Urban Wire Assaults on Transit Workers Have Tripled in the Past 15 Years. Income Inequality and Societal Tensions Have Contributed.
Lindiwe Rennert
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In the transportation industry, most negative workplace health and safety incidents (PDF) occur during workers’ interaction with machinery or materials. However, in transit workplaces specifically, a fast-growing number of incidents are occurring between workers and riders.

All workers should be able to perform their jobs in safe and healthy working conditions. The absence of that assurance has consequences for operations. Fear of on-the-job violence has contributed to operator shortages currently preventing many transit agencies from running the highest-quality service possible. Bus drivers in particular have made clear that safety concerns are a major part of their reluctance to return to work for those who left during COVID-19 cutbacks. Those who’ve remained have widely expressed the desire to be reassigned off the frontlines. In this post, I look at what might be fueling this increase in assaults and recommend ways to reverse the trend.

Assaults on transit workers have tripled since 2008

Using data from the National Transit Database, I find that “major” assaults on transit workers (PDF)—defined by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) as an event resulting in a fatality or injury requiring medical transport—nearly tripled between 2008 and 2022, from 168 to 492 annual events nationwide. Given the high reporting threshold for inclusion in the dataset, this staggering increase should be interpreted as an undercount of the true magnitude of this issue. New Jersey Transit, for example, reported three major assault events in 2021, but reports from other sources have cited the agency with more than 130 assault events for the same year.

Assaults, both those that do and do not meet the FTA’s “major” threshold, include stabbing, spitting, hitting and kicking, and unwelcome sexual misconduct. Operators have also reported being robbed, having things thrown at them, being doused with urine and hot beverages, being threatened at gunpoint, and shot at.

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Not only has the total number of assaults on transit workers increased, but assaults are also happening in more places. In 2008, only 21 agencies reported any major assault events, which ballooned to 49 agencies in 2022. Among the agencies with the greatest number of major assaults in the past 15 years, frequency of events has notably intensified. At the top of the list, the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) went from one occurrence every 3 days in 2008 to once every 1.4 days in 2022.

When looking at rate of assaults per million riders, the worrisome growth over time remains, though the agencies at the top of the list change. In 2008, the Metropolitan Saint Louis Transit Agency and the New York City MTA had the highest rates of major assaults, at 1 per 9 million riders and 1 per 28 million riders, respectively. In 2022, the highest major assault rates were held by Albuquerque’s ABQ Ride at 1 per 1.5 million riders and the Chicago Transit Authority at 1 per 3.2 million riders.

Transit Assaults Are Becoming More Frequent Nationwide

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This acceleration begs the question: “What’s being done about this issue?” Advocates, unions, legislators, and governments have focused improvement efforts on the following:

Though these efforts may indeed improve the situation and slow the pace of transit workplace assaults, they largely tackle symptoms of the issue. To have any hope of zeroing assault counts, we need a deeper understanding of the root causes of these acts of violence.

Social climate and daily stressors influence behavior in transit spaces

Given that operators commonly cite the use of racial slurs and a refusal to pay the fare when describing attacks, I hypothesize that assaults may be motivated in part by unaffordability of transit service or inability to pay, social frustrations fueled by inequality, and mistrust or dissatisfaction with governing and service institutions, which transit may represent for many.

In comparing several economic, social, and societal variables, I find a statistically significant relationship between assaults on transit workers and both income inequality and civil unrest. Both variables are correlated with assaults in the same direction—the increase of one is associated with an increase of the other.

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These findings have several key implications. First, they suggest transit agencies alone cannot put an end to violence against their employees, as they have limited control over income inequality and factors contributing to civil unrest. This responsibility is shared by many hands—political representatives, employers, advocates, unions, those leading wealth redistribution efforts, the public, and more. Second, these findings can direct the focus of efforts committed to transit worker safety:

  • Grow a feeling of equity, equality, and justice. Establishing a means-based or low-income fare would increase cost equity of accessing transit services and may foster a stronger sense of fairness in transit spaces, if not beyond them. Feeling seen, heard, and cared for may lower current tensions motivating behavior in public spaces.
  • Assuage civil agitation. Surveys of the general public have found that increased transparency could increase trust in government from its present record low. Other research has proposed demonstrated accountability among government officials and agencies as a mandatory first step toward regaining trust. Another civil-tension reliever would be to tend to people’s currently unmet basic needs by strengthening and expanding the social safety net and reducing presently high inflation.

Although working toward these objectives won’t relieve all societal tensions nor fast-track us to economic equality, they may well contribute to a desperately needed decrease in assaults on transit workers.

Research Areas Neighborhoods, cities, and metros
Tags Transportation Victims of crime Workplace protections
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
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