The Commute: There Is A Difference Between Rule Enforcement And Passenger Harassment

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The oft-embattled, unfairly treated subway photographer. Source: Joshua Todd / Flickr

The oft-embattled, unfairly treated subway photographer. Source: Joshua Todd / Flickr

THE COMMUTE: However, it is all the same to the MTA.

In using the transit system in New York, there are rules one must follow. When they are not followed, there are and should be ramifications. The rules, however, need to make sense; the process for fighting summonses needs to be a fair one, and the punishment should fit the crime. However, not all the rules make sense, the process is not fair, and the punishment is not always just. Worse yet, you can be fined or even arrested for doing nothing wrong and not breaking any rule or law, yet you can also be found guilty! That is just wrong.

A few weeks ago I gave an example from 1904 from the New York Trolley Museum in Kingston, New York, in which the punishment was so severe, it was intended more as an incentive for following the rules than it was to raise revenue. Today, we are more interested in raising revenue through harassing passengers than in meting out justice. That leaves a bad taste in the transit rider’s mouth and certainly does nothing to encourage the use of mass transit. In fact, it serves to do the opposite.

Readers of Subchat have long read about the harassment that hobbyist photographers face, especially since 9/11. Many have been summoned or arrested simply for taking pictures of what they love — trains, although non-commercial photography without the use of a tripod or ancillary equipment is perfectly legal in New York City. Uninformed police officers, who believe the practice is illegal, continue to harass photographers, today although as far back as 2006, the MTA had reminded its officers that the practice is legal.

If someone is trespassing in order to take a photograph, that is another story and those people should be prosecuted, but that is not what we are talking about. There are also activities, such as Showtime, which endangers passengers and should not be tolerated. There furthermore needs to be enforcement for those who engage in panhandling, which also discourages mass transit use, and those who evade the fare.

However, walking between subway cars while the train is standing still at a terminal in order to find a seat or to get to the car nearest your exit to save you up to five minutes should be allowed, but has been against the law for the past several years. It is even debatable if walking between cars of 50 or 61 feet in length is even dangerous since it was allowed without problems since the subways began operation.

Then a few riders who rode between the cars, most of whom had a few too many or were doing acrobatics, got killed, and all of a sudden it is illegal. Before subway cars were air-conditioned, you would regularly see steady streams of passengers — up to 50 at a time — walk between cars, and none of them fell between the cars, even when trains were turning. I did it hundreds of times back when it was legal and never even had a close call. Now it is a moneymaker. Cross between cars even when the train is not moving and risk a $75 fine.

Rules exist for a reason, for example, not to occupy two seats by placing a bag on one of them. That prevents someone else from sitting. However, there have been incidents at 3 in the morning, sometimes when there are only one or two passengers in the entire subway car, when this rule was enforced. Not even a warning given — just a humongous fine issued. No one is being deprived of a seat, and perhaps the floor was too wet or too dirty for the bag to be placed there. Doesn’t matter.

What about the issuance of a summons to a pregnant lady who decided to briefly rest on the stairway because of an insufficient number of benches being available? Again, no warning. Just a summons issued.

In 2013, Sheepshead Bites ran a story about how subway passengers are being arrested everyday for such things as dancing on a subway platform. At least, the police officers had enough common sense not to arrest or fine the organizers of Improv Everywhere’s Subway Spa at 34th Street a few weeks ago. They weren’t hurting anyone or posing any danger. Just giving people a little laugh, which is so needed in the subway.

In 2011, we told the plight of Aaron Goldberg who was given a summons for riding an SBS bus when both machines at the stop he boarded at were out of order. Others were told by the bus driver it was okay to board under those circumstances and purchase a ticket at the next stop. They were issued summonses anyway when the Eagle Team boarded after the doors opened, preventing them from getting off. Goldberg spoke about having to wait four or five hours and having to appear multiple times for a five-minute hearing. That was three years ago. Has anything been done to make the process more fair so innocent people do not choose to pay just because of the inconvenience and time lost from work? No.

You can argue that all these people (with the exception of the photographers) were technically doing something illegal and deserved to be summonsed or arrested. However, look at the case of two individuals who were fined for the legal act of staying on the subway after Brooklyn Bridge as it looped around the defunct City Hall subway station a few weeks ago. They were also found guilty of not breaking any law.

The Transit Adjudication Bureau (TAB) is not required to prove any laws were broken, but can find anyone guilty for any reason. Read Ben Kabak’s excellent review of what happened. Now the MTA will intervene after all the publicity this case has received but no one is attempting to fix a broken making system, the TAB.

At the Parking Violations Bureau, hearing officers are reappointed according to the number of guilty verdicts they dispense. That is clearly a conflict of interest. The objective should be administering justice — not finding as many people guilty as possible just to raise revenue. Are TAB judges reappointed in the same manner? Is the process intentionally lengthy and cumbersome to discourage the fighting of wrongful summonses? It certainly seems so.

The MTA needs to do everything in its power to encourage the use of mass transit. Taking advantage of its riders to unfairly extort money from them through TAB and stealing money from riders on their MetroCards, as I mentioned last week, does not send the message to use mass transit rather than drive.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at]sheepsheadbites [dot]com.

  • guest

    A very truthful article and at the same time very sad as what has happened over the past 15 years. All about taking money from your consumers because we can’t do anything about it. Monopolies are a bitch.

  • Subway Stinker

    Like those small sleepy towns that dotted the South, NYC now relies on ticket traps and tricks to fund municipal services. Those old pre-Interstate 95 speed traps to Florida have been relocated to the city of NY. I cannot fault the NYPD for that, but I do fault our law makers, both on the city and state levels.

    • Jeremy Topaz

      I can fault NYPD, It is their responsibility to know when to draw the line.
      I do agree the politicians are the real disease. If it weren’t for those smelly unions filled with so many dupes and fools – maybe NYC would have a chance of being the most in-demand place to live in the world.

      • Supporter of One Party Rule

        Jeremy, thanks for the laugh about NYC in demand. If NYC was already not the most in-demand place to live in the world, why has our population grown, shortage of apartments, crowded everything and highest rents. Gimme a break pal, NYC is the most in-demand place in the world.

        • Jeremy Topaz

          Maybe in Manhattan, but no longer. Now that demand has metastasized into Brooklyn. My prediction is, within the next 20 years or so that Manhattan, will become an all-or-nothing city. All will be rich with the homeless being those that can no longer afford to live there.

          What you can ‘splain to me Lucy is why there is such a demand to live in such an expensive place and there is a consistent number of homeless?

      • Allan Rosen

        There are many problems with unions, but they are a necessary evil. You have no idea how much advantage management would take of its employees if not for unions.

        • Brightonresident

          Unions are NOT evil! They are a response to evil management and business that take advantage of its workers!!!!!

        • Gompers

          Honest unions are not evil. Like some fellow said, we would not have weekends without them. They are a good counter weight to bad and greedy management, and work well with good and effective managers.

          • Allan Rosen

            They are both good and bad.

            Good for the reasons you both stated and bad because they insist on work rules that limit the flexibility of management that reduces efficiency. The LIRR has many outdated rules and NYCT can’t hire part time bus drivers so they must pay for swing shifts for four hours while bus drivers sleep or play cards.

  • winson

    I’m one of those train enthusiasts who get stopped frequently for taking photos and videos

  • Andrew

    Tip: The train isn’t going to leave the terminal until the green starting lights turn on and the bell rings. So there’s no need to walk through the train. It’s easier, faster, and safer to simply walk along the platform until the bell rings and then board the train.

    (Some of the pigeons at Far Rockaway have apparently figured this out!)

    There you go. I suppose I just saved you $75.

    • Jeremy Topaz

      I agree. But what difference does it make when going through the train when it is not moving, yet, you want to guarantee you do not want to miss the train?

      • Andrew

        1. Because the passages between cars are slippery when wet. If I had written a rule for liability reasons, I certainly don’t think I’d want to have included a specific exemption that might allow someone to slip and fall onto the roadbed. (While walking between cars is a lot safer on a stopped train is a lot safer than walking between cars on a moving train, it’s still nowhere near as safe as walking along the platform.)

        2. Because the train starts moving with a jolt, and anybody who had been walking between cars assuming that the train wasn’t going to move could slip and fall when it starts moving unexpectedly (perhaps he didn’t notice the announcement, or perhaps the PA wasn’t working in the car he was in when the announcement was made). Again, if I had written a rule for liability reasons, I don’t want to have included a specific exemption that might allow someone to slip and fall onto the roadbed.

        3. Because there’s no need to complicate the rule with exemptions. If you walk along the platform and board the train as soon as the bell rings, you won’t miss the train, and you may have made it father down the train because you didn’t have to allow down to open each of the doors.

        Personally, I would have preferred if passage between cars had remained permitted, along with a PR campaign demonstrating how to do so safely – by holding on to the grab irons. I cringe when I see people walking between cars (even while the train is stopped!) without holding onto anything. But it’s certainly not unusual for a subway system to ban passage between cars – come to think of it, off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single system without open gangways that permits it.

        • Allan Rosen

          If walking between cars is so dangerous, why was it allowed for over 90 years without any problems? And people used to do it all the time. The fact is that it is only dangerous if you are also doing something else you shoudn’t be doing, like drinking or doing acrobatics between cars.

          It’s like when we were in elementary school. One student does something dumb and the entire class is punished.

          As far as comlpicating the rule with exemptions, that is utterly ridiculous. Laws have exemptions all the time and they work just fine. It makes sense to tailor laws to the specific circumstances. Why ban a left turn at all times if a problem only exists during certain hours?

          There you go again defending the MTA.

          • Andrew

            As I said yesterday: “I would have preferred if passage between cars had remained permitted, along with a PR campaign demonstrating how to do so safely.” I don’t like the rule. But I can certainly understand why it exists. In a word: liability.

            Still awaiting your explanation of why you prefer to walk between cars at a terminal rather than walking along the platform until the bell rings, which is safer, faster, and easier.

          • Allan Rosen

            How much time do you have from the time the bell rings until the doors close?

          • Andrew

            If the conductor’s in the cab and ready to go and waiting for the lights, I’d guess probably about 10-15 seconds, as an absolute minimum, but usually he isn’t quite so ready to pounce on it. And if you’re in the front half of the train, you get a few extra seconds, since the conductor always closes the rear section before the front section.

            If you’re (apparently) so concerned about missing the train even where you can hear the bell and where the conductor can see you walking along the platform edge, why aren’t you concerned about finding yourself unexpectedly between cars (where you can’t hear the bell and where the conductor can’t see you) when the train jolts forward?

          • Allan Rosen

            You can always hear the chimes when the doors close so you know the train is about to move and if you are holding on with both hands, the jolt poses no danger anyway.

            I have been riding trains for 60 years and never heard a bell ring before the doors close. I wonder how many others besides you know about it and if it is loud enough for everyone to hear.

          • Andrew

            As I said yesterday (in a different context), you learn something new every day. I’ve been trying to tell you about this since yesterday, but you’ve been so busy criticizing me that it apparently took you three posts to notice. That you’ve never noticed them in all this time is telling, but I’m glad I could save you $75.

            According to this post, green starting lights – and I assume bells to go with them – have been around since the mid-1980’s. As far as I know, every regular terminal has them (except for some reason on the 42nd Street shuttle, where the countdown clock hitting 0 seems to serve as a substitute), although some short-turn locations and temporary (GO) terminals may not.

            The bell is typically quite loud, and regular riders at terminals seem to know exactly what it means. (As I said, even the pigeons know about it.) Listen for it when you’re next at Brighton Beach.

          • Allan Rosen

            That explains some things. I used Utica Avenue Eastern Parkway everyday between 1967 and 1977, before they were instituted, and Brighton Beach 50% of the time between 1978 and 1995. So it was in effect for only about 10 of the almost 30 years I regularly used a terminal station.

            As for saving me money, you have saved me none since I just enter the first car since the ban was instituted. You maybe will save me a few minutes, which doesn’t mean that much to someone not going to work or school.

          • Allan Rosen

            I have probably heard the bell. Just never knew what it meant. You probably also have a reason to explain why the MTA wouldn’t want to publicize what it means to give the riders a slight advantage.

          • Andrew

            You don’t think there’s already information overload around the subway system, and now you want more information posted on something of relevance to a small fraction of riders (only those who board at terminals), of whom most regular riders figure it out on their own, and which is not critical information for anyone?

            You’re entitled to your opinion, but I personally don’t think that’s a good idea.

            The system exists for dispatching purposes. It’s not a secret (it’s even been mentioned in the Times), and riders who find it useful can take advantage of it. Do you also think that the MTA should post public notices if the starting bell system isn’t in use for some reason, with trains being dispatched in another fashion?

          • Allan Rosen

            There is no information overload around the subway system. If anything, the postings for reroutes isn’t widespread enough as others have pointed out with crucial information missing or wrong in certain cases.

            And who said the information needs to be posted everywhere? A small sign at each end of important terminal stations near the stairway entrance to the platform is all that would be necessary. it might not be noticed the first time, but regular station users will eventually see it. It does not have to be a huge sign.

            But naturally, as I thought, you would find a reason to side with the MTA. And if the bell isn’t in use at times, you think it is still a good idea to walk along the platform and possibly miss your train?

          • Andrew

            There is no information overload around the subway system.

            !!!!!

            And who said the information needs to be posted everywhere? A small sign at each end of important terminal stations near the stairway entrance to the platform is all that would be necessary. it might not be noticed the first time, but regular station users will eventually see it. It does not have to be a huge sign.

            Regular riders manage to figure it out just fine without the clutter of yet another sign. Just because you never noticed it doesn’t mean that nobody else does.

          • Andrew

            Ah, so you were commenting on something that you haven’t had personal experience with in 19 years, while stubbornly resisting new information that might have been relevant. Got it.

          • Allan Rosen

            No, that is not what I said.

            I still use Brighton Beach station but not on a daily basis. With the tone of your comments, such as this one, you have the nerve to wonder why I am so “busy criticizing you”.

          • Subway Stinker

            Sorry Allan but Liability is more of a problem in recent years than 90 years ago. We have become a much more litigious society than in the earlier part of the 20th century, and our runaway juries find for even the most careless and blameworthy plaintiffs. In your heart, you know I am right.

          • Allan Rosen

            Yes, you are correct, but there is also the possibility of better education notifying passengers how to safely cross between cars. And juries only rule for the plaintiff if negligence can be proven.

            As I stated elsewhere, do you also believe we should spend millions to encase each subway station to eliminate the possibility of falling onto the platform because some passengers stand too close to the edge of the platform or lean over to see if a train is coming? That would also reduce liability.

            I think there are better ways to spend limited resources.