Are you relatively new to this bustling metropolis? Don't be shy about it, everyone was new to New York once upon a time, except, of course, those battle-hardened residents who've lived here their whole lives and Know It All. One of these lifers works among us at Gothamist—publisher Jake Dobkin grew up in Park Slope and still resides there. He is now fielding questions—ask him anything by sending an email here, but be advised that Dobkin is "not sure you guys will be able to handle my realness." We can keep you anonymous if you prefer; just let us know what neighborhood you live in.

This week's question comes from a New Yorker who's a little freaked out following that Bedford Avenue L train panic from last weekend.

Dear Jake,

I live in Williamsburg and usually take the L train in from Bedford. Some days, if there’s a delay westbound, the platform gets insanely crowded—like no one can move, trains coming back from Manhattan can barely unload, and in general it just feels like a powder keg about to blow. Last weekend, there was actually a mini-riot and stampede. It's not clear what started it, maybe someone thinking they saw someone with a gun. The videos are scary as hell: dozens of people running and screaming, bags and shoes left behind them, all crushing up against the stairs at one end of the platform.

It's a miracle no one was pushed off the platform, and all I can think is what if this had happened during one of those crowded weekdays? Someone would definitely die. What can I do to avoid that person being me?


Scared Shitless on South 3rd

A native New Yorker responds.

Dear SSS3:

I sympathize! Those were scary videos; you could really feel the crowd's hysteria and blind panic. I think there's something about being on the subway—squeezed in underground, with limited escape routes—that makes people especially prone to overreaction and an animalistic need to push their way out of danger by any means necessary. Thankfully, these situations are rare, and with a little bit of knowledge and preparation, you can avoid the danger almost entirely.

The first necessary condition of a stampede is a dense crowd, and a true stampede, where the crowd all flees in one direction, trampling people in their path, is apparently very rare. It's behavior you see more in herds of cattle or horses spooked by loud noises or predators. The danger for humans is actually in a "crush." This can occur when a crowd reaches a certain high density and begins to behave a little like a fluid; as one person moves, they bump into another, and waves of motion form. If the wave is blocked, say by someone falling down, or by a fixed obstacle like a wall or gate, or is funneled into a bottleneck like a stairwell, the motion of the wave can force people up and on top of each other with such force that people can be asphyxiated.

The science of crowd control was invented to mitigate the risk of these events. That's why crush-prone events like festivals and sports games have so many people on duty directing the crowd, and so many exits, queues, and overflow areas to handle unexpected surges. The presence of authority figures like police or event organizers, armed with bullhorns or loudspeakers is especially important, because these can be used to quickly reduce panic by giving directions to the crowd. Of course, in an emergency, sometimes things happen so quickly that no one has time to figure out what's going on, and in that case, you will have to depend on yourself to stay safe. Here's how:

First, don't put yourself in danger in the first place. The critical risk of a crush begins when the crowd density increases beyond four people per square meter (picture a square three feet by three feet with four people in it—this is a shoulder-to-shoulder, face three inches from the head in front of you condition). If you're about to descend onto a subway platform, or exit a train, into a crowd like this, think again. Ride the train or walk to the next stop; it's better to get on or off at Lorimer and spend the extra ten minutes walking, than risk your life.

But let's say you don't have the opportunity to make that choice. Maybe it's one of those times where the conductor says "everybody off," and suddenly you're on a platform with 2,000 other people. Or maybe it's something like what happened this weekend, where you're just sitting there doing the crossword when suddenly someone screams "he's got a gun!" and the whole car takes off running. What then? Don't be a lemming. One thing I've learned monitoring New York City police and fire alerts for fifteen years: nine times out of ten, in our increasingly safe city, unless you see something with your own eyes or hear it with your own ears, it's almost certainly a false alarm. Take the five extra seconds to look around and orient yourself. Where are the exits? Where can you safely take shelter?

If you look at the videos, everyone is running for one end of the station at Bedford. Perhaps it was possible to run in the opposite direction, towards the Driggs exit. Or hide in or behind that police booth, or behind a subway column, or duck under a seat while staying on the subway car—anything to stay safe while staying out of the middle of a surging crowd all going for the same stairwell.

If you must travel with the mass of people pushing, keep your arms up to help give you space, and try to move diagonally within the group, so you're not pushing against it but are moving towards the edges. That's a safer place to be, with less people crowding and more options for escape. On your way out, try to help any nearby children or elderly people, because they tend to fare the worst in these situations.

What if all that advice fails and you find yourself literally at the center of a crushing crowd? Time to implement what one expert calls the "accordian method": "After you're pushed forward, like in a wave there's a lull. In that lull is your chance to move, and the way you move is on a diagonal, between pockets of people. There's always space between people. A couple of steps sideways, another wave surge, then another couple of steps in the next lull. You work your way out that way till you get to the periphery."

I asked the MTA if they have any specific instructions for customers during incidents like last weekend's platform panic. MTA communications director Jon Weinstein says, "The MTA works closely with partner law enforcement agencies to constantly review and assess responses to emergencies. Customers should follow the same best practices they would for any public space: remain calm, remain alert, and immediately notify law enforcement or other authorities whenever there’s a safety concern." (The NYPD did not respond to our inquiry about this issue.)

You will probably never need to use this information. In most New York emergencies, there are enough jaded, seen-it-all natives and longtime residents around to keep things calm. Remember the scenes from 9/11, or the 2003 blackout, with thousands of people marching shoulder-to-shoulder stoically over the bridges to get home. To paraphrase Kipling's poem, "If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs..." You can't get much realer as a New Yorker than that.

Stay safe,


N.B.: It's important to remember that the ongoing MTA transit apocalypse is creating the overcrowding circumstances that dramatically increase the chances of stampedes and crush events. Adequately funding the MTA isn't just about getting people to and from work; it can easily become a matter of life and death. Consider that as you research who to vote for in the September primary and November general election.

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