Despite transit’s strong safety record, the cultural stereotypes portraying it as crime-ridden and lawless persist. Such stereotypes make transit expansions more challenging and scare away would-be riders. Racism is often deeply embedded in these stereotypes, as a recent Google glitch regarding Atlanta’s MARTA system demonstrated.
It is true that, in serving diverse cities and towns, transit systems may expose riders to people with different backgrounds than their own (which is a good thing). It’s inevitable that some transit passengers have criminal records. But issues that plague our society such as sexual harassment and violent crime adversely affect every member of the traveling public, regardless of their preferred mode of transportation.
Systemically, transit is safer than driving
What’s scarier than the thought of crashing without warning at speeds upwards of 40 mph? Though no form of motorized transportation is perfect, transit should unquestionably be the mode of choice for people wishing to maximize their odds of reaching their destinations in one piece.
According to a 2016 APTA report, bus and rail riders are approximately 20 times less likely to perish in route than drivers are. And remember that car crash fatalities have increased since 2014, the most recent year of data the APTA report utilized.
Automobile interests claim that autonomous vehicles will virtually eliminate crashes, but recent events in Arizona and the Bay Area show that, at least in the near future, substantial safety issues will continue to plague the car. Even if the new technology eventually eliminates 90 percent of fatal car crashes – as the most optimistic predictions project – fatality rates per passenger mile would still be double those of present-day transit.
If a criminal wants to be successful, they should avoid transit
It’s true that some riders do act inappropriately and freak events occur, but studies examining crime and transit have yielded a variety of results. Many studies are inconclusive, and some have found that transit helps deter crime.
Other riders at stops and aboard vehicles serve as witnesses to crime, helping deter such potential activity. With security cameras and transit police also watching them, any criminals who choose to target buses or trains stand a substantial chance of getting caught.
Users of car-based modes are vulnerable to crime and harassment
Crime and other societal challenges affect users of all transportation modes, not just transit. Crime-related terms such as getaway car, drive-by shooting, drunk driving, road rage, street racing, and grand theft auto dominate our local news and popular culture.
Parking lots are known hotspots for robberies, rapes, and other violent crime. Urban interstates helped turn once-vibrant neighborhoods into neglected, dangerous ones, so it isn’t surprising that research has linked extensive highway networks to high crime rates. Studies have also linked traffic congestion-caused stress to increases in domestic violence.
And we can’t forget the inherent danger of high-speed police chases to drivers and pedestrians, as documented for dramatic effect by the long-running TV show Cops.
Users of app-based car services have also been victims of sexual harassment and, in some cases, even assaults. Registered drivers who passed the companies’ background checks have initiated some of the most serious attacks, while predators posing as requested rides are responsible for others. Some men see shared app-based services as venues to hit on women, something that riders simply trying to get to their destinations understandably find inappropriate.
Transit agencies can be leaders in addressing societal issues
As providers of transportation for people of all backgrounds, transit agencies have an opportunity to serve as role models for society in taking on challenges such as crime and harassment, overcoming the negative stereotypes that currently plague them in the process.
Simply putting their best effort into the bus and rail service they provide goes a long way, as good transit helps low-income individuals access jobs and escape poverty, reducing the chances they will turn to crime to survive. Some agencies have confronted inappropriate behavior more aggressively – for example, Los Angeles Metro rolled out a pilot sexual harassment hotline in 2017.
I think that we can do better than resorting to random bag searches or gender-restricted railcars, as such policies inconvenience riders and fail to address the underlying societal problems used to justify them. Better options available to transit providers include:
- Connecting with low-income youth by educating them about the mechanics of transit systems and urban planning, offering internships and volunteer opportunities to program participants.
- Organizing support groups for victims of sexual harassment and assault, giving people who are victimized in a variety of locations – not just transit – a chance to have a voice.
- Making it clear, through onboard announcements, signage, and advertising, that anyone who harasses or otherwise treats passengers inappropriately is likely to be humiliated in front of not just their fellow riders, but the whole world.
These proposals are just my initial thoughts regarding strategies that could help transit agencies embrace their role as local leaders. I’d love to hear suggestions to improve and build upon them.
Photo by Billy Cabic