It's a nasty thing to contemplate: a push from behind, either by accident or on purpose, that sends you onto the tracks, perilously in the path of a train whistling into the station. Fear has us constantly looking behind our shoulders, grabbing a nearby metal pole or bench to keep composure as the platform swarms with people.
It's not exactly paranoid – in New York City, the subway just claimed another victim.
On Sunday morning, Wai Kuen Kwok, 61, was with his wife, Yow Ho Lee, at the 167th Street subway stop in the Bronx, waiting for the D train to take them on their weekly sojourn to Chinatown. All of a sudden, Kwok was thrown onto the tracks by a complete stranger – witnesses say he was in midair when a train collided with him, killing the father of two on impact. Two days later, police charged Kevin Darden, a mentally ill homeless 34-year-old who has a recent history of subway pushing and a longer history of violence, with murder. If convicted, his crime will be defined in part by the screams of Lee, who barely spoke English, at the top of the stairs, after she witnessed her husband's death: "Push! Push!"
Of course, in this situation, the issues of mental health, homeless services, and our criminal justice system come to the forefront. And strictly speaking in terms of subway pushing, it's hard to tell what can be done about something that happens in seconds. So the question – which happens to be the same one lurking behind NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio's Vision Zero transportation safety campaign – is why do incidents like this keep happening?
In 2013, there were 53 deaths on the tracks of New York City subways. That urban death toll represented a minor decrease from 2012, which saw 55 deaths, but the number of people hit (sometimes not fatally) rose 7 percent last year to 151. Before that, between 2001 and 2012, the average number of deaths was 41, with 134 hits. For an international perspective, in a nine-year span, 150 residents of Toronto died in subway deaths, or about 17 a year – a rate similar to New York's.
Usually, just over a third of these deaths are deemed suicides, and the rest divided among varying (yet all pretty horrifying) reasons: accidents, drunkenness, trying to retrieve insignificant shit that fell onto the tracks. And then, of course, there are those unfortunate souls who get pushed by someone else. But Kwon is the first person since 2012 to be forcefully pushed to death by a stranger. The last time, suspect Erika Menendez pushed an Indian immigrant to death in front of an incoming 7 train in Queens. Her profile was almost identical to Darden's: mentally ill, released too soon, and left to fend for him or herself.
"No one monitors if they are taking their medication", D. J. Jaffe, the executive director of the Mental Illness Policy Organisation, an advocacy group, told the New York Times. "Or follows up to see if they are a danger to themselves or others".
Some have argued for more cops to be put on platform patrol duty. But cops are already there, arresting panhandlers, and it's tough to say whether officers would be able to prevent forceful pushes and falls given their quick, sporadic nature. (The NYPD declined to comment for this story).
As to why this happens so often on a larger scale, the most obvious answer is the lack of subway safety. As it stands, there is nothing preventing you or me from falling in front of the subway, and, to critics, that's a glaring problem. Public safety advocates have assailed New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the largest public transit system in the US, for not taking the issue seriously. Yet officials have cited the price tag as a major obstacle to action – which is troubling given that the agency is expected to be broke as hell for the indefinite future.
"It's a tough situation, especially these random acts", Transport Workers Union Local 100 spokesperson Jim Gannon told me.
The union represents all of New York's transit workers, and has launched public campaigns in the past, using bloody subway posters to fight for safety on behalf of conductors. The union argued that its workers should be trained to slow down when coming into the station and given more time off to recover from trauma. (As of now, conductors receive three days off after indirectly killing someone, which is kinda insane, if you think about it).
In response, Gannon said, the MTA launched an information campaign that consisted of subway announcements reminding passengers to stand back from the tracks. But given the robust data on death, this doesn't seem to be preventing people from jumping.
"While one fatality is one too many, we move close to 6 million customers a day in our subway", Kevin Ortiz, a spokesperson for the MTA, told me. "A customer has a greater chance of being struck by lightning twice than being struck by a train". In other words, probability has your back (literally). But there are times when luck isn't on your side.
The more inclusive solution is a platform edge door, which already exists in St. Petersburg, Beijing, Tokyo, and even NYC, on John F. Kennedy International Airport's AirTrain. This barrier would be up at all times, blocking anyone from getting onto the tracks. The door is said to cost billions, but Ortiz told me a contracting consultant was hired by the MTA last month to construct a model that could work across the city. Of course, there are no firm plans as to when this will happen.
Ortiz mentioned that the MTA has tested a pilot program of four different intrusion systems over the last year. Using either closed-circuit cameras, laser beams, thermal cameras, or radio frequencies, the systems detect if someone has fallen on the tracks and send a signal to the incoming conductor to stop short. The systems will once again undergo remote tests this upcoming year to see if they could work elsewhere, but, again, no definitive timeline was given as to when they'll be installed citywide.
"But that's not to say [the MTA is] doing all they can", Gene Russianoff, the head of the Straphangers Campaign, a commuter advocacy group, said over email. "The MTA says it is going to pilot an intrusion section system. Let's get the pilot on the road".
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