New York City Transit Interim President Sarah Feinberg Chairman appeared on Up Close with Bill Ritter to discuss a range of issues relating to the safety of the subway system as it prepares to reopen 24/7 service tomorrow.
A transcript of the interview appears below.
Bill Ritter: Before the pandemic, about six million people a day used the New York City subways. If you can't get to work and back, business will not survive. And if people are scared about crime in the subways, they won't use the subways as the city tries to open up. Again, this is a very big issue and there are big decisions to be made by the Interim President of New York Transit Sarah Feinberg. She's our first guest and I started by asking her how the new mask regulations by the CDC and guidelines will affect medical safety in the subways.
Sarah Feinberg: So you’ve still got to wear a mask in the transit system, on the subways, in the stations. So if you're in the transit system, please continue to wear a mask. But otherwise, if you're out and about that's great news.
Ritter: So if you're in a restaurant, it's okay not to wear a mask and eat, but you can't do it in the subway. Why the difference?
Feinberg: Well look, we're at 35% ridership so we've got a long way to go before we get back to regular ridership. But even at 35% ridership as you know, it's tough to get much distance on a subway car, right?
Ritter: You are up against people on the subway.
Feinberg: You are. And on a bus too, and I think it makes sense to just continue to wear the masks on the transit system. We follow the federal guidance. We follow the state guidance. I think it makes sense when you're that compacted, to continue to protect yourself and others, to wear that mask. I also think it lends confidence to the system. So people see everyone with masks, we know that that makes them feel more comfortable coming back, so I think that will help with ridership.
Ritter: I've been on the subway a few times when there have been people without masks. It's not a lot. Most people do wear masks. What do you do when you find people like that?
Feinberg: Well, personally, I look at them and try to give them the hint to put the mask up because a lot of times someone's wearing it as a chin strap, and people take the hint pretty quickly. But look, we don't want riders engaging with folks who aren't wearing a mask. If you feel uncomfortable, move to the other end of the car, switch cars at the next stop, but you don't need to take that on yourself. But look, the vast, vast, vast majority of our riders are wearing masks. We send people out into the system to check. We're at 97-98% compliance, which is outstanding and pretty unbelievable, frankly, for any big city.
Ritter: As long as we're talking about masks before we get into the weeds about some of the issues that I think a lot of people want me to ask you about what’s happening underground, let me just say that you were one of the last people we interviewed on this set without masks when the pandemic hit and the city shut down on March 16. And you're the first outsider, non-ABC employee to be on this set with me without a mask. So welcome back.
Feinberg: It's an honor, thank you. And the city’s coming back, right? The city's coming back. The country's coming back. I wish it hadn't taken what is it, 15 months, 16 months, but we're here.
Ritter: Since March 16. So yeah, 14 months, but it seems like a lot longer. It seems like you've been President or Interim President of New York Transit for a long time. You're still Interim President, although everyone always says why is she interim still? She's the President.
Feinberg: That three to four month gig has sort of turned into a longer gig, hasn't it? Yeah, and look, I'm still interim, that makes sense for me. And look, I think if you say you're going to take the job permanently, you're sending a message that you'll there for many years. And I think someone should send that message, but it's not something that I'm going to do for many years.
Ritter: Okay, well, I'm not pushing one way or another. I think you have to do what you want to do. But I do think a lot of people are very interested in what's happening in the subway. On Monday, which is tomorrow, this is airing on Sunday, so tomorrow, the subway opens again, 24/7. I'd like to know how you feel about that. But also, what do you feel about the safety too? What can you tell people who are coming here back to work? New Yorkers who live here, who roll around all the time on the subway, people that depend on this. It's not as safe as it was. People are very worried. We see it. We have stories about it everyday. How protected is the subway? How much more do you need?
Feinberg: Well look, first on 24/7 service, that's great news. We're thrilled to have people come back 24/7. We're a 24/7 city. We want be a 24/7 system. We always have been, except for the last year. So it's wonderful to be able to bring ridership to 24 hours a day so we're delighted by that. And I think it shows that the city is coming back, that people are coming back, so that's great news. On the safety issue. Look, I think we know that there's a tipping point when ridership really comes back and we're back at four and a half, five, five and a half million people a day. There's safety in numbers and that tipping point will bring safety. But it's what do we do between now and then? What do we do between now and when we hit that tipping point? And I believe that we need a more significant uniformed presence in the system and we need mental health resources in the system. And I think at this point for anyone who's riding the system regularly, which frankly, more and more New Yorkers are, but it's also essential workers, they all agree with me and I think it's something we've got to get to a better place on.
Ritter: How many more cops do you need? You've gotten some more already.
Feinberg: Yeah, look, and I see a silver lining there. I started asking for 1,500 more police months ago and, by my calculations, the Mayor has relented on about 800 so far. Now I'm going to keep his feet to the fire and make sure that those officers are really in the system day in and day out, a uniformed presence in the system, they're getting on trains, they're in stations, they're on platforms. I'm going to hold his feet to the fire on that. But look, we need more. And I think it's what's important is that this is temporary, right? This is not asking for a five year or 10 year commitment of additional officers. I know that we can to get back to the place where we don't need a huge police presence in the system. What I'm asking for is, can you give some more help between now and when ridership has really come back? Can you give us that presence that we need now to help bring people back to the city. If they don't come back on transit, they're not coming back to the city. if they don't come back to the city, they're not coming back to the economy. This is so much bigger than just the subway. This is about the city.
Ritter: And if I look at the numbers, the ridership is still down. There's just no question about it. I mean, it was down 90% or 98% before. And it's still down two out of three, it’s over 65%. So it's not back to where it was. But people are worried, Sarah. You know this. You know it from the letters you get, the calls you get, and we know it from the viewers who call in. And you see it from the crime stories we do. Just this last week they were four or five in three hours, including an off-duty MTA worker.
Feinberg: And if you're in the system, you feel it. That is why our workforce has been speaking out. The TWU has been speaking out on this for months. I've been speaking out on this. If you're in the system regularly, you feel it. You can tell that there are more folks experiencing a mental health crisis in the system than there have been before. I'm sure that's related to the pandemic and to the city shutting down. Whatever the causes are, they're in the system, they need help, they're not getting the help that they need. And we've got felony assaults, misdemeanor assaults and sexual assaults are on the rise. Now, that's not to scare people, right?
Ritter: It does scare people. When you say it, it scares people.
Feinberg: It does scare people and I try to be very clear. We've got about two million people a day in the system now on a regular weekday. It's a lot of people, right? So your chances of something happening to you are still very small. I believe it's still the safest way to get around the city. I'm going to get in the subway any day before I get in a car, right, or before I put my child in a car?
Ritter: It’s faster too.
Feinberg: It’s faster, it's more efficient, it's better for the environment, it's all of those things. It's the fastest way to get between two points in the city on any given day. That said, I'm not going to be satisfied until it's completely safe or until it's in a much better place than it is. And so I'm going to continue to bang the drum on this and to hold people's feet to the fire until I can say we have the safest system in history. We have the safest system in the country, we have the safest system in the world. We are the shining star of New York, it's time to come back. It's time to use the system. And I'm not going to be satisfied until I can say that.
Ritter: You've been banging the drum for a long time, so that's not unusual for you. But what was unusual, and correct me if I'm wrong, but this last week, you held feet to the fire in a way that you had not before and you were less than kind - although tactful - but not kind to Mayor de Blasio. And you said he just doesn't get it.
Feinberg: Well I'm frustrated. I'm really frustrated. We work with the NYPD every day and they are heroes and they are great partners to us. I have a great relationship with Commissioner Shea. He's incredibly responsive. He always gets back to me within moments or hours. I'm responsive to him too. I think he's strapped. I think he's got a problem in the city top side, outside of the subway system as we all know. He's also got a problem inside the system. He's doing everything he can. Look, the fact that I've gotten 800 additional officers in the last couple weeks, I think shows that he's listening and that he's heard us. And he says over and over again he wants people to feel safe in the system. My concern is I don't feel heard by the Mayor. And I feel like he is desperate to have a political fight about this. And that's not what this is. I've worked in government for a long time, I've worked in politics for a long time. That's not what this is, I don't want to have a political fight. I just want to get us to a place where we're doing the right thing for the city.
Ritter: You get along with the Police Commissioner. What would you like the Mayor specifically, if he walked on the set right here and became the second outsider to be here without a mask on, what would you tell him?
Feinberg: I would say the vast majority of our customers, the vast majority of riders, I believe the vast majority of the city is on the exact same page here, which is that we need additional resources in the transit system - policing and mental heath - to get the city back, to bring the transit system back and to bring the city back. And the legacy has to be helping the city recover from COVID. That has to be the focus. And if that's the focus, we can get there if we’ve got more resources in the transit system. I would say partner with me, let me help you, let's work together to bring the city back.
Ritter: And if it doesn’t happen? If you don't get the safety, the mentality of this is a safe place, for New Yorkers. Will people come back in the subways like you need them to come back?
Feinberg: Look I think that's why this is so critical, right? We've got to make sure that people feel safe and secure. That is what will bring them back. We've done customer survey after customer survey. We know that before people come back they're worried about exposure to COVID and they're worried about crime and harassment. Once they do that first trip, once they come back to the system, they're no longer worried about COVID because it feels very safe from COVID. They're still worried about crime and harassment because the system doesn't feel right, right now. And if you're riding the system as I said, you can feel it. And that's what's key and that's what I think the Mayor is missing. I appreciate the fact that he's been in the system recently. He's been riding the system more recently, that's great. We welcome him anytime. But I'm not sure that he is feeling what the vast, vast, vast majority of riders feel.
Ritter: Well I bet when he goes on the subway, he's got big security and he's a very large man so he's not going to get harassed.
Feinberg: He's a six foot seven inch man walking around the subway system with armed security, right? That's just not how the rest of us go through life. And it's not just about armed security. It's about that size and what you bring to any situation. That is not what women feel. That is not the vulnerable feel. That is not what our older population feels. That is not what an essential worker who's getting in at Parsons and coming in for an hour, that is not what they feel.
Ritter: You said riders need to feel secure from violence and crime and they also need to feel secure from the Coronavirus. So when you go back tomorrow, Monday morning, to 24/7 ridership, the subway's open, like it always has been except for the last year, you're not going to be able to clean like you've been doing. The subways have been the cleanest they ever have been - no question about it, but you're not going to be able to sterilize as much as you were. Do you worry about that?
Feinberg: You know sometimes I say it took a mom and a waitress - a former waitress - to clean the subways like that. They're still going to be clean. We're still going to be cleaning 24/7. We're going to be moving those riders 24/7 too, so our challenge is making sure that we're able to keep up with the cleaning and the disinfecting. I'm confident our teams will be able to do that. We have great cleaners who are on top of it, who are cleaning all the time so I'm very confident we'll be able to do that, but certainly it's going to be even more challenging with people back in the system.
Ritter: Because you're going to have to clean when people are on the trains?
Feinberg: Yeah look, we're going to be cleaning when people are on the trains. We're not going to clean around people so we're going to be looking for those opportunities, again in terminals, end of line stations, when they're back in the yards, all of that, to clean the cars. Because I can't say to my cleaners, please clean the car when someone is sleeping in it or refuses to leave. I can't put a cleaner in that kind of precarious situation. We've had some cleaners who've been subject to attack. So our instruction is, you don't move people, you don't ask people to move, you don't wake them up, you don't clean around them, you steer clear.
Ritter: You were named Interim President of New York Transit in March, right? The same month, the city had to shutdown, in 2020. The issue back then was that the trains are too crowded. Remember? That was the issue. Seems like a long time ago.
Feinberg: I was supposed to start on March 9. I started on March 2 because I just realized we had to just get in there and start moving and working hard. And some of the first things we did was announce that we were going to be disinfecting twice a day instead of just once a day and cleaning constantly and we started in on that right away because it was so important to be able to give those essential workers the confidence in the system that they could trust the system to bring them to hospitals and pharmacies and grocery stores. But yeah, the issues were very different back in the first week of March in 2020.
Ritter: The reviews about your performance have been as good as the subways at their height of popularity. So thank you for coming and being the first person outside of ABC to be on Up Close, without a mask, live without Zoom. I appreciate it. Good luck.
Feinberg: Thank you. Such a delight.