Southern Brooklyn

The Commute: There Is A Difference Between Rule Enforcement And Passenger Harassment

The oft-embattled, unfairly treated subway photographer. Source: Joshua Todd / Flickr
The oft-embattled, unfairly treated subway photographer. Source: Joshua Todd / Flickr

THE COMMUTE: However, it is all the same to the MTA.

In using the transit system in New York, there are rules one must follow. When they are not followed, there are and should be ramifications. The rules, however, need to make sense; the process for fighting summonses needs to be a fair one, and the punishment should fit the crime. However, not all the rules make sense, the process is not fair, and the punishment is not always just. Worse yet, you can be fined or even arrested for doing nothing wrong and not breaking any rule or law, yet you can also be found guilty! That is just wrong.

A few weeks ago I gave an example from 1904 from the New York Trolley Museum in Kingston, New York, in which the punishment was so severe, it was intended more as an incentive for following the rules than it was to raise revenue. Today, we are more interested in raising revenue through harassing passengers than in meting out justice. That leaves a bad taste in the transit rider’s mouth and certainly does nothing to encourage the use of mass transit. In fact, it serves to do the opposite.

Readers of Subchat have long read about the harassment that hobbyist photographers face, especially since 9/11. Many have been summoned or arrested simply for taking pictures of what they love — trains, although non-commercial photography without the use of a tripod or ancillary equipment is perfectly legal in New York City. Uninformed police officers, who believe the practice is illegal, continue to harass photographers, today although as far back as 2006, the MTA had reminded its officers that the practice is legal.

If someone is trespassing in order to take a photograph, that is another story and those people should be prosecuted, but that is not what we are talking about. There are also activities, such as Showtime, which endangers passengers and should not be tolerated. There furthermore needs to be enforcement for those who engage in panhandling, which also discourages mass transit use, and those who evade the fare.

However, walking between subway cars while the train is standing still at a terminal in order to find a seat or to get to the car nearest your exit to save you up to five minutes should be allowed, but has been against the law for the past several years. It is even debatable if walking between cars of 50 or 61 feet in length is even dangerous since it was allowed without problems since the subways began operation.

Then a few riders who rode between the cars, most of whom had a few too many or were doing acrobatics, got killed, and all of a sudden it is illegal. Before subway cars were air-conditioned, you would regularly see steady streams of passengers — up to 50 at a time — walk between cars, and none of them fell between the cars, even when trains were turning. I did it hundreds of times back when it was legal and never even had a close call. Now it is a moneymaker. Cross between cars even when the train is not moving and risk a $75 fine.

Rules exist for a reason, for example, not to occupy two seats by placing a bag on one of them. That prevents someone else from sitting. However, there have been incidents at 3 in the morning, sometimes when there are only one or two passengers in the entire subway car, when this rule was enforced. Not even a warning given — just a humongous fine issued. No one is being deprived of a seat, and perhaps the floor was too wet or too dirty for the bag to be placed there. Doesn’t matter.

What about the issuance of a summons to a pregnant lady who decided to briefly rest on the stairway because of an insufficient number of benches being available? Again, no warning. Just a summons issued.

In 2013, Sheepshead Bites ran a story about how subway passengers are being arrested everyday for such things as dancing on a subway platform. At least, the police officers had enough common sense not to arrest or fine the organizers of Improv Everywhere’s Subway Spa at 34th Street a few weeks ago. They weren’t hurting anyone or posing any danger. Just giving people a little laugh, which is so needed in the subway.

In 2011, we told the plight of Aaron Goldberg who was given a summons for riding an SBS bus when both machines at the stop he boarded at were out of order. Others were told by the bus driver it was okay to board under those circumstances and purchase a ticket at the next stop. They were issued summonses anyway when the Eagle Team boarded after the doors opened, preventing them from getting off. Goldberg spoke about having to wait four or five hours and having to appear multiple times for a five-minute hearing. That was three years ago. Has anything been done to make the process more fair so innocent people do not choose to pay just because of the inconvenience and time lost from work? No.

You can argue that all these people (with the exception of the photographers) were technically doing something illegal and deserved to be summonsed or arrested. However, look at the case of two individuals who were fined for the legal act of staying on the subway after Brooklyn Bridge as it looped around the defunct City Hall subway station a few weeks ago. They were also found guilty of not breaking any law.

The Transit Adjudication Bureau (TAB) is not required to prove any laws were broken, but can find anyone guilty for any reason. Read Ben Kabak’s excellent review of what happened. Now the MTA will intervene after all the publicity this case has received but no one is attempting to fix a broken making system, the TAB.

At the Parking Violations Bureau, hearing officers are reappointed according to the number of guilty verdicts they dispense. That is clearly a conflict of interest. The objective should be administering justice — not finding as many people guilty as possible just to raise revenue. Are TAB judges reappointed in the same manner? Is the process intentionally lengthy and cumbersome to discourage the fighting of wrongful summonses? It certainly seems so.

The MTA needs to do everything in its power to encourage the use of mass transit. Taking advantage of its riders to unfairly extort money from them through TAB and stealing money from riders on their MetroCards, as I mentioned last week, does not send the message to use mass transit rather than drive.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.