Assaults on City Transit Workers Rise Despite Recent Protections

Despite recent efforts to stem rising attacks on New York City transit workers, assaults on subway and bus workers jumped 36 percent during the first seven months of 2023, putting incidents on track to increase for the fourth year in a row.

Previously unreported Metropolitan Transportation Authority data show that there were 98 felony and misdemeanor assaults on city transit workers through the end of July, compared to 72 over the same period last year. If attacks continue to rise at the same rate, there would be a total of 190 assaults on city transit workers in 2023, up from 140 in 2022. There were fewer than 100 such assaults in 2019 and 2020.

Celso Garcia, an MTA bus operator, said recent city and state policies to protect workers have had little impact on the ground.

“Once the cameras are gone, and the press are gone, nothing gets done,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to beg people to assist us or feel like we’re bothering anyone when we are asking for assistance.”

Garcia emphasized that he was “speaking out as a private citizen on matters of public concern,” and not in his role as an MTA worker.

The rise in violence has persisted despite several measures to improve the safety of workers and customers. The MTA has sought to protect bus drivers by installing sliding protective barriers and providing New York City Police Department officers to help tamp down fare evasion, which union officials say contributes to confrontations between drivers and riders. The MTA reported 46 assaults on bus workers through July 2023, compared to 39 over the same period last year, a 17.9 percent increase.

In October 2022, Gov. Kathy Hochul said the state would help finance more cops on the subways — to the tune of approximately 1,200 additional overtime shifts per day. The MTA is also installing surveillance cameras in all 6,455 subway cars.

The state Legislature has tried to step in, too. In June 2022, Hochul signed legislation expanding a 2002 law that made assaulting certain transit workers a second-degree felony accompanied by up to seven years in prison to include “station customer assistants, ticket or revenue collectors, maintenance workers, repairers, cleaners, and their supervisors.”

Assaults rose most quickly for subway workers, who suffered 44 attacks through the end of July, an increase of 63 percent over the same period last year — and just seven incidents short of the total for all of 2022. On August 27, a customer attacked an MTA subway operator with a metal pipe, breaking two of his teeth.

Garcia said the rising violence is partly due to a general erosion of respect for transit workers among members of the public.

“It’s changed over to a more hostile environment,” he said. “We are the face of transit, and when things don’t go the way the customer wants them to go, they take it out on us.”

The union representing city transit workers said the justice system is too lenient on repeat offenders.

“We are seeing more police officers in the subway system, which is a good thing, but we’re also seeing the same people get arrested repeatedly, only to get released and come right back to the stations, trains, and platforms, where they again are a threat,” Richard Davis, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100, said in a statement. “Elected officials, judges, prosecutors, and mental health officials must do much more.”

The rise in attacks comes despite a recent drop in the crime rate both citywide and in the subway. In August, crime in the city was down 1.5 percent in comparison to August 2022 as murders, rapes, robberies, burglaries and grand larcenies all decreased. In the subway, major felony crimes were down 4.5 percent compared to August 2022, and crime overall was down 11 percent compared to the 2022 monthly average, the MTA reported.

MTA ridership remains well below pre-pandemic levels. In August 2023, subway ridership was 65.2 percent of its August 2019 level and bus ridership was 64.0 percent of its August 2019 level.

The lone bright spot in the MTA data was related to less severe “harassment” incidents, which were down 1.7 percent through July, driven by a 5.7 percent drop in incidents of verbal abuse. Spitting incidents were up 21 percent.

The MTA declined numerous requests for comment for this article.

About the author(s)

Peter Saalfield is a journalist and fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.