Subway safety is critical to the MTA’s finances and a key issue in New York politics. But just how dangerous is riding the rails compared to recent years – or even just last month?

The issue has been linked to the slow rate of riders returning to the subways, creating a major problem for the MTA’s finances.

Here’s a rundown of the stakes of subway safety.

How dangerous is it right now?

Overall, most major crimes on transit are up this year compared to last year. But some of those numbers are skewed by low ridership during the pandemic.

There have been nine murders on New York’s subways so far this year, from shootings to stabbings and fatal shoves onto the tracks. Last year at this time there were six, according to the NYPD. From January to October in 2020, there were six. In 2019, there were two. There was one in 2018 and none in 2017.

There has also been an increase in rapes in the subways. There have been nine so far this year, compared to four last year, five in 2020, and three in 2019.

Felony assaults also show an increase between 2016 and 2022. As of Oct. 23, there have been 445 felony assaults, compared to 376 for the same time period last year.

But some major crime statistics are skewed by declining ridership during the pandemic. Grand larcenies plummeted in 2020, early in the pandemic, to 621, compared to 1,124 during the period of January to September 2019. The police said this was due to the low number of riders on the subway – there were fewer smartphones to steal and people to stick up. There have been 830 grand larcenies this year for the same period, which is still below 2019 numbers, as ridership hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Overall, major felony crimes of murder, burglary, grand larceny, assault, rape, and robbery show a 42% increase this year, compared to 2021. But if you compare those same stats to 2019, there has been a 4% decrease.

There were 3,534 crimes – including misdemeanors – aboard transit between January and September, according to the NYPD. In 2019, when the subways were full of people, there were 3,495 crimes in the same time period. That represents a 1% increase in crime.

By one measurement, playgrounds are actually more dangerous than the subways. There have been 27 shootings on playgrounds so far this year, while there have been 14 in the transit system.

Walking could be considered more dangerous than riding the rails. There have been 88 pedestrians killed by vehicles so far this year, according to the Department of Transportation. That’s roughly one person killed every three days on city streets.

Didn’t the NYPD say the subways were safe?

Just last month, the NYPD’s top uniformed officer Kenneth Corey said straphangers had experienced a remarkably safe summer.

Corey, the chief of department, hailed a joint effort by the city and state to combat crime, noting that crime in transit made up less than 2% of all crime in the city.

“That is at or near an all-time low for crime in transit,” Corey said on Sept. 19. “What I’m seeing right now is measurable sustained progress in addressing these conditions.”

When Corey spoke, there had been five murders on the subways – one fewer than during the same period last year.

The rosy rhetoric came to an end after a rash of violence on the subways that shook the NYPD and MTA. An argument on an L train ended with a man stabbed to death on Sept. 30. And in October, a Citi Field worker was randomly stabbed in a Bronx subway station and a 15-year-old was shot to death on an A train in Rockaway.

“Last month when I sat here at this meeting and I spoke of how we came out of the summer months, May through Labor Day, with overall crime reductions when compared to pre-pandemic reporting years, and that was true,” NYPD Transit Chief Jason Wilcox said at Monday’s MTA committee meeting. “We have now experienced a number of significant acts of violence on our subways.”

Last week, the NYPD announced Corey is retiring in November.

Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul recently announced a surge in police officers on the subways.

How are elected officials and authorities responding to the violence?

The violence prompted Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul last weekend to order 1,200 additional NYPD officers to patrol the subway system.

This comes after Adams added hundreds of officers to subways in January. The city also added 250 more in May of last year. In February of last year, 500 NYPD officers were dispatched to the subway system.

Over the next three years, the MTA also plans to add security cameras on every single subway car to help make riders feel safe and solve crimes.

Rep. Lee Zeldin, the Republican candidate for governor, has made subway safety a campaign issue.

“People who have changed their behavior – they're not riding the subway at the same hours. Maybe they're Jewish, they take their yarmulke off because they're afraid of being attacked,” Zeldin said during a debate with Hochul on Tuesday night.

Hochul seemed to hint at the gap between the perception of safety and reality.

“I walk the streets of New York City every day. I've taken the subways. This fear is real. There's facts that talk about statistics, which make a different case, but I'm also dealing with real human beings who are anxious about their kids getting on a subway or going to work,” Hochul said.

Straphanger Peter Norton felt the discourse around subway safety was over the top.

“I think about how people talk about it, but then I don’t see a whole lot,” said Norton, who was waiting at the Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue station. “It doesn't seem very different than it was a few years ago. It’s not entirely safe. But … it feels like there’s a lot of danger that gets overblown.”

Subway safety was an issue at the governor's debate featuring Rep. Lee Zeldin and Gov. Kathy Hochul.

Why is safety so critical to the MTA?

The MTA’s future depends on riders returning.

Last Wednesday, 3.8 million people rode the subways. That's still only 63% of pre-pandemic levels. Weekend ridership has returned more consistently. Last Sunday saw 1.7 million riders, which is 79% of pre-pandemic levels.

An MTA survey found in August 2022 that only 54% of customers felt safe or very safe on trains.

Nearly 70% of MTA customers felt there were not enough police in the subway system. Last year, a different survey found that 68% of “lapsed” subway riders didn’t feel safe returning to the trains.

“It’s scary because my kids and family members ride it, so it’s scary. So I really hope they do something about it, so people feel safe while they’re traveling,” Jemma Parris told Gothamist at the Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue station last week.

That fear represents a major problem for the MTA. A new analysis of MTA finances by the state comptroller predicts a $4.6 billion budget gap in four years if current ridership trends continue.

The agency is already saying it will need a new revenue stream to make up for the projected shortfall from lack of fares.

Tolls and fares represent the single largest source of revenue for the agency’s $16 billion budget. While drivers have returned to pre-pandemic levels, bus, train, and subway ridership have not.

The MTA hopes to get back to 1.3 billion riders a year in 2026. That’s a far cry from 2015, when subway ridership hit an all-time high of 1.8 billion riders a year.

But a perceived lack of safety is only one reason ridership remains low. Office occupancy in Manhattan is projected to surpass 50% by the end of this year, according to one analysis. That gap is another reason for the drop in straphangers.

Another factor is the drop in tourism. NYC & Company, which tracks tourism, expects there to be 56.3 million people visiting the city by the end of the year – about 85% of 2019 levels.

Are the subway crime concerns unique to New York City?

Crime increased around the country in 2020.

The nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice found that the national murder rate – the number of murders per 100,000 people – rose by nearly 30% in 2020. Assaults also spiked.

“2020 saw a real uptick in violent crime and a sort of relinquishment of some of the public safety gains made over the preceding three decades,” said Ames Grawert, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program.

Data shows a major uptick in gun violence nationwide. Grawert attributed some of the crime to disruptions caused by the pandemic, but he cautioned that it will take years to better understand the root causes.

“I don't think it's the case that crime is by any means out of control,” Grawert added.

With reporting by Rebecca Redelmeier and data help from Samantha Max.