Are New Yorkers ‘Subway Scared’ or Spaced Out? An UWS Photographer Descended to Document the Mood

Photographs by Peggy Taylor.

By Peggy Taylor

Do New Yorkers feel safe in the subway? Newspapers and TV channels have deployed battalions of reporters and camerapeople underground to find out.

On the nightly news, one reporter warns straphangers to “stay away from the platform edge.” Another finds a steel column, presses his back to it, and advises riders this is where they should stand. Another takes you to the blue-lit Help Point intercom kiosk, and points out the red emergency button. He also notes the green information button connecting you to the station’s token booth clerk. (Yes, there are still some.)

But are New Yorkers listening? Are they heeding all this advice?

I took the subway the other day and was stunned to see the number of straphangers lost in Cyberspace, completely absorbed in their iPhones. What, I ask, were they thinking?

But then, I, too, ignored the advice. I reached into my fanny pack, took out my iPhone, and got these shots.

ART, COLUMNS | 58 comments | permalink
    1. Charles says:

      So sad. Yes, I am 75.

    2. rr.gross says:

      Haha, highlarious! Not that there’s anything funny about being pushed onto the track, that’s horrifying. Come on people, the number one piece of advice given to be safer from crime is – be aware of your surroundings!

      Ok, enough chatting, I need to do today’s Wordle.

    3. LL says:

      I mean, we’re acting pre-Covid,,apart from the masks.

      Aside from that, the city feels a lot safer than it did in the 90s. And plenty of people living in NYC now also did back in, say, 1993.

    4. ben says:

      The MTA really need to install platform doors ASAP. It’s not like they are some cutting edge tech that nobody has deployed yet. Even half-height doors would greatly reduce the dangers of being shoved off the platform.
      Also desperately overdue: cell service/wifi between stations. Can’t believe this still hasn’t happened in NYC. Even Chicago has the entire system covered by 4G ffs.

      • Peter says:

        Am I the only one who likes the forced disconnect from no WiFi between stations?

      • Tom says:

        Or, let’s not spend $10bil and everyone just put down the damn phones and pay attention. 🤷‍♂️

        • ben says:

          You are presenting a false dichotomy between installing platform doors and educating riders to be more careful. These are not mutually exclusive options I don’t see why we can’t or shouldn’t implement both.

      • AC says:

        Installing such or anything close to these barriers would be fiscally irresponsible. As the oldest, and largest, subway system in the world, we have over 89 miles of PLATFORM length (472 stations; two platforms per station; each subway car approximately 50’ in length; 10 subway cars per train – I’ll let you complete the math). Everyone needs to be more careful and vigilant riding the subway. The number of people distracted on the platforms and throughout the subway system is contributing to these life/safety incidents.

        • ben says:

          It doesn’t have to be done at all stations at once. Prioritize the busy stations, like 42 Time Sq, or stations with the highest rates of incidents. Planned roll-out.

        • Danielle Remp says:

          “… these barriers would be fiscally irresponsible.”
          You’re right.
          I think, though, that what is needed here is a solution to the homeless problem.

        • UWSreader says:

          Biggest reason for barriers in my mind is actually preventing trash from getting in the tracks, not pushing incidents (even though the latter is much more horrific and gets a lot more press they are still quite rare). Cleaning trash off the tracks and track fires are a huge expense and source of delays. Also not sure it’s fiscally irresponsible long-term given the potential revenue from advertising.

      • Kenneth says:

        Mega cost considerations aside, platform barriers are not even remotely possible until the signal system is upgraded – which is not going to finish happening anytime soon. Put your phone down and stay aware.

      • Anna says:

        WiFi between stations yes, please! To possibly call for help, if warranted, and also would be such a difference for those who suffer intense panic when stuck between stations. Best by far would be to be at a station, so you can get out. However, if you are stuck between stations, at least you would be able get real-time info (a comfort and distraction), and maybe communicate with people you know. Would at least help reduce the intensity, in many cases.

      • G. Lynas says:

        Was there any person NOT on a cell phone? How aware can one be of their surroundings while on a phone?

    5. Mark Moore says:

      When I was a kid in Brooklyn we’d empty our pockets before we got on the train to the city and hide cash in our underwear. We’d have one subway token in our hands so we wouldn’t have to go into our pockets, with the implication there may be something valuable inside to be mugged for. You never ever displayed anything of any value and you held your breath when the doors opened at certain station because you didn’t know what might happen.

      Now you can see $50,000 worth of electronics on every train car. Compared to then, this seems like nothing. It’s worse than it was two years ago but that’s all.

    6. Harriet F says:

      I rode the subway in the 1970s as a 20something when you really weren’t supposed to be on a train after rush hour if you were a young woman. I rode the subway as a Mom in the 80s and 90s. I’m 75 and riding the subway now, but I’ve returned to a “caution” stance. I wait on the stairs (at 72nd St) until a train comes in. Or I wait very close to the turnstiles in smaller stations. So yes, I’m more “aware,” and no, I don’t look at my phone except when I’m seated in a car. So there. Adapt, adapt, adapt but live your life.

    7. Kim says:

      How did we survive pre Cell phones???

      Situational awareness is really important when you are on the subway and the platform and the cell phone absolutely takes that away. If you do need to look at your phone stand by the wall of find a seat or put your back to a column.

    8. Lily Goldstein says:

      I think that this really is not about the subways but it is about how people are totally addicted to that screen, whether on the subway, in the supermarket, out with their kids, in the park, and so on. I don’t think that this is fair regarding the subways….people are zoned out period.

      Not me. Lily Goldstein

    9. Otis says:

      The NYPD needs to crackdown on passengers without masks. This is supposed to be illegal but I see it every time I take the subway.

    10. Spence says:

      I learned in the 1970s to be alert and 50 yrs later I am still alert.

    11. joe_the_accountant says:

      The incidents that happened are terrible and I know lots of people have been conditioned to live in fear by covid but seriously, just remain aware of your surroundings and you have a 99.99999% chance of surviving your subway ride.

    12. Deena Harris says:

      Not scared or spaced out – just on their phones

    13. IP says:

      Don’t look up!

    14. Suz says:

      I am super impressed that only one person in these photos is not wearing a mask. That’s why I avoid the subway — too many people don’t wear a mask or they wear it so that it isn’t covering their nose and/or mouth.

    15. Great photos!

      That’s NEVER going to be me; I own no cell phone and live alone- so when I’m on the subway (or the sidewalk or Trader Joe’s etc.) I’m constantly drinking in the faces (what one can see of them these days) the clothing, body language (attitude) and, if it comes down to it, the possible threat postures of the denizens of America’s largest and most dense city, a microcosm of hundreds of colors tribes and attitudes.

      Why the heck would I ever want to stare distractedly into the palm of my hand for unconsciously long minutes at a time when I’m surrounded by all the world’s bustle & beauty and charm and yes, anger and anxiety in this always unfolding fashion?!

      • GG says:

        Wait a minute here…I’m confused.

        If you don’t have a cell phone how do you watch Tik Tok videos or live stream on Twitch?!? How do you check your matches on Tinder or play a few rounds of Candy Crush? What if you very urgently needed to know the weather in Istanbul or Buenos Aires? Basically, how do you function in society?

        This just isn’t adding up to me.:)

    16. JAH says:

      The problem isn’t the cell phones it the lack of masks or wearing masks below the nose. it looked to me that no one in the pictures was standing very close to the edge of the platform.

    17. D.J. says:

      You’re darn tootin’ we’re scared. A homeless woman walked through the car asking for food, and pulled a box-cutter when she didn’t get a response.

      Pulling out a cellphone is just another way New Yorkers avoid making eye contact.

    18. Carol says:

      Well, according to this account, everyone certainly has the “no eye contact” thing locked-down.

    19. Florence Kranitz says:

      Ya gotta love the nonchalance of New Yorkers but c’mon people pay attention to your surroundings!

    20. Cordcutter says:

      Need more frequent notifications in the subway speaker systems and on the digital signage. In all languages. These images are concerning.

    21. cita says:

      With respect to the glass barriers–I’m a frequent visitor to Paris, where barriers are in use. It’s well worth the cost to the MTA.

    22. Renee says:

      This is very bizarre. It’s disgusting down in the tunnels, the train cars are arguably worse and often full of panhandlers and homeless folks taking naps. Is it any wonder people would rather be on their phones than focus on the misery and decay that surrounds them?

    23. JS says:

      It’s a new world…..so weird……masks and electronics.

    24. Linda Davis says:

      OK- there’s another factor to consider here.
      Keeping your eyes averted is a classic veteran subway rider protocol. When I rode back in the BC era ( before cellphones I wore sunglasses and carried a book. Not confronting potentially aggressive riders has always been the better part of wisdom. This said, that doesn’t mean I’d ever stand near the platform edge without being 100% aware. Vigilance isn’t new!

    25. Lori says:

      My theory is, as with most bad things, no one ever really thinks it will happen to them. I think seasoned New Yorkers are careful on subway platforms though, because we have seen what can happen and know bad things can happen to anyone, so you won’t see us peering down a tunnel to look for a train, a train that will come when it comes no matter how much we strain our necks to look for it.

    26. Leon says:

      These pictures remind me why I have told my kids to become physical therapists – the whole world will soon be afflicted with cell phone neck from constantly looking down at their phones. Someone will have to treat them!

    27. Truth and Reason says:

      Quit taking this article seriously the minute I read the word FANNYPACK.

    28. Stan says:

      Last week on the A train a guy put down a loudspeaker and did a ‘Showtime.’ Everyone looked at their phones, ignoring him. After his routine he and a companion went around proffered their upturned baseball caps.
      Then the performer started insulting everyone for ignoring him.
      Naturally we ignored him.

    29. Sam says:

      I have lived in NYC 46 years and have never felt safe on the subway.

      I have lived in Tokyo for 2 years and have never felt unsafe on any train.

      • Isaac says:

        Never?? Come on, we have a lot to learn from Tokyo obviously but our Subway has still been very safe for at least the last ~10 years.

    30. Sylvia says:

      NEW YORKERS ALL WEARING MASKS CORRECTLY!!! Totally love it! Love that we keep going and don’t let anything keep Us from living!

    31. Julia Z. says:

      Maybe the cell phone addiction is a stress response? Not saying it is effective, and certainly one is less aware of their surroundings if looking down. But there is also some comfort in looking down at your phone, but really watching the guy next to you out of the corner of your eye. You wouldn’t want to look straight at someone.

    32. Robin says:

      What I keep thinking when I look at these photos is: Did these people agree to have their photos published? Am I the only one who’s sometimes somewhere I’m not supposed to be, like ‘Honey what were you doing on the #1 train when you said you were in Houston all last week?’

    33. Ghu says:

      Nobody under 50 cares about this fear mongering nonsense

    34. Jeff says:

      Now that Cuomo is gone, BRING BACK ANDY BYFORD!!

      • Transit rider says:

        Yes, Bring Andy back. He thinks barriers can be put in NYC subways. Fire all those negative people in MTA leadership and bring in some can-do leaders! For decades they have done nothing!

    35. Tom says:

      MTA just dropped a study basically telling everyone BARRIERS AIN’T HAPPENING. 🤷‍♂️ https://gothamist.com/news/mta-drops-3000-page-2019-report-show-problems-platform-doors-amid-calls-better-track-safety

    36. Fi says:

      Well done for showing how oblivious we all can become when our hands, eyes and brain are GLUED to the stupid phone!

    37. Safetyforall says:

      We need subway barriers. Even if people are alert, the subways are dangerous and too many people have been injured. Over 50 people have been killed by trains in just the first 8 months of 2021, according to NYPost. Over 28,000 people signed for subway barriers. Sign and share https://www.change.org/SafetyForAllNY Enough is enough! St Petersburg Russia has had subway barriers since the 60s. Lost the war to space,but Russia is focused more on protecting people than us? Embarrassing!