Subways are Not Homeless Shelters | Opinion

Newsflash: American transit systems are not social science labs. Subway stations are not homeless shelters; they are not drug injection sites, halfway houses or mental institutions.

Subways are for straphangers. The Biden administration can pontificate all it wants about the importance of transportation infrastructure, but what good is it if progressives allow subway systems in cities like New York to fall into a state of peril and disorder?

Unfortunately, it seems like a radical statement these days to say that treating people with social and mental ailments should not require that we tolerate them ruining our commutes.

I know that goes against the "progressive" notion that removing homeless people or drug addicts from the subways—or stopping farebeaters to screen out violent felons with open warrants—would somehow be immoral. But what exactly is progressive about allowing homeless encampments to be strewn across platforms, or vagrants to sleep in their own filth, befouling entire subway cars? How is it progressive to let heroin addicts shoot up in plain sight? How is it progressive to allow seriously mentally ill people to wander around in dangerous confined spaces, around thousands of people who could become targets of a violent episode?

These people need help. That is without question. Progressives are not wrong when they point out that many services are lacking. It's worthwhile and important to debate how best to help them and where they should go, but it's false to say that not allowing them to remain in our subways is a moral failure. We are not treating them on the train.

Recently, some New Yorkers have begun gazing with envy at platform barrier doors employed by subway systems across the world, as though they would solve all our problems. Given the staggering costs of installing automatic barriers on 472 stations (the MTA estimates $7 billion for a just a quarter of them) and transforming the signal system along 248 miles of track, the problematic logistics of such an endeavor and the MTA's track record of generation-long projects, perhaps we should do something now. Call me crazy, but I think New Yorkers would prefer a 2022 improvement to a 2050 pipe dream.

New York City subway
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 19: People board a subway on January 19, 2022 in New York City. The New York City subway system, the nation's largest, has come under increasing scrutiny following the violent death of a 40-year old woman last week in the Times Square subway station. Michelle Go was pushed by a homeless man with a psychiatric history into an oncoming train. The event has shocked New Yorkers and increased pressure on the new mayor, Eric Adams, to add police and homeless outreach teams to the city's subways. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

We can learn some lessons by looking to other cities around the world.

In the Seoul and Tokyo subway systems, which have two of the highest riderships in the world, there is virtually no crime and no homelessness. That's because both have a zero-tolerance policy for farebeating or vagrancy—and their stations and cars are cleaner than most hospitals. Despite protests from a vocal minority, Tokyo began making a concerted effort to remove vagrants from stations in 2006.

On the other hand, cities with progressive leadership and more lenient criminal policies—like London and Paris—have experienced upticks in subway crime over the past few years. In Paris, it got so bad on the Metro that train drivers refused to stop at stations that were infamous for being riddled with drug addicts and criminals. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo was pressured to ban addicts from stations and parks. The pressure came not from those inside her own Socialist bubble, but from a protest movement led by workaday Parisians documenting their city's public deterioration with the hashtag #SaccageParis.

Mayor Eric Adams, a frequent straphanger himself, clearly understands that people won't ride the subways if they feel unsafe—and that would put a wrench in all his plans to help this city recover from a devastating pandemic and its economic aftereffects.

He has a unique opportunity to show the world that large, progressive cities can be governed by progressive Democrats without sacrificing public safety.

I hope he will seize it.

Joe Borelli is the Minority Leader of the New York City Council.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.