Crime and Harassment on Public Transit
No lefter-than-thou rhetoric here. I'm going to be frank about the problems we face.
Safety on public transit is a problem. The majority of transit worker unions in the United States sent a letter to the Biden Administration asking for protection amid what they describe as an increase in assaults against transit operators. Here’s the statistics the unions presented: 75% of the Amalgamated Transit Workers Union fear coming to work; a New York City transit operator is assaulted daily; Chicago workers have conducted strikes in response to frequent crimes against them.
According to 2020 customer feedback survey by BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) in San Francisco, that over-represented Black, Latino and Asian respondents as the super-majority of riders, found that “personal security” ranked among the highest issues. “NYC Speaks,” which surveyed New York transit riders, similarly over-represented riders of color and found public safety ranking as a top issue.
Let’s be clear: driving an automobile poses a far greater mortal risk than riding public transit. And yet, public transit is often unfairly labeled as especially unsafe. Without a doubt there’s been an uptick in crime that followed national trends, and the union workers need protection. But much of transit’s negative association with crime is due to its use by the poor and the homeless. The problem is that many people act as if poverty and crime are synonymous.
Americans live in segregated communities where neighbors are usually of a similar income, and they commute to work often isolated from people of lower incomes. Very rarely does the average middle-class American interact with people from the broader lowest and no-income public unless they are standing in line at Starbucks or gawking from inside their cars. Thus issues such as drug addiction, homelessness and poverty become mere sideshows rather than collective experiences we’re motivated to solve.
What makes public transit unique is that anyone can ride it. The segregated suburbanite or the high rise-dwelling urbanite end up sitting side-by-side with someone who doesn’t have a shower or can’t afford their medication. The tendency is then to blame transit for these people existing or to generalize all of the poor as criminals rather than recognizing that transit is unrelated to their problems.
For example, I didn’t realize the full extent of the drug crisis in San Francisco until riding BART as pandemic restrictions eased. The lack of riders made the trains feel stranger—I never witnessed many problems when trains were jam-packed with rush hour commuters, but when you’re riding alone and someone who is drunk or talking to themselves boards, you notice that person and only that person. Though the vast majority of experiences with mentally unwell people on transit are uneventful, a tiny minority of unruly individuals get filmed or leave the biggest impression. And those with the privilege to afford medication and their well-being begin to generalize that not only onto all ill people but also onto all homeless people.
Yes, it’s a fact that public transit is not safe for everyone—including the homeless and the ill. I most often hear this safety complaint from women, and a UCLA report found that the majority of UCLA college women and queer students had been harassed on public transit. I recently spoke to a tech founder who subsidizes rideshare instead of bus passes for employees who request it, who are overwhelmingly non-male, because of harassment they’ve endured on the bus.
But we need to be clear that bans on the homeless, or profiling people because they talk to themselves, is no less prejudicial than targeting people based on their race. Being poor is not a crime.
First thing’s first: hiring more transit cops wastes money, and it cannot be emphasized enough. Having succeeded in stopping BART from exclusively ramping up police officers with a violence-intervention coalition, I can assure you that very few people think transit cops should be abolished tomorrow.
But I quickly realized that police on public transit aren’t used to keep riders safer; rather they maintain the image of an orderly and poor-free system. This is shown through fare enforcement, vendor crackdowns and homeless sweeps. This political mission (costing six-figures an officer) rewards the system higher customer feedback ratings when riders report anger about faregate jumpers or people sleeping in a seat, but it’s not about public safety.
Therefore it should come as no surprise that a 4,000 person NYPD transit police proved ineffective at apprehending the mass shooter in Brooklyn or stopping the attack. Or that the upswing in transit attacks largely correlates with most transit agencies having a high staffing number of law enforcement officers since pandemic lockdowns eased. Ultimately, those in favor of additional staffing must make the case as to whether officers spending their time ticketing subway vendors or harassing turnstile jumpers is an efficient use of the force. But it so clearly is not, and until those resources are used effectively there is no justification for additional police staffing.
So what are some proven means of making transit safer? I’ll give you 5 answers.
Number 5: Transit Staff
The most important thing American transit systems can do is have visible personnel. If you are in a station alone or with very few people in the middle of nowhere or deep underground, it can be unnerving. Unlike a car, you have no agency over where you go, and if someone attempts to do you harm, you cannot escape.
This is where transit staff and ambassadors comes in. Special transit staff should roam stations, giving people assistance and resolving conflicts and health crisis issues. Ambassadors, if you will. When the Bay Area was ready to go all-in on hiring more police officers, my friends and I at East Bay for Everyone, along with several anti-violence intervention groups, convinced the transit agency to establish an unarmed Ambassador program whose visibility would not only deter crime but also reassure riders. While we didn’t get everything we wanted, they’re quite effective in defusing problems without duties to harass homeless people or the power to arrest.
Number 4: Commercial activities
Transit stations should be a destination, not only a place to get on a train or bus. When there is commercial activity in a transit station, there is more foot traffic. The more people around, the harder it is to get away with harassment and crime. Or at the very least, if it does occur you know that any physical escalations are more likely to result in an intervention.
This is partly why NYPD’s track record of ticketing and kicking out vendors in the subway as part of their anti-poor operations is so ineffective. Those food vendors are keeping the system safer with more people around and more eyes on the platform. Barren, empty subway platforms and concourses reduce safety, not increases it.
Yes, the bystander effect is real. Even with people present the public can freeze up in the event of a crime. Which brings us to number 3.
Number 3: Lighting, Shelters and PSAs
Dingy areas and bus benches in the middle of the sidewalk make riders less safe. In particular, many women are uncomfortable standing outside with no shelters and lighting where men can hurl remarks at them from cars or as they walk by. Hell, I’m uncomfortable at a simple bus stop with no shelter and seating. Protective shelters are not only useful for protection against the elements but also serve as protection against rude people, particularly if they’re staffed with intercoms and alert systems.
While Japan’s transit system is quite safe from most crimes, sexual violence in the form of harassment is prevalent. So prevalent that they make explicit PSAs against the harassment of women onboard. I have yet to hear one of a serious and explicit nature on American transit. PSAs should be loud and clear, replaying frequently, that sexual harassment and unwanted conversations are not tolerated on public transit.
PSAs should advise riders on how to help fellow passangers when someone’s being targeted with harassment, such as friendly intervention during unwanted accousting and non-police numbers to contact for an ambassador check. How to quietly go to another car and locate the intercom to alert train operators. This would’ve helped my friend who stuck up for a woman being harassed on BART and got his life threatened for it — making him regret it.
Number 2: Decriminalize Fare Enforcement
Nothing is a greater waste of a transit agency’s time than chasing down fare evaders, and it’s entirely theater policing. My public records request found that BART runs a $2.6 million operation to recover $29,110 in fares. Every officer dealing with fare enforcement is 2 or 3 train or bus drivers that could increase frequency on the system.
All too often, fights with police officers that quickly turn into police brutality, particularly in New York City, spring from aggressively arresting fare evaders whose only crime is not paying the fare. Reduce the amount of pointless conflicts with officers by quietly decriminalizing fare evasion so that most people continue paying fare but those who won’t simply don’t. I’ll continue to pay my fare, as do most people, and I’m fine doing it even it if some teenagers or a homeless man doesn’t—who cares?
I want police officers to be on standby, watching out for violent crime and harassment. Four transit cops sitting around, writing a fare evader a ticket is four fewer cops helping someone who’s been sexually assualted or robbed. The fare evader won’t stop riding transit because they were caught, but the crime victim very likely will.
Number 1: Frequency and Reliability
The people of New York City may be wary of safety issues on transit, but the majority still take it because it’s the most reliable form of transit in the city. It’s quick and frequent. But if your transit system has poor frequency and poor reliability, the danger element amplifies. Waiting 30 minutes for a train if you’re someone vulnerable to crime at 11 PM is not an option. Sitting alone on an empty platform or a bus stop along a deserted street is not comforting for longer than a few minutes. If a conflict goes down on a transit vehicle and you step off and catch the next one but it takes 15 minutes or longer for the next vehicle to show up then that’s a problem. This is why Uber and Lyft took away a substantial chunk of public transit riders after hours.
And contrary to transit ethos, agencies should run smaller vehicles more frequently rather than longer ones infrequently. Buses often seem safer than metro systems because while the driver can’t defend you, knowing there’s a transit worker there who will stop the bus or contact police for help in the event of an emergency feels safer. And on metro trains, being closer to the operator cab who can be more easily alerted to bad behavior helps too. Sitting in an isolated carriage 600 feet away from the person operating the train, even with intercoms, does feel unsafer and more lonely, hence the old strategy I’ve long heard of people purposely sitting in the front cars to avoid crime.
If we’re serious about making transit safer, we will encourage our agencies to implement the aforementioned solutions I mentioned above. Are transit police needed? Of course, because sometimes people come on transit just to harm others. But a bloated police force waltzing around a transit station to become its eyes and ears when the stations and vehicles are mostly empty is like the public sector paying six-figures and a pension for a single rider. The goal of making transit safer is to make transit not feel so alone.