Last week’s mass terror attack on a Brooklyn subway was nothing new for New York City. For more than a quarter-century, New York has been a target of choice for terrorists—and the city has recovered quickly from each attack. This time, though, after the first terror attack of the post-Covid era, the city must work harder to demonstrate that the benefits of urban living are worth this ever-lurking risk.
Live in New York long enough, and you can tally up a grim terror sheet off the top of your head: the September 11, 2001, attacks, and the previous attempt on the World Trade Center, in 1993; the 1997 shooting at the Empire State Building, which killed one victim; the 2017 truck attack on the Hudson River bike path, which killed eight; a car attack in Times Square the same year, which killed one. Then, the attacks on our mass-transit system: in 2017, an assailant detonated a pipe bomb in a Times Square subway passageway, injuring three; in 1993, a mass shooter killed six people on the Long Island Rail Road. Over the years, federal and local law enforcement have thwarted many other plots, from cyanide-gas releases to suicide bombings.
But while the risk is real, it’s also low—something New Yorkers understand. Before 2020, the terror threat didn’t keep people off the subways. Subway ridership rose in 2001, the 9/11 year, and in 2002, compared with 2000. Between the millennium and 2015, the peak year for subway ridership, passenger numbers grew by 28 percent, to nearly 1.8 billion trips a year.
Comfort on mass transit largely powered New York’s population and economic growth. In 2019, more than three-fourths of the nearly 3.9 million people who entered Manhattan’s business districts each day from New York’s outer boroughs and suburbs came in via subway, bus, commuter rail, or other transit, not in a car.
Despite post-millennial buzz about Uber ride-sharing and innovative ways to move people around, these daily visitors and commuters would not have been able to enter Manhattan in such volumes in private vehicles, even shared ones. The physical space doesn’t exist. Indeed, when, starting in 2014, heavily investor-subsidized Uber rides lured a relative few tens of thousands of people off the transit system each day, the resultant traffic slowed midtown cars to below five miles an hour, little more than a power walk. Without efficient mass transit, the city could not have added 800,000 people to its 2000 population of just over 8 million by the spring of 2020, and it could not have added more than 900,000 jobs by 2019, for a total of nearly 4.7 million—beating its post-World War II industrial-era peak.
But Frank James’s alleged mass shooting on a Brooklyn train last week, which injured ten victims directly by gunfire and caused additional injuries from stampeding and smoke, occurred in a very different environment for transit, relative to previous terror attacks. The day before the attack, Monday, only 3.2 million people took the subway—less than 60 percent of the pre-Covid normal. Part of the issue is unemployment: New York is still missing nearly 300,000 of its pre-Covid jobs, making its recovery one of the nation’s slowest. But much of the problem is white-collar commuters’ reluctance to come back into Manhattan every day. Little more than one-third of office workers are coming in. Most who do make the trek stop short of doing it five days a week.
Why are workers staying away? Before the terror attack, more than three out of four private-sector workers polled recently expressed fears for their safety on transit. That’s understandable when violent crime on subways has soared along with violent crime citywide. In a normal pre-Covid year, one or two people might be killed on the subway. Since March 2020, 16 people have been murdered on the subway, all but one of them by strangers. Other categories of violent crime have also risen underground. Murder underground has risen far faster than murder aboveground, with the city’s overall homicide total up nearly 53 percent since 2019.
Commuters are also just staying away because they can. Plenty of anecdotal evidence exists that white-collar workers will not return to hours-long commutes, packed into buses, subways, and commuter-rail trains, unless they have to. They’ve experienced more than two years of extra time with their families, friends, exercise, or hobbies.
This is something that New York has never experienced before: the city no longer holds monopoly-like power over people in financial, media, tech, advertising, and other “creative” industries whose executives and workers once thought they had no choice but to be in Manhattan, despite the drawbacks. In 1990, 26 people were murdered on the subway, and per-capita felonies were seven-fold what they were in 2020. But people still took nearly a billion train trips in 1990—because they had to if they wanted to pursue white-collar ambitions. Even if the MTA can bring ridership above 1 billion this year, which will mean luring back 60 percent of commuters on a consistent basis, we’ve undone three decades of progress in what makes a dense city work: transit.
The terrorism risk by itself won’t send people fleeing. It’s just another factor that has changed, perhaps irrevocably, in the risk–reward equation. Three years ago, a lawyer or an investment advisor reaped a high reward from being in Manhattan five days a week, a reward he or she could find in few other places in the country. Today, the benefit is lower. For more than two years now, people at high professional levels have proved that they can work at home reasonably successfully.
And now, relative to the somewhat lower reward, the risk is higher. Earlier this year, Michelle Go, a Deloitte consultant, was pushed to her death in front of a Times Square subway train, just months after another woman, Maria Ambrocio, died in a Times Square assault above ground. One midtown business-improvement district recently estimated that 16 of its own 70 employees had suffered random violent assault over the past year. The reminder of the ever-present threat of violent crime or terror is just another reason for people to ask themselves: Why bother?
To keep New York resilient against terror and other violent crime, New York mayor Eric Adams and Governor Kathy Hochul, both Democrats, will have to provide better public safety and quality of life in Manhattan’s business districts.
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