doors. It is about as succinct a window into the MTA bureaucracy as you will ever get, in which officials dismiss an idea they haven’t studied, then quell criticism by saying they will study it without actually studying it, then finally get around to studying it, only to create a doomed-to-fail pilot project permanently justifying never revisiting the idea again.
First came the rejection of an idea they hadn’t studied, in March 2012, when former MTA chairman Joe Lhota said, “it’s not something I think we’ll see, quite honestly, in your lifetime or my lifetime.”
Next came the non-response as officials continued to hope the issue would magically go away. This occurred in May 2014 when former MTA board member Charles Moerdler, a frequent proponent of platform screen doors, got “no real response” from MTA officials on the question, as Freemark summarized.
Next came the phase when MTA officials pretend they’re doing something when they actually weren’t. The next month, then-New York City Transit President Carmen Bianco said an initiative regarding platform screen doors was “ongoing” without providing any information or detail. In November 2016, Bianco’s replacement, then-president Veronique Hakim, agreed to “look into the feasibility of a pilot program” for platform screen doors, but another board member said they first needed to study looking into the feasibility of a pilot program. In March 2017, another NYCT official said the agency “agreed to consider” using platform screen doors and were looking into “a comprehensive study.” That was more than two years of the MTA considering whether to consider a study on a potential pilot program of platform screen doors.
Then, the doomed-to-fail pilot project of installing platform screen doors at the Third Avenue station of the L line during the erstwhile L Train shutdown. After less than a year of planning, the $30 million pilot program was shelved (as Freemark pointed out, this was orders of magnitude more than similar projects elsewhere, from 2.6 million Euros per station in Paris to $10 million per station in Montreal, yet another example of New York’s terrible overspending problem). At the time, then-NYCT president Andy Byford said the MTA was using that money to build elevators at a different station on the same line, but would test the platform doors at another station sometime soon. Byford resigned from NYCT in January 2020 due to political interference from then-Governor Andrew Cuomo and is now commissioner of Transport for London. There has been no word on that other pilot program ever since.
Ever since, the MTA’s line has been platform screen doors are simply too expensive to consider, citing cost estimates of some $2 billion (it was $1 billion in 2013; how the cost doubled in less than a decade has never been explained, but it does aid suspicion these nice, round, and very large numbers were hardly arrived at scientifically). For the MTA, $2 billion is only a lot of money if it is for something it doesn’t want to do. At the time the MTA was ignoring platform screen doors, it undertook an $850 million station beautification initiative under Cuomo’s orders widely panned as an expensive cosmetic non-upgrade to dozens of stations, spending an average of $43 million per station, a greater amount than the platform screen door pilot would have cost. The MTA’s annual budget is some $17.6 billion and its five-year capital plan budget for major investments and upgrades is $54.8 billion.
Summarizing New York—and, for the record, all of the US’s—non-implementation of platform screen doors in mass transit systems, “It’s hard to understand why, exactly, the management of American transit agencies act in the manner that they do,” Freemark wrote back in 2017. Having reported on the MTA for almost three years, I agree with that sentiment. Bureaucracies develop their own internal logic systems, so much so that, from the outside, it doesn’t look logical at all.
Nevertheless, here was Freemark’s stab at it: “The best explanation I have is that management is simply uninterested in making the decisions necessary to bring their technologies up to speed. Given their (real or imagined) sense of being constantly under siege, transit agency leadership would prefer to just keep the existing system working as it does today: Better safe than sorry. And the repeated complaints of one board member, not backed by others and not likely to raise the concerns of the political official who appointed him (the governor), simply doesn’t matter enough.”
Thanks to an internationally-gawked-at meltdown in late 2017 and early 2018, we’ve learned a lot about how the MTA functions in the years since Freemark’s post. But his explanation holds up. To be sure, there are some real difficulties with installing platform doors in New York. But, like most everything else with the MTA, they are political and bureaucratic, not technological. Subways around the world have found ways to retrofit platform screen doors into their system (Freemark’s article has a handy graphic, although it’s about five years out of date by now). Many systems only have them in some stations, a compromise that would make sense for New York given that they are easiest to install on lines with straight platforms and advanced signaling systems, criteria that as of now only some of New York’s stations fit. This would force the MTA to pick which stations get platform doors and which ones don’t—Times Square, for the record, likely would not at first—a politically-fraught process that would almost guarantee outcry from the neighborhoods that don’t get them in their stations. The Catch-22 of running a large bureaucracy is it often gets less pushback and ire by doing unimaginative, undesirable renovations than things people truly want, because then nobody gets mad they’re left out.
So why doesn’t the New York City subway have platform screen doors, the simplest and most feasible answer for how to have saved Michelle Go’s life? Perhaps you noticed that virtually every MTA official mentioned in this article no longer works for the MTA. Under then-Governor Cuomo, a top position at the MTA was a de facto interim appointment, whether officially titled or not. Almost nobody made it more than a few years at their post, hardly long enough to get a pilot program off the ground, much less oversee an actual implementation of something like platform screen doors. It was a revolving door that highly incentivized anonymity and doing whatever the governor wanted rather than initiative, fighting for good ideas, or prioritizing the average subway rider. When Lhota—who made it longer than most, resigned in 2018—said “it’s not something I think we’ll see, quite honestly, in your lifetime or my lifetime,” it was a self-fulfilling prophecy echoing the limited vision of a bureaucracy that above all else didn’t want anyone, least of all a tyrannical governor, to notice it. That ambition came crashing down in 2017 along with the subway’s on-time performance, when suddenly all eyes, especially the governor’s, were on the MTA.
Many of the MTA’s failings have little to do with Cuomo. But the long tail of his near-decade reign is a bureaucracy simultaneously bloated with expenses and emaciated of imagination, beset by priorities determined by a man who didn’t actually like or use the subway. It is too simplistic to say Cuomo bears some responsibility for Go’s death. Similarly, it wouldn’t be fair to pin her death on any individual MTA executive or bureaucrat. This is what makes dysfunctional bureaucracies so vexing, so impenetrable, and such pernicious forces for harm. We know we should have better, we know something has gone horribly wrong, but who is to be held accountable?
With all the problems the MTA has had over recent decades—skyrocketing delays, a system falling apart, a governor constantly breathing down their necks, lawsuits and advocates rightly pressuring the MTA to finally invest tens of billions to make the system accessible to people with disabilities, a constantly looming budget crisis—it would have taken a truly remarkable public servant to embrace yet another expensive, difficult, politically fraught project. Byford came the closest, the first subway leader who seemed to actually want the responsibility of fixing it. But even he postponed the platform door pilot. For a subway system and a city that needs so much, even the important things can sometimes seem disposable.