The North American transit industry continues its steady recovery from the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. Riders are slowly but steadily returning to systems in Canada and the United States with new benchmarks in ridership regularly reported. A renewed focus on the customer experience has prompted special attention on the safety of systems, and how statistics and public perception are matched up against each other.
In August, Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) released the findings from a global study, “Changing Patterns of Violence Pose New Challenges for Public Transport,” that found countries with advanced economies account for a growing percentage of incidents worldwide, with the United States taking the lead in the total number of incidents and number of fatalities in those countries.
By analyzing data from 5,611 attacks against all public surface transport targets that occurred worldwide between January 1970 and July 2022, the authors observed a growing problem of violence against passengers and staff on passenger trains and at train stations, buses and bus stations, rail infrastructure and operating and security staff. They not only included explosives and incendiaries, but physical attacks—stabbings, shootings, arson, unarmed physical assaults and other acts of random violence.
“The increase in violence at transportation venues appears to parallel a general increase in random public violence and reflects broader societal trends occurring on the streets and elsewhere. Some observers blame the behavior on the pandemic, but the trends precede COVID-19 and are contributing to a sense of insecurity,” said Author Bruce R. Butterworth.
The authors of the MTI report determined most attacks appear to be random where risk reflects exposure. Passengers are more numerous than operating personnel but are exposed for shorter periods, so their risk is lower. However, well-publicized events contribute to an atmosphere of fear. There are far fewer operating personnel, but they spend longer times on the job, therefore their exposure to risk is greater.
“A public fearful of traveling adds to economic difficulties for transportation operators and reduced resources for facilities improvements, service and security. The fact there are fewer riders may contribute even further to a sense of insecurity, and it is possible that increased ridership actually contributes to security,” Author Brian Michael Jenkins said.
This iteration of the Safety & Security Report spotlights how agencies are increasing the presence of staff, including law enforcement, on systems, what technology is being utilized to support safety and security efforts and how behavior-based education efforts and policies are all working to positively impact safety statistics, as well as how safe customers feel while using transit systems.
Boosting Security Presence
Agencies throughout North America have promoted increased presence of police officers, transit ambassadors and other staff trained in safety, security and outreach efforts as one method to help customers feel safer on their systems.
This summer and fall, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (L.A. Metro) and Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) were the most recent agencies to approve ambassador programs aimed at increasing outreach and engagement of non-criminal issues.
GCRTA says both transit ambassadors and crisis intervention specialists will work in collaboration with GCRTA’s Transit Police and have their own specific responsibilities.
L.A. Metro’s program is modeled after successful ambassador programs at Bay Area Rapid Transit and Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and was shown to be supported by riders who said they wanted to see more L.A. Metro staff on the system. L.A. Metro stressed the three-to-five-year pilot program has an emphasis on greeting riders and creating positive and compassionate interactions with them. The ambassadors will also work with crisis intervention teams to help connect riders who are unhoused or experiencing mental health crisis to social services.
Uniformed law enforcement has also increased on systems, notably Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in New York City, which is deploying an addition 1,200 officers daily throughout its rail network with support of the state and city, and Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), which has placed safety as a cornerstone of its Meeting the Moment initiative.
CTA renewed a three-year agreement with the Chicago Police Department where CTA will be provided additional sworn police officers who volunteer to police the transit system through the police department’s Voluntary Special Employment Program (VSEP). The use of VSEP officers is in addition to plans the police department has to assign additional officers to CTA trains and platforms.
CTA also deployed K-9 teams to patrol its rail system. CTA calls the use of K-9 teams through a trained contractor a supplementary security move to law enforcement patrols.
How effective this increased presence has on transit security will depend on the community and system. In St. Louis, Mo., Bi-State Development Agency, which operates St. Louis Metro services, credits a greater security presence across its system for providing a “foundation for a more proactive approach to policing.” In the agency’s second quarter 2022 MetroLink Task Force Incident Report, incidents were shown to have increased. However, the agency reports 71 percent of those incidents were self-initiated.
“The effectiveness of the security measures and collaboration we have put into place over the last two-plus years is evident throughout our latest incident report. Incidents are up, but that is 100 percent attributable to the proactive work of our law enforcement partners,” said Kevin Scott, general manager of security, Bi-State Development.
Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) reports its police officers have made more felony arrest in 2022 than they have in four years. BART Police Department says the increase is because there are more officers patrolling the system.
“This increase in felony arrests is proof that our officers are making a difference in keeping our system safe,” said BART Police Chief Ed Alvarez. “The increased number of felony arrests is further proof our Progressive Policing strategy is allowing sworn officers to focus on serious crimes. This increase in arrests wouldn’t be possible without the hard work of our officers and making being out in the system a priority.”
While the BART Police Department recognizes an increased presence of officers on its system has resulted in safety improvements, it notes the efforts of officers are supported by “a robust network of more than 4,000 working cameras.” BPD officers have been able to use images from these cameras to identify suspects in some of the crimes on the system.
Another agency to invest in camera systems for improved security is New York MTA, which was awarded a U.S. Department of Homeland Security Preparedness Grant in September 2022 to install cameras across its entire subway fleet. MTA has installed cameras in all of its subway stations, and the grant will extend that coverage at 130 stations, as well as allow the agency to purchase 5,400 cameras that will be installed on 2,700 subway cars. All subway cars should be equipped with cameras sometime in 2025.
Subway security is not the only application where MTA is utilizing technology. The authority has expanded the use of automated bus lane enforcement (ABLE) cameras and expects to install the technology on an additional 300 buses by the end of 2022.
MTA calls ABLE cameras “an essential tool to keep bus lanes clear” and keeping buses on schedule. The cameras capture busway and bus lane rules violations in real-time and transmits the information to the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) for review and processing.
Cameras are also being used to improve safety around critical public/transportation interfaces, such as grade crossings. As Mass Transit reported in the June 2022 issue, Federal Railroad Administration-funded research, led by a team from Rutgers University, is utilizing the vast amount of video railroads have and glean insight through artificial intelligence (AI). The team uses an AI-driven computer vision system that analyzes video and collects several key pieces of information on all trespassing events occurring at a given location. The information can then be used to evaluate what engineering, engagement and/or enforcement methods may be implemented to reduce the number of crossing violations.
Advancing technology is delivering safety and security improvements to the transit industry, but this rapid pace of development also carries a certain amount of risk when the topic of cybersecurity is considered. Check Point Research found the transportation sector saw a 38 percent increase in average weekly cyber attacks comparing Q3 2021 data to Q3 2022 data. A report from Verizon this year determined 82 percent of data breaches involved the human element, making employee education and awareness of potential threats a critical focus area for the industry.
Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) published a paper in July urging broader collaboration when it comes to cybersecurity between the U.S. transit industry and its vendor community. MTI says both sides need to create a secure environment that can benefit from and augment the other.
The authors of the paper, “Aligning the Transit Industry and Their Vendors in the Face of Increasing Cyber Risk: Recommendations for Identifying and Addressing Cybersecurity Challenges,” focus on three key areas: cyber literacy and procurement practices, the lifecycle of technology vis-à-vis transit hardware and the importance of embracing risk as a road to resiliency.
Measures taken to protect transit security require executive focus and investment across the transit ecosystem. MTI says transit agencies, vendors, associations, the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Department of Transportation, as well as the Federal Transit Administration, can cooperate and collaborate to invest in risk management to ensure the safety, efficiency and reliability of the nation’s critical infrastructure.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) took a step to limit that risk within the rail sector by issuing a security directive focused on bolstering cybersecurity of freight and passenger rail systems.
The security directive requires that TSA-specified passenger and freight railroad carriers take action to prevent disruption and degradation to their infrastructure with passenger and freight railroad carriers are required to:
- Establish and execute a TSA-approved Cybersecurity Implementation Plan that describes the specific cybersecurity measures the passenger, and freight rail carriers are utilizing to achieve the security outcomes set forth in the security directive.
- Establish a Cybersecurity Assessment Program to proactively test and regularly audit the effectiveness of cybersecurity measures and identify and resolve vulnerabilities within devices, networks and systems.
TSA says the directive strengthens cybersecurity requirements and focuses on performance-based measures to achieve critical outcomes. It was developed with extensive input from industry stakeholders and federal partners, including the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and FRA.
To align behavior expectations of customers, agencies throughout North America have initiated various educational campaigns aimed at reducing incidents of harassment.
Most recently, King County Metro launched an anti-harassment campaign, “It’s OK to Say, That’s Not OK,” with three suggested actions to take against potential harassment that are dependent on a person’s comfort level and include notifying the driver, filling out an online comment form or calling/texting 9-1-1 in case of emergency.
Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Transit Administration’s new public service campaign is targeting sexual harassment on transit. The campaign is focused on educating the public on what constitutes sexual harassment, and how it can be stopped. An integral component of the MDOT MTA campaign focuses on data collection to better assess the extent riders in the Baltimore region that are experiencing sexual harassment, as well as to inform future decision making on outreach, campaign messaging, expectations for rider conduct and resource deployment. Rider outreach tactics include annual rider surveys, management and operator training, outreach events at frequently used transit stops and on-line reporting tools.
This type of data collection is valuable to assessing incidents, as well as perception of a system. At BART, data collected as part of its ongoing Passenger Environment Survey shows its Not One More Girl campaign has increased awareness of sexual harassment/gender-based violence, increased awareness of how to respond to this type of incident and provided greater understanding of the impact this type of harassment has on girls, transgender and gender nonconforming people on BART.
Beyond raising awareness are efforts aimed at increasing the penalties for repeated prohibited behavior on transit systems. TriMet’s Board is considering a revision to an ordinance that would impost stiffer penalties for non-fare related prohibited behavior such as vandalism, crime and drug use.
“TriMet is working on a strategy to better address inappropriate behavior on the system, better support our operators and other employees, improve the cleanliness of our vehicles and property and pursue coordinated efforts with external partners to address social issues and ensure safe access to transit,” said TriMet Chief Operating Officer Bonnie Todd.
TriMet explains it aims to keep both its operators and riders moving safely, and it’s important to have a means to hold people accountable for inappropriate, threatening or dangerous behavior.
On the East Coast of the U.S., a new law in the state of New York extended protections against assault to transit workers not previously covered including customer assistants, ticket or revenue collectors, maintenance workers and supervisors who work with an among the public.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed the law in June. It will toughen laws by charging individuals who physically injure transit workers with second-degree assault. Officials say the law will also serve as a deterrent to those seeking to harm transit employees.
"New York's transit workers have always been there for us, and now it is our job to be there for them,” said Gov. Hochul. “No one should be subjected to physical violence or harassment in the workplace, and today we are taking an important step in protecting the men and women who keep our subways and buses running."