New York City is on pace for nearly 100 subway deaths in 2013, and ideas to keep the numbers down are hard to come by.
Pressed for a comprehensive study of the situation, New York City Transit president and acting Metropolitan Transit Authority CEO Thomas Prendergast delivered a report yesterday, with the understated title: "Customer Contact With Train Incident Report."
Its suggestions ranged from the simple to the intricate, but none are likely to do much good any time soon.
They fell into two categories: awareness and technology.
These efforts attempt to keep people off the tracks with a barrage of messages about the dangers involved. The MTA would use posters, brochures, and subway car cards.
Announcements in trains and stations would be more frequent and come with a "distinctive attention tone."
In addition to podcasts, print advertising campaigns, and warnings spread via YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, the MTA would distribute lapel buttons to its employees, reading, "Stand Back from the Edge."
On the last point, Gothamist opined: It "can't hurt, we guess."
The fundamental problem with the awareness campaign is that the risks of falling onto the tracks are clear to anyone who has seen a train enter a station.
Many deaths by train are suicides (between 30 and 40 per year over the past decade). Others are the consequences of drug or alcohol impairment, as the MTA report notes.
Medical conditions can play a role: In 2007, a man fell onto the tracks while having a seizure. (His life was saved by onlooker Wesley Autrey, who made that year's Time 100 list of most influential people.)
It is hard to see how warnings to back from the platform edge would help in these cases.
On rare occasions, people are pushed onto the tracks. This happened twice in December, fueling much of the attention now being paid to subway deaths. In the end, those deaths, especially frightening because they were seemingly random, may do more to keep riders away from the edge of the tracks than any MTA message.
The MTA report contained three suggestions that would proactively save lives, all of them based in new technology.
Platform barriers, which are used by many city's transit systems, would keep people off the tracks. They would also pose major engineering challenges and likely be extremely expensive.
The report mentioned "intrusion detection," and while it was light on details, it suggested developing a pilot program to explore its installation.
According to Capital, sensors that detect the presence of obstructions on the tracks are used in other cities and could be installed in New York.
The MTA is actively working on the third proposed idea: Help Points. Equipped with a bright blue light, these kiosks on subway platforms have an "Emergency" button that provide a "fast connection and audio response." If one rider falls on the tracks, another could alert MTA officers and stop an oncoming train, if time allowed.
But this reasonable, partial solution to the problem is still in its pilot phase. Only two stations have Help Points. In 2013-2014, the MTA plans to put 100 more in place. It will not equip each station with one until 2019.
Increased policing of the subway system, one possible way to keep people safe, is unlikely, says Sgt. Ed Mullins of the NYPD and president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association.
Putting many more police officers in trains and stations, is "not feasible," he told Business Insider.
Making everything more difficult, the MTA is short on cash. The latest report notes that upcoming projects to modernize the signaling system, improve emergency ventilation, install help points, and invest in train cars and buses will cost more than $40 billion over the next 20 years.
For an agency that has raised fares four times in five years, such costs do not leave a lot of room for solving tough problems.
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