Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Much Ado About Untimely Deaths

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One of the more remarkable trends that I have noticed in my generation is that the more time an issue spends in the public eye, the less problematic that issue becomes: Media reports of cases seem to have an inverse relationship to the actual number of cases. For instance, while media reports of violent crime have steadily increased over the last few decades, violent crime itself currently hovers at historic lows. Similarly, According to a study published last week by the Alliance for Biking and Walking, New York City is one of the safest cities in America for bicyclists and pedestrians, despite our oft-reported public debate on the threat of our vehicular traffic.

This is, after all, a city that has caught on to the distressing fact that more New Yorkers die in traffic accidents than by firearms, though the numbers for both have dropped dramatically over the last ten years. For instance, in 2012, NYC saw 237 homicides by firearms, lower than the 274 killed in vehicular collisions, of which 155 were pedestrians or bicyclists. In an American city of 8.3 million, this is quite low. To put that into perspective, that year the city saw 84 deaths due to being hit by subway trains; a relatively rare and unique way to die. Meanwhile, drug overdose, a somewhat less-reported statistic, has triple the death rate of any one type of untimely, violent demise.

Of course, it can be argued that the lower instance of the afore-mentioned methods of dying are due to the widespread coverage and subsequent policy initiatives taken by the city: Gun deaths are down because of a police crackdown that has spanned three mayors; all of whom ran on a law-and-order ticket. Despite current criticisms, the last mayor did a great deal to making the city’s streets safer and encouraging mixed modes of transit – between the miles of bike lanes and the CitiBike deal, the landscape has changed a great deal for not a lot of monetary investment. But increased coverage can also possibly suggest less remunerative solutions.

Indeed, a recurring request is to retrofit city subways with safety gates so as to cut down on people falling onto the tracks. The coverage comes at a steady drumbeat after statistics have been publicized for the previous year, and comparisons are often made with subway systems around the world that do have them. The idea itself tends to grip the public conscience, from the harrowing tales of affected motormen to distressing videos of potential victims.

(Luckily, this man survived with minor injuries)

The only problem is, such a retrofit would cost well over a billion dollars to implement on the subway’s 468 stations – the most of any system in the world, with many double-platforms due to the unique express/local nature of the system – and would have issues lining up with the heterogenous rolling stock. By contrast, the systems that have them are relatively newly constructed, and have the privilege of greater public subsidy and government investment.

The question then boils down to “how much is a New Yorker’s life worth?” The price tag that particular project answers is $12 million; an egregiously costly endeavor. Treatment for drug addicts, by comparison, has a far more amenable cost/benefit ratio. New York is yet still one of the best states in terms of preventing death from drug overdose, yet more focus on that matter will likely provide greater dividends. Admittedly, it’s a morbid calculus to determine how best to spend money to prevent the deaths of the citizenry, but being that there’s a correlation of media attention and policy attention, it may behoove us to steer the discussion to ends which may have the largest impact: After all, it’s worked so well in the past.

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