Everybody wants to be safe. Apparently, the word is out that it may not be safe on the New York City subways, so Governor Kathy Hochul has stepped into the breach and is providing 1000 New York national guardsmen and state police to check bags at the entrance to major subway stations like Grand Central and Times Square.

You may ask what does this have to do with commercial real estate. The answer is a great deal. The baseline for a successful city is that its citizens and visitors must feel and actually be safe to go about their business. Like Paris, London and Tokyo, the trains are the major arteries that transport us from home to work and leisure. If those arteries can’t function, and people are afraid to use them, the city is diminished and endangered as we are in competition with other major American cities for companies and workers who can choose their location. Anyone who has been following the comments of major CEOs like Ken Griffin of Citadel (which is expanding in NYC, by the way), knows that they are placing significant weight on the safety and quality of life of cities in making major real estate decisions that involve billions of dollars in economic activity and tax revenue. As a result, attention must be paid.

So, the Governor is right by taking some dramatic action by placing the Guard in the subways, even if it may be more show than substance. The bag checks are a good idea as far as it goes, but it needs some refinement.

Perhaps most importantly, the approach misses the mark on a strategic level. Criminals with any wits can evade the National Guard by not carrying bags (have you ever seen a criminal with a shopping bag or a knapsack) and avoiding entry at stations where there is a checkpoint.

Further, more than 80% of the subway crime occurs on the tracks and the trains. Accordingly, there has to be a better spatial deployment of the forces. Some of that crime occurs at the major stations, but a lot happens at odd hours throughout the city, and seemingly random attacks on passengers (some arising from disputes, others not) and transit workers. We can’t have police everywhere, all the time, but the more the better. And they shouldn’t just be in Manhattan.

It also occurs to me that congestion pricing is expected to be implemented soon. This is supposed to raise in the neighborhood of $1 billion a year for the MTA. Why not take a substantial chunk of that money and allocate it to manpower and new technology to help fight crime. Statistics show that the situation on the trains is not great, but it is somewhat better than it was at the beginning of Covid. The same is true on the street. Speaking for myself, my greatest fear is the constant battle of the bikes, but that is the subject for another article.

I’m also not sure it helps to provide more negative publicity for those who already believe that New York is a hellhole by posting the army at the subways. Accordingly, it was a good idea to dial the situation back a bit by having the soldiers leave their rifles back at the base as they are not needed for the mission (there have been some unfortunate analogies to a banana republic, but let’s leave that to Woody Allen). It was initially a bit unnerving to see soldiers at the subways, but they were deployed at major locations after 9/11 as well.

Ironically, it’s not uncommon in my travels to meet people who are on their first trip to New York that tell me how safe they felt, or to meet people while I am out of town who say they used to enjoy visiting New York but they are now frightened to visit. Unsurprisingly, I have also noticed that a few of the usual suspects have been crowing at the latest developments as proving their point that New York is unsafe. On other hand, other commentators have contended that the extra security creates a self-fulfilling prophecy which will make the situation worse.

However, the naysayers are a small price to pay for progress. Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Two cheers for the Governor’s new plan, and let’s figure out ways to make it better.

Thank you,

Ruth Colp-Haber

Counselor of Real Estate
Fellow of Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors

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Wharton Property Advisors