The New York City subway system is facing a renewed challenge after Tuesday’s mass shooting: Making New Yorkers feel safe on the rails, which is seen as critical to the city’s overall recovery from two years of COVID lockdown.

“The subway is iconic, it’s world famous, it’s the center of the world in many respects,” said Danny Pearlstein of the public transit advocacy group Riders Alliance. “And it is vulnerable, and cannot be hardened entirely by attacks like this, and millions of riders riding now prove how resilient we are in spite of that.”

Police said a man wearing a gas mask and green construction vest detonated a smoke device aboard a rush hour N train Tuesday morning, then began shooting. At least 10 people were shot, and five were in critical condition, though all were expected to survive as of Tuesday evening.

The MTA, already contending with fewer riders and more incidents of crime than before the pandemic, will be tested more than ever in the coming days and weeks. Most immediately, Mayor Eric Adams pledged to double the number of officers patrolling the subways. That’s in addition to 1,000 additional NYPD officers redeployed there earlier this year given a spike in crime.

“We’re telling passengers if they see something, say something, and do something by communicating with the law enforcement officers who will be in the system,” Adams said on WNYC Tuesday afternoon. “I want my officers riding the train, at the stations. We need that omnipresence.”

But the question going forward will be whether an increased law enforcement presence can prevent this sort of rare and violent crime. Pearlstein noted that there were officers on the platform in Times Square when Michelle Go was pushed onto the tracks and killed earlier this year. And he said that it’s impossible to monitor all trains and corridors of the vast network at all times. Given that, Pearlstein hopes that the incident isn’t sensationalized and used by politicians to attack the subway system as being a crime-ridden throwback to the 1980s.

“What we’ve seen as fewer people have ridden the subway is there’s a lot more hand-wringing about the subway by people who aren’t on it,” he said. “So much of the rhetoric is doing damage and is actually making people feel less safe and is doing nothing to increase ridership.”

While transit crimes are up 68% so far this year compared to the same time last year (617 incidents compared to 367), according to the NYPD, crime is down 18% from the start of the pandemic.

Despite fears, most riders have returned. More than 3 million people each day ride the subway, Pearlstein said, down from 5.5 million at its pre-pandemic peak.

Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, praised the agency’s recent investment in cameras, though ABC Channel 7 reported that there were no working cameras at the station where the incident occurred. Daglian said cameras have “already proven to be a tremendous asset in catching criminals.”

She said she hoped that cameras in other stations might have captured the shooter. She also said the incident demonstrates the need for a comprehensive surveillance system.

“Not only do we need cameras but we need them to provide a live feed and serve their purpose,” she said. “If more money is needed for more maintenance and upkeep of cameras, now is the time to ask for it. …This might be a time to do a wholesale review of infrastructure improvements.”

Research from the conservative Manhattan Institute shows that there were seven murders on the subway each of the last two years — after more than two decades in which the annual average was 1.43. There have been two homicides on the subway in 2022.

Hannah Meyers, director of policing and public safety for the Manhattan Institute, said more policing is the answer.

“There is a deterrent effect with them just being there,” she said. She also argued that policing low-level offenses — like jumping turnstiles — prevents larger crimes. “You can’t commit a crime on the subway if you can’t get in,” she said.

After years of decreasing crime, the “sense of threat” in New York had diminished, and people began questioning the need for police, Meyers said. But now, she believes the public’s appetite is shifting toward more policing, just as it did in the wake of 9/11.

“They’re going to be scared of getting on the train because of shovers, and now they’re going to be scared to get on the train because of active shooters,” she said.

The NYPD is indeed focusing more on low-level quality-of-life issues, and to that end the number of arrests in the subway has surged 64% compared to last year, including more than 17,000 summons for fare evasion, 1,400 for smoking, and 600 for obstruction of seats.

Meyers, who worked with the NYPD on counter-terrorism, said fears of crime are magnified underground in the subway compared to on the street.

“This is going to be such a heavy blow to the system, to the city’s recovery, to everything subway ridership does for the city,” Meyers said. “It’s really sad.”

Several straphangers interviewed in Sunset Park after the shootings said they were reticent about returning to the trains.

“This is a situation that really scared me,” said Yesenia Rodriguez, 29. “I won’t take the train for a long time, maybe…It’s not going to be something that you can erase from your mind.”

Whitney Hu, a community organizer in South Brooklyn, said she expects more police officers at her subway station, the site of the attack. She called Sunset Park “a village in a city,” and said the Asian community in the area relies on it in part because it connects directly to Chinatown in Manhattan. So, she said she expects some will welcome the greater police presence, even though she sees police as too focused on minor issues, like homelessness, and won’t provide true safety in the long term.

“I am always at a loss, and hurt, when communities of color demand more police,” she said. “But at the same it’s the only thing that communities of color are given when it comes to public safety, so it’s a tool that we reach for the most.”

Hu noted that there was a shooting with multiple victims less than a year ago in Times Square, one of the most heavily policed places in the city, and that still didn’t prevent the tragedy. She wants a different, systemic approach to improving public safety: More affordable housing, job opportunities, and early intervention mental health services.

“So when the dust settles, I do think this is a moment to really reflect on the fact that all the data, all the statistics, and also anecdotally from what we’ve seen, we have to try something else, and we have to start thinking of gun violence as a public safety issue and find ways that are preventative — or this is going to keep happening,” she said. “And I don’t know how much more my heart can take if this keeps happening.”

Caroline Lewis contributed reporting to this story.