Millions of commuters rely on mass transit daily to race to work, appointments, school, or various other meetings. The coordinating of transit schedules, transferring modes of transportation, and delays can make you feel like you are competing in your own version of The Amazing Race.
These are all things we have come to expect when we use an infrastructure as vast and as aged as our country’s mass transit system. However, crime and safety are increasingly becoming an alarming factor in our travel calculus—especially as more of the nation’s workforce is transitioning back to the office.
According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), 34 million rides are taken each weekday on public mass transit.
Viet Vo is one of those riders. He relies on a commuter train to get him from his suburban home to his job in New York City. As he shifted from working from home to a more hybrid model, he finds himself driving to and parking three times a week at the railway station in a neighboring town. There he boards a train which cuts his commute time almost in half as opposed to driving. “Once you factor in tolls, gas, parking it’s just more cost effective,” he says, “and that’s not even counting the time saved and the stress from traffic.”
The peace of mind is a common refrain with travelers; however, when Vo returned to his parked car at the end of the day, he found that side of his car had been keyed—one of numerous other parked vehicles that had met the same fate.
What was supposed to be a more economical way to travel turned into an expensive act of vandalism.
Sadly, other nefarious situations play out in many park-and-rides across the country. In Boulder, Colorado, the Table Mesa Park-N-Ride experienced a reported 88 catalytic converter thefts over a 12-month period. The frequency of the crime caused them to install security cameras to catch and thwart criminals.
Those scenarios are just a drop in the bucket once you start to consider the large swath of crimes that go largely unreported—things range from property damage to car thefts to robberies.
The problem of security isn’t limited to park-and-rides either, it extends to bus stops, train platforms, and subway stations. While vandalism and theft are big problems economically, the stakes skyrocket when it comes to physical assault and sexual harassment.
According to a study by the Mineta Transportation Institute, the United States leads in the number of attacks and fatalities on public transportation when looking at economically advanced countries.
Many of the nation’s busiest mass transit systems have seen an uptick in crime despite lower ridership levels. The decline can be attributed to the pandemic and a sector of the workforce continuing to work from home. That decline in ridership has only exacerbated the uneasiness that many commuters feel when traveling. “I definitely feel safer when there are more people around,” Vo intimates. He recounts a colleague’s story of being robbed while traveling late at night as something that doesn’t stray far from his mind. “He had his watch, phone, and cash stolen after [the perpetrator] flashed a gun.”
WHY THE DECLINE OF SAFETY?
- Staffing challenges—less employees mean less eyes, which means less security.
- Mass transit = masses of people—even with ridership declines, public transportation (particularly at rush hours) creates massive opportunity for crime. The draw of many people crowded together in a tight space, who are often distracted reading or looking at their phones makes for prime victims.
- Transients and homelessness—the increase of the homeless population as well as those who are mentally unstable or on drugs can lead to random acts or erratic behavior.
- Transportation delays—inaccurate schedules or delays can leave commuters waiting for long periods of time.
According to a poll by YouGov, about half of U.S. adults don’t consider public transportation as “very safe” or “somewhat safe.” Those sentiments are perhaps fueled by highly publicized cases of extreme attacks. There was the death of NYC woman last year who was killed as a man shoved her towards the subway tracks in front of an approaching train. Another headline earlier this year in Portland, Oregon showed an elderly man who had his right ear bit off in a grisly attack.
The truth of the matter is that public transportation is still a relatively safe way to travel. According to the APTA, public transit is essentially over 10 times safer than traveling by any other means of individual transport such as a car.
And to the credit of many mass transit organizations, they have taken steps to further protect riders. Earlier this year, NY state committed up to $62 million to help increase the presence of law enforcement to patrol the NYC subways by 1,200 officers. Los Angeles has pledged $122 million to create an anti-drug use campaign, increased police presence along with their transit safety officers, and hire unarmed ambassadors who are there to report crimes and help passengers. Just last year, Chicago added more real-time security cameras to stations which will bring their total up to roughly 36,000 cameras. And there have been talks to add even more.
Early indications seem to show these measures are making a difference. Yet, safety is a multi-pronged approach that require everyone to do their part including the riders.
HOW TO IMPROVE SAFETY
- Be discreet with valuables—keep money, jewelry, electronics, or anything valuable secured and out of sight.
- Improve situational awareness—stand away from platforms or streets when waiting for trains or buses. Be always on alert and try not to be distracted with phones, etc. when waiting for public transportation.
- Stay in visible areas that are populated—make sure you are in well-lighted areas whether parking your car at a park-and-ride or standing on a train platform. Stay where other commuters, authorities, and public transportation personnel can see you.
- Minimize wait times—be familiar with bus and train schedules. Many transit systems have apps you can download that give you accurate schedules so that you can limit how long you must wait.
For most of us, public transportation is an integral part of our lives. It’s ability to get millions of people where they need to go in a relatively economical way makes it crucial to so many. However, as Vo realizes, it doesn’t come without some additional cost. “I’ve definitely changed the way I act now. I’m more vigilant of my surroundings, I’m not looking down on my phone anymore, and just generally more aware.”