Data will inform public transit safety efforts

Lack of reliable data about harassment and attacks in and around public transit is hampering efforts to improve safety strategies and bring riders back, said California State Senator Dave Min (D-Irvine). 

“The problem right now is that we don’t know enough about harassment and assaults on public transit. We know anecdotally it’s a problem… There’s a saying in academia that the plural of anecdote is not data… We need hard data at this point if we want to develop solutions,” he said.

Sen. Min, who is also the Senate Vice Chair of the California Asian American & Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus, was speaking at a Feb 17 Ethnic Media Services briefing about public transit safety. 

Harassment targets women and people of color

Ridership of public transit in California and around the country has been on the decline for some time but plummeted since Covid in 2020. Transit agencies have struggled to bring riders back, especially women, people of color, and other marginalized communities, who are disproportionately the targets of physical and verbal harassment, in public transit systems. The scope of public transit includes not just subways, but buses, bus stops, the Muni, and public spaces that passengers use to get to transportation.

Much of the data collected now is ad hoc via surveys by community organizers and individual transit agencies Sen. Min explained. “It’s important that we start to systematize the collection of that data because we don’t really know what the solutions are…We really won’t know that until we have a better understanding of where this takes place. Who’s being affected? What are the types of incidents that are occurring?”

Improving safety and ridership

To tackle the problem, Sen. Min and  Stop AAPI Hate coalition introduced Senate Bill (SB) 434, ‘Public Transit for All: Improving Safety & Increasing Ridership’, on February 13. The Bill would require California’s top 10 public transit systems to collect detailed survey data about street harassment on public transit. It follows up on a similar attempt last year to require transit agencies to develop data-based security solutions. 

Last year’s bill, which was signed into law in September, was a pared-down version that only authorized the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University to develop a survey for use by transit agencies. The current bill requires agencies to actually implement the survey. 

“It’s such an important priority. And it’s really an investment because if we can make public transit safer, we know this will have a tremendous return on investment,” said Sen. Min.

Mental health issues, homelessness, unnerve riders

People riding the BART (Photo credit:  Corey Agopian on Unsplash)
Photo credit:  Corey Agopian on Unsplash

Before the pandemic, Ranjana Haridas, a tech marketing professional from Belmont, would use public transit to commute to work. The lack of cleanliness and security on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and the presence of people with “obvious mental issues” made her nervous. “It’s a sad situation actually because clearly, those people need services. But at the same time, mental health issues mean their behavior is unpredictable, so we feel unsafe,” she said.

Janice Li, board president of BART, pointed out that homelessness, mental health crises and addiction, while not criminal, can make riders nervous. “The prevalence of unhoused folks taking shelter at BART does make some riders feel unsafe,” said. “And what we need are …those services, those social workers, who are able to take the time and make those warm handoffs to actual resources that help people exit from homelessness.” 

Li said while most reported cases of assaults on BART are non-criminal, the verbal harassment makes riders feel unsafe. “They may make people change their behaviors to either avoid riding public transit entirely, or even not go out in public as regularly as they would.”

Programs to combat falling ridership

BART, which is a fare-dependent system, witnessed one of the worst plunges in ridership during Covid. Workers are yet to return to offices full-time, so ridership is at 40 percent of its pre-pandemic levels, with more riders now identifying as people of color, of low income, and not owning a car. 

Lin said BART’s own passenger environment and customer satisfaction surveys show that safety and homelessness are rising as key concerns. She said in the last four years, BART has launched several campaigns and diverse intervention programs to address the concerns of riders. Some of these include the most recent increase in police presence, cleanliness drives, and homelessness and mental health interventions

A nationwide problem

The problem of public transit safety is not confined to California. The New York subway has struggled to get riders back, especially women, since the pandemic dip. According to the New York Times, although the state’s transportation authority does not track ridership by gender, interviews with women suggest that safety concerns have kept them from returning to public transit, many of whom found alternative ways of getting around during the pandemic.

Esther Lee, a 46-year-old educator in New York, recounted her struggle to get the sexually charged attack on her on the subway–which included a racial slur during the pandemic –treated as a hate crime. 

Lee supports Sen. Min’s and Stop AAPI Hate coalition’s efforts in California. “We cannot work together on solutions to a problem unless we gather accurate information, identify where issues may be addressed, and validate the voices of those impacted. This is about safety for all.”

Peter Kerre founded SafeWalks NYC , a voluntary group that escorts riders who feel unsafe to and from subway stations.  He said that the problem stemmed from a convergence of multiple crises, including mental health, unemployment, and racially-motivated hate crimes. Kerre was stunned by the public’s and police’s apathy toward women’s safety concerns even after multiple gender-based attacks in the transit system. He pushed for similar detailed ridership surveys in New York, to inform policies and programs about who gets victimized and how.

Snigdha Sen is Contributing Editor at India Currents and Co-Founder & Head of Content of video strategy startup, She holds a Master of Journalism from the Graduate School of Journalism...