Terrorist attacks such as those that struck at Moscow’s metro system this week are a stark reminder of the fragility of our urban transport networks. With one easy-to-procure bomb or canister of gas, dozens of people riding a train can be killed, instantly. In recent years, London, Madrid, and Tokyo have all suffered from such catastrophes.
Fortunately, such terrorism is rare and transit riders are extremely unlikely to ever be caught up in such violence.
Millions of people chose to again ride the Moscow metro the day after the incident, even if they had other mobility options available, much in the same way people choose to fly despite gruesome crashes.
Yet there is still something surprising about the fact that people continue to ride public transportation despite their potential exposure to violence of all sorts, far beyond the horrific events like those that took place in Russia. Less publicized but also painful acts of petty violence on buses and trains are the far more common social problems from which transit cannot provide an easy escape.
The Internet-blasted video of a fight between two men on an Oakland, California bus was a recent demonstration of the fact that safety on public transit is by no means assured. One simply cannot seal oneself away from the motley crew of random strangers who may enter the vehicle and place themselves adjacent to one’s body.
Thus the willingness to ride transit stands as a convincing testament to the shared belief that common decency is adequate insurance against bodily harm — a vote in support of the broader trustworthiness of the populace as a whole. If random violence is a fact of life on transit, it doesn’t stand in the way of the continued use of the transportation by most people who live in dense cities. But the fear of being attacked at random keeps a large number of people off transit, especially during sensitive periods like late at night or in “bad” neighborhoods. It also encourages people to choose lifestyles in which they’re closely attached to their cars.
On the other hand, the (much higher) risk of being killed in an automobile accident is one that car commuters seem to accept whole-heartedly. But car crashes result from contact between two machines rather than between two people. It’s the uncertainly in interpersonal relationships that is scary on the train, much more than a fear that the train will run into something.
This type of risk is an urban phenomenon; the suburban isolation of homes and transportation illustrated by the fiefdoms of single-family houses surrounded by lawns and security systems, accompanied by their hermetically-sealed automobile counterparts, are in some ways the manifestation of the fears of public interaction people living outside of the city hope to escape.
Perhaps, then, transit ridership should be judged as a measure of a community’s greater solidarity. If only a city’s most desperate members choose to ride the bus, there may be inadequacies in the transit system — but there are also likely underlying social difficulties that make interactions between the rich and the poor, the black and the white, too difficult for many. The great class and racial integration that cities like New York and Washington have achieved on their transit systems is commendable.
That integration is in turn likely a reflection on the overall quality of the transit systems: People have an incentive to travel with complete strangers when it’s a more convenient ride than they’d get in their cars. And once they’ve had experience with people they don’t know, most people realize that they have little to fear.
Two principles, therefore, are at play. Urban environments encourage people to trust strangers because the vast majority of people experience no crime at all. Most people aren’t afraid of petty violence because they’re assured of the good will of most of the strangers around them. Meanwhile, because getting around in cities is so much easier by public transit, that trust is a matter of daily life — you just can’t live in constant fear. But that doesn’t mean people on transit are fully comfortable in their surroundings.
Attempting to prevent terrorist attacks is probably mostly a fruitless cause; they’re too rare to justify devoting enough resources to stop them — an incredibly difficult task. But improving the transit environment enough to make the average commuter feel safer day-to-day is possible. Fear of interpersonal, relatively minor violence is what keeps people off trains and buses, and addressing those problems would increase ridership if done effectively.
Yonah Freemark is a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where he is the research director of the Land Use Lab at Urban. His research focuses on the intersection of land use, affordable housing, transportation, and governance.