A Sign of the Times

When you take the subway in New York, look about. You may recognize a sign of the times, or maybe you won’t.

In the 1980s, “safety zones” were constructed by the New York Transit Authority in an attempt to make taking the subway a bit  less frightening.

Now, those signs are coming down. Homage to security cameras and an increase police presence.

The “Don’t Honk” signs disappeared several years ago. Placards telling dog owners to get the poop vanished from New York City streets soon after.

Recently, another instruction  displayed in the city’s public area is being taken down: where to remain for a  train late at night.

The instructions were unnoticed by many.

He was a lifelong New Yorker and had frequently hopped the subway at Astor Place station. Standing under a sign showing where riders would wait “late at night” Eddie says, “I never saw it. Never noticed it.”

“What does that involve?” he asked.

Eddie, a daily subway commuter, has company. While still appreciated by some, the assigned waiting areas — well-lit areas within view  of a station operator — are foreign to riders today. Soon, the signs will be more obscure.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority cites increasing night ridership and decreasing crime as the reason for eliminating the waiting area signage while the authorities renovate stations.

In the 1950s, the waiting areas were promoted as a low-cost way to give a sense of safety. They’ve become obsolete relics of an unruly era.

Kevin Ortiz, a spokesperson for the authority, says several high-tech safety features displaced the idea of the waiting areas.  Included in the newer safety methods are thousands of security camera and intercom on platforms.

“Some stations have the signage, but we don’t know how many,” Ortiz said.

While most riders aren’t aware of the waiting areas, some individuals still use them.

Pelumi Adegawa is one. Sitting in the waiting zone in  the Grant Avenue location in Brooklyn, Adegawa said, “It’s cooler up here. You don’t have to see the rats either.”

Vince Coogan, director of the Police Department’s Transit Bureau, said he doesn’t know if the areas are useful in discouraging crime. He did note that crime on city transportation has dropped. Between 1990 and 2014, the transit experienced 87% fewer felonies according to law enforcement data. When at the same time, annual subway ridership was doubling.

A placebo effect may be at work. People may feel more secure because they are in the “safety zone.”

The emotional reassurance might be all that some need.

Christine Zhang was not aware she was occupying the waiting area and did not seek the areas. She does believe the safety zones may give peace of mind to tourists and newcomers.

“Maybe they have the perception that New York is dangerous and need the zones for a sense of security,” Zhang said.

The waiting area signs were installed in the 1980s as a part of a series of security features.

“When I moved here, it was intimidating to take the subway,” said David Gunn, the authority’s president between 1984 and 1990.

Crime was at high levels in the cars and stations. Train breakdowns, graffiti and even cars catching fire were common problems.