For years, an indication of Ka’Von Wooden’s dream to one day operate a subway train hung on his bedroom wall: a map of the No. 6 line. Ka’Von would picture himself in a conductor’s booth, hurtling through the subway tunnels, his mother, Y’Vonda Maxwell, said.
Ka’Von, a shy 15-year-old from the Bronx with autism, was “enthralled by trains,” Ms. Maxwell said. “That’s all he ate, thought about, talked about.”
One morning in December, Ka’Von climbed atop a Manhattan-bound J train. As it approached the Delancey Street/Essex Street station, Ka’Von tumbled off and struck the third rail, the police said, suffering a severe head injury. He was pronounced dead at the scene by emergency responders, the police said.
Ka’Von’s death is another tragedy tied to so-called subway surfing, a high-stakes stunt in which teens ride on the top of train cars. On Monday evening, Zachery Nazaro, a 15-year-old boy from Manhattan, was pronounced dead after hitting his head on an object while surfing on top of a Manhattan-bound J train and then falling between the cars, the New York Police Department said.
The number of people riding outside trains — which can include riding on top of cars, in between them and hanging on the sides — has more than quadrupled. There were 928 instances in 2022, up from 206 in 2021 and from 490 in 2019 before ridership declined during the pandemic, according to the latest statistics provided by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state agency that runs New York City’s transit network.
The M.T.A. does not isolate its data for people riding on top of trains, which officials say is a small percentage. Richard Davey, president of New York City Transit, the division of the M.T.A. that runs the city’s subway and buses, said he believes the vast majority of incidents occur when people ride between cars.
“We cannot stress enough how dangerous it is to ride on the outside of trains. Our hearts go out to loved ones at yet another tragic time,” Mr. Davey said in a statement. “We implore other families to speak with their children on the real dangers of what can seem like a thrill but is too often deadly.”
The phenomenon appears to be largely unique to New York, where the subway system is vast and a reflection of the city’s fast-paced culture. The Chicago Transit Authority typically only receives a few reports of surfing every year, while the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority tallied five such incidents over the past two years, according to representatives for the transit systems.
Riding outside train cars is illegal, but the police department does not track arrests related to riding on the outside of a train. Mr. Davey said the authority is trying to spread the message of the dangers of subway surfing, while the Police Department said in a statement that an increased police presence in stations and on platforms — Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams flooded the system with more officers in the fall — could “deter violations of the transit rules and regulations including riding on the exterior of train cars.”
In interviews with five teen boys who have ridden on the outside of subways, The Times learned that participants, who tend to be teenage boys, according to interviews and social media videos, typically enter a train just like most passengers. Once the train pulls out of a station, surfers slip between cars and scramble up to the top. The boys say they typically opt for elevated train lines, where they can feel the wind and see the city above ground.
Jon, a 15-year-old boy from Queens who asked to be identified by only his first name out of concern for potential legal repercussions, said he got caught surfing on the back of the No. 5 train by the police in early 2022, but got off with a warning.
Thrill-seekers riding atop subway cars is hardly novel; a 1991 article in The Times noted an anecdotal increase at the time. But in an era where social media is so central to status, teens are incentivized to post more daring and eye-catching content, experts said, and videos of teens surfing have gone viral on TikTok. “To get views, and likes, and for people to interact with your posts, you have to do something crazier,” said Kim Gorgens, a psychology professor at the University of Denver. “And to gain notoriety with your friends you have to do something bigger and crazier. We’ve one-upped each other into a really kind of perilous place.”
After The Times requested comment from TikTok on its policies regarding surfing videos and content that might encourage young people to do dangerous things, several videos of teens surfing in New York disappeared from the platform.
“The safety and well-being of our users is a top priority at TikTok. As we make clear in our Community Guidelines, we do not allow content that encourages, promotes or glorifies dangerous challenges that might lead to injury,” a TikTok spokesperson said in a statement.
Surfing videos resemble a real-life version of the mobile game Subway Surfers, in which users take on the persona of a teen who has just been caught doing graffiti and must run on tracks and jump on trains to escape an inspector and his dog. In an increasingly digital world, the blurring of lines between screen and reality can normalize risky behavior, said Dr. Megan Moreno, interim chair of the department of pediatrics and principal investigator of the Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team at the University of Wisconsin.
“It’s really a teaching platform of, here’s how to do this,” Dr. Moreno said. “People watch it and I think, ‘I can do that too.’”
The No. 7 line, which runs from Flushing Main St. to 34 St.-Hudson Yards, has become one surfing hot spot, said Sarah Meyer, former chief customer officer for the M.T.A. Stanley Lawson, a train operator for the M.T.A. for nine years, said he took a year of medical leave to deal with the anguish of a teen falling off one of his trains. “With the 7 line, it seems like the top of the train is more crowded than the inside now,” Mr. Lawson said.
In September, a video posted on YouTube captured a group of at least 20 teen boys shouting and dancing on top of a moving No. 7 train.
Rey, a 16-year-old boy from the Bronx, said he was present, but because he was running late, he and two friends waited for the next train leaving Queensboro Plaza and climbed to the top. At one point, one of the boys stumbled on Rey’s leg and fell, he said. Rey said he caught his friends’ hands before he fell to the tracks.
Rey was surfing almost every day back then, he said. After his friend fell and he heard of Ka’Von’s death, Rey now surfs only once every couple weeks. In early January, Rey and the friend he saved from falling attended a memorial for Ka’Von, where they laid flowers and lit candles outside the Manhattan station where he had died.
Later that day, Rey’s friend went surfing on the J train. He hit his head on the roof of the tunnel and had to be pulled off the train, not far from the spot where Ka’Von’s memorial had been held, Rey said. He was swarmed by police officers and paramedics who worked to stop the bleeding from his head. This time, the teen survived.