Report: Fewer Cops Can Make Transit Safer for All

Report: Fewer Cops Can Make Transit Safer for All

Police on the NY subway

(Photo by Ludovic Bertron / CC BY 2.0)

Welcome to “The Mobile City,” our weekly roundup of noteworthy transportation developments.

New Report Recommends Alternatives to Policing for Safer Transit

A report released this month by TransitCenter examines the issue of safety on mass transit. And it finds that, much as on city streets, transit systems overall rely too much on police to serve as the guarantors of safety.

And, just as advocates for police reform have argued, this report argues that by relying too heavily on the cops, transit agencies are actually making riders less safe.

The report, “Safety for All,” looks at ways transit agencies in seven U.S. cities go about enforcing rules and dealing with problems that arise on public transit. It also points to several alternative approaches to dealing with issues relating to public transit and public safety, and it examines two systems — BART in the San Francisco Bay Area and Tri-Met in Portland — in depth to highlight steps they are taking to rethink transit safety.

“Black and brown riders have been both overpoliced and underprotected, meaning that they disproportionately bear the brunt of the harms of policing while reaping fewer safety benefits,” the report states. Fare evasion, one of the targets of the “broken window” theory that guided transit policing in New York City, is particularly problematic, as Black and brown riders are arrested disproportionately and punished too severely for this form of misconduct. The report recommends that cities treat fare-beating more like they do illegal parking by reducing fines, eliminating jail sentences, decriminalizing fare evasion and relying on unarmed safety ambassadors instead of police for fare enforcement.

Police, the report says, are also ill-trained and ill-equipped to deal with unhoused people riding transit, who often cause passenger discomfort simply by existing. Homelessness is a problem that originates beyond the confines of the transit system, and solving the problem will take more resources than transit agencies alone can muster, but again, the report recommends a social-service rather than a police response to homeless-rider issues.

One of the innovative approaches it highlights is Philadelphia’s Hub of Hope, a service center located in a subway concourse, jointly run by SEPTA and Project HOME, that offers bathrooms, showers, meals and other services for homeless individuals.

Women, Asian-Americans and LGBTQ riders also face threats from other passengers when on board, and the report recommends strategies agencies should consider for defusing those threats short of calling in the cops, reserving them for those times when things threaten to get violent. It also calls for more citizen participation in transit agency safety planning and decision-making, citing BART’s board of directors, which BART district residents elect, as an example of an approach with potential.

Want More Equitable Transit Service? Ask the Riders to Help You Provide It

Speaking of citizen participation, one reason transit service is run and distributed inequitably is because transit agencies go about determining what’s equitable all wrong, argues a new research paper by two University of Texas researchers.

The paper, “Equity-Advancing Practices at Public Transit Agencies in the United States,” was published in the Transportation Research Board’s journal, Transportation Research Record, on July 15. Professor Alex Karner and graduate student Kaylyn Levine of UT’s Graduate Program in Community and Regional Planning found that when transit agencies make decisions about service, their community engagement consists of deciding what to do first, then going to the public for comments and feedback, a pattern that is unfortunately all too common in so-called participatory planning processes. And to get those comments and feedback, the agencies often rely on inconveniently scheduled meetings and forums where the agency, rather than the riders, do most of the talking.

This plus over-reliance on quantitative analysis of service changes, Karner and Levine argue, produces service that inadequately serves many of the riders who need good service most.

But, they note, some agencies are adopting strategies that engage the community as the decisions are being discussed rather than afterwards. “In transit, equity goes far beyond simply assessing how service is distributed,” Karner said in a university news release. “We wanted to lift up practices that agencies were using to create fairer and more just public transit systems.”

The duo examined practices at eight transportation agencies ranging in size from Boston’s MBTA and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to rabbittransit, the agency serving York, Pa. They found six practices in particular that improved transit equity:

  • Establishing standing advisory boards that represent groups of riders.

  • Making advocacy groups partners in community outreach and providing input.

  • Baking transportation equity into the capital planning process.

  • Involving other regional agencies in conversations about transit equity that cross regional boundaries.

  • Using microtransit to close gaps in service.

  • Making equity a central element of institutional culture, from hiring to contracts to organizational management.

The paper also evaluated the effectiveness of the various strategies at promoting equitable transit.

“At the end of the day, transportation equity is about fairness,” Karner said. “There are many ways that public transit agencies can pursue this goal. Our key result is that the agencies doing the most in this space have made it their mission to incorporate equity into all aspects of their day-to-day operations. And they are the most likely to succeed.”

Raleigh Climbs Aboard the Free-Transit Bus

Add North Carolina’s capital city to the growing list of cities exploring ways to make mass transit free.

Governing magazine reports that the push for permanent fare-free transit in Raleigh is being led by a local developer of commercial real estate, David Meeker. According to the report, Meeker and his allies have spent several years arguing for free transit in Raleigh, and as 2020 began, they figured it would take four to five years for them to win the argument. Then the COVID pandemic hit, and almost overnight, Raleigh’s bus system became free to use.

The free-fare policy was implemented to reduce personal contact between riders and drivers and eliminate the handling of cash.

This year, Raleigh’s city council voted to extend the free-fare policy through the end of the year, and Meeker sees this as a window of opportunity to make the change permanent.

Meeker pointed out that for essential workers, being able to keep that $1.25 fare adds up to a sizable sum over the course of a year. “You are giving every person who can’t afford a car $50 a month, that’s 600 bucks a year, and for a lot of people that’s a month’s rent,” Meeker told Governing. “It’s not even like a one-time $600 check. It’s every year for the next 30 years, you’re giving a $600 check.”

The challenge for Raleigh, as with other cities, is figuring out where the money to replace the fare revenue will come from. Fare revenues account for just below 11 percent of the $31 million it costs to run Raleigh’s transit system each year, and after deducting the cost of collecting those fares, it amounts to an even smaller share.

Pandemic emergency assistance money from the federal government has been paying for the free fares since the policy was implemented, but even though the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan will enable the policy to remain in place through 2021, city officials who agree with Meeker say they know they will need to find a long-term replacement for that money.

Mayor Pro Tem Corey Branch, who supports the idea, says the extension will buy the city time to find it. He also told Governing that while there has been no opposition to the idea and that even the Chamber of Commerce supports it, he can’t say there won’t be pushback once an actual proposal to raise revenue surfaces. Branch says the city will actually need to come up with $5 million a year for the transit system because of plans to expand service.

Know of a development that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #mobilecity.

Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.

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