What’s to be done about the subways is one of the big questions facing New York City right now. Earlier this week, I visited the M.T.A.’s offices to talk to Lieber, the agency’s new chairman. We met in a twentieth-floor conference room overlooking the Hudson River. Lieber is a confident, energetic man who previously helped manage the rebuild of the World Trade Center. He grew up in Manhattan and now lives in Brooklyn. Lately, he has been talking publicly about both the subway system’s slower-than-anticipated ridership rebound and the rise in reported crime numbers. At last month’s board meeting, a reporter asked him to address what “the line is between perception and reality of safety on the subway.” He replied, “I don’t know if I’m going to enter the Matrix with you on that one.”
During our conversation, he acknowledged the issues that have plagued Parsons/Archer, some of which he attributed to the station’s size. “It’s an incredibly important part of our transportation network,” he said. “The scale of that station, for better or worse, invites unplanned activities.” Many of the issues at Parsons/Archer, Lieber told me, are “long-term” problems. His particular focus right now is on combatting fare evasion and other violations of the subway system’s rules and norms, a topic which Mayor Adams has also been talking much about. Lieber considers swipers criminals and believes that their days are numbered, because a new system of digital turnstile scanners, OMNY, will soon have MetroCards going the way of the subway token. “Ultimately, the goal is to have the ability to do it all on the handheld, in some way,” he said, referring to riders’ smartphones. “The smartphone is part of almost everyone’s life.” Last month, Lieber announced that he was forming a “blue ribbon” panel to recommend responses to fare evasion. Like other city leaders, he insists that he will avoid mistakes made in the past in the name of public safety and the plans for his panel state that it will focus on “equity” and “education” as well as “enforcement.” I asked him what tools he thought were available beyond arrests and summonses. He talked about young people being “educable” and about changing the design of turnstiles and station-exit gates. The fare-evasion panel will also be looking for ways to increase participation in the city’s Fair Fares program, which offers discount MetroCards to New Yorkers living below the poverty line. Only two hundred thousand of the estimated eight hundred thousand New Yorkers currently eligible for the program use it.
My conversations with swipers were a reminder that the city can’t always anticipate the consequences of its policies—in the subways or anywhere else. At the AirTrain station, I asked Tyreek if he knew how swiping began. Did it go all the way back to the introduction of MetroCards, in the nineteen-nineties? No, he said. It really got going after a crackdown on fare evasion in the early two-thousands, when cops publicly prioritized arresting people for jumping the turnstiles. “They were locking you up like nothing,” Tyreek said. “They were fucking throwing you on the ground, literally, and locking you up. It sounds like nothing now—I’m thirty-four—but we were kids then.” Tyreek said the crackdown had made many would-be fare-beaters think twice, but it’s not as if they suddenly could afford the fare. Swipers stepped in to meet the demand for discount fares created by the city. It was an ad-hoc Fair Fares program, with no paperwork and no means-testing. “Through doing this, we learned so much shit,” Tyreek said. “We learned how to survive.”
A few days later, I returned to Parsons/Archer to catch the end of the morning commute. I stood near the place where Bethea was shot, and watched people stream through. The station was busy. That day, I saw homeless-outreach workers in orange windbreakers canvassing there. I also saw a good number of people jump the turnstiles. In the clerk’s booth, two uniformed cops chatted with the clerk. The turnstile-jumpers ignored their omnipresence. Many people using the station swiped themselves in, but others availed themselves of a slender swiper in a flat-brim cap. The swiper set up shop down a corridor, and he looked positively galant as he escorted his clients toward the turnstiles, swiped, and then ushered them through with a wave of his arm. He shook hands with people, and made small talk. “Morning.” “Morning.” “See you later, bro.” I watched him direct two women to a working MetroCard machine. “There, that one,” he said.
I approached the swiper, who agreed to talk to me as long as I didn’t print his name. He said he’d been working in the station for five years. For a time, he’d been working at a liquor store in addition to swiping. Then the pandemic hit, and he lost his job at the store. He said the station had got “rough” a few years ago, under the sway of some “troublemakers.” But he said those people were gone. “They left,” he said. As we spoke, a woman approached and asked the swiper if he had any unlimited MetroCards for sale. “Not today,” he said.
New York City has collectively paused to gasp at a number of grisly crimes in the past two years, but Bethea’s murder wasn’t one of them. The police held a press conference at Parsons/Archer shortly after the shooting, but media coverage of the case was minimal. Adams, who has made a point of visiting crime scenes during his first months in office, didn’t attend. The swiper with the flat-brim cap said he’d been in the station the day Bethea was shot. He’d known Bethea. He’d seen him lying on the ground. “That had nothing to do with swiping,” he said. “It just happened.”