Cities want to return to pre-pandemic life. An obstacle: transit crime

CHICAGO — For months, Anna Balla, 47, tolerated the unruly behavior she says has become commonplace when driving downtown in an “L” shape: smoking, harassment and even the uninvited use of his shoulder by a stranger to jump himself into a spot on a crowded Chicago train.

But it was a trip in March that caused him to give up on trains altogether. At a busy stop in the heart of the Loop during rush hour, she saw a shirtless young man shoot a woman and hit her with an empty beer bottle as she cowered and screamed on the platform. Balla jumped out of the crowded car and fled down the street.

“I was just worried someone would pull out a gun, or if the cops came it would turn into a shootout,” said Balla, a museum clerk in Chicago. “There was this feeling.”

Just as a number of major cities are trying to lure people to once-bustling downtown areas, leaders are grappling with transit crime rates that have surpassed pre-pandemic levels in New York City, in the San Francisco Bay Area, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. This month, a shooting on a Brooklyn subway train injured 23 people. In other cities, stories of violent muggings, muggings and stabbings on buses and trains dominate evening news and worried conversations on neighborhood apps.

The low attendance has left many passengers saying they feel more vulnerable than before. In Philadelphia, the number of some serious crimes reported on public transit is higher than before the pandemic, and in New York roughly equal to previous levels, even though ridership in both places is significantly lower. In other cities, there are fewer crimes reported than in 2019, but the crime rate is on the rise because there are so few passengers.

Crisis in public transit systems threatens country’s recovery from coronavirus pandemic: Restoring confidence in subways, commuter trains and buses, officials say, could help save local economies by two years slump, encouraging more workers to return to urban offices and making tourists comfortable to move freely in cities. In densely populated places like Chicago and New York, where public transit is essential for millions of people, system well-being can seem like an indicator of the city itself.

Mayors, transit agencies and police departments are trying to find ways to reduce crime and restore commuter confidence, but the fates of transit and city centers, experts say, may be intertwined in complicated ways: if more people return to public transit as they return to offices and shops, trains may feel safer; yet if public transit systems don’t feel safe, people are reluctant to return to city centers that have hollowed out amid COVID.

In Chicago, where the nation’s second-largest public transportation system served an average of 800,000 weekday passengers in March, crime on the city’s trains and buses has increased this year — and even before the pandemic, serious crime increased in public transport. Last month, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced increased security and additional police to address passenger fears.

“This is one of the most important things we can do to change the perception of the city as a whole,” Chicago Transit Authority vice president of safety Kevin Ryan said of safety. of the public transport system. “It’s the first thing a lot of people who come to town see. It’s the lifeblood of many underserved or poorer communities that don’t have private vehicles that rely on it. It is essential that the CTA is a secure system.

The number of reported crimes on public transit in Chicago is about half of what it was before the pandemic, he said, but ridership has also fallen by about half. Declining ridership on many transit systems is key to crime rates on those systems: In Los Angeles, the raw number of recorded crimes in 2021 was lower than in years before the pandemic, according to data provided by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but because passenger numbers dropped, the crime rate per ride was higher.

In other cities, such as Philadelphia, actual incidents of certain crimes on public transportation have increased throughout the pandemic. In 2021, SEPTA police recorded 86 aggravated assaults, compared to 46 in 2019. Robberies increased from 118 to 217 during this period. Crime figures for the first few months of 2022 indicate a slight drop in incidents of aggravated assault.

The challenges are not limited to transportation, said Philadelphia City Council member Jamie Gauthier, but are part of a larger trend of rising crime and violence in the city.

“We have an opioid epidemic and we have a housing crisis,” Gauthier said, “so the things that we saw in the city, basically, also migrated into our public transit system.”

Some of the growing concern over crime, experts say, may reflect changing perceptions among commuters, many of whom have at least halted their usual bus and train journeys during the pandemic. The prospect of returning to public transit has caused some people to assess safety in ways they might never have considered when daily commutes were a given. The rollback of mask rules on public transportation in many cities has added tension for some passengers after a Florida judge struck down federal mask mandates on planes and public transportation.

Christopher B. Leinberger, a professor emeritus of business at George Washington University who studies urban spaces and public transit, said the most effective way to reduce violence in public transit systems is to incentivize more people to borrow them. “Having lots of people of all incomes on public transport is the best way to crack down on crime,” he said. “Obviously the police have a major role to play, but it really comes down to having people, lots of eyes, on different people.” Long before the pandemic, many transit systems were already struggling with funding issues, high maintenance costs and sluggish ridership. Then came the virus, which triggered a sudden drop in ridership amid lockdowns and shutdowns, starved transit agencies of revenue and raised questions about the fate of some systems. Today, fragile returns, spurred in part by hybrid office work, and rising crime rates in some systems prolong that uncertainty.

In Los Angeles, the crime rate in the county’s subway system has increased during the pandemic, fueling long-running debates about policing, homelessness and mental health.

“Most of our problems on Metro are with people who are unprotected,” said Hilda Solis, a Los Angeles County supervisor who is also chair of Metro’s board of directors. “So it’s more of a housing issue than a law enforcement issue.”

East Bay Transit Riders Union member and Bay Area transit advocate Darrell Owens said public transit is sometimes the only place Americans meet strangers, meaning fears Concerns about safety there are often disproportionate to the dangers of driving, which is often the most dangerous regular activity for Americans.

“The public is suffering in American cities,” he said. “That’s why American public transit is so difficult: it’s one of the only times people in isolation see other members of the public.”

In Washington, the crime rate in the subway has dropped this year compared to the start of the pandemic, but remains higher than before the pandemic. The number of calls related to mental health has increased particularly drastically.

On Metro Atlanta’s MARTA transit system, officials have been looking for new ways to manage people who have taken refuge on public transit during the pandemic. In August 2020, the system launched a program in which officials said uniformed, unarmed security personnel would help homeless people by directing them to shelters, counseling and treatment if needed.

“I think you’ll see more and more of that in the transit world,” said MARTA Police Chief Scott Kreher.

Workers are on the front lines of public transit challenges across the country. They had already faced a higher risk of the virus because their jobs kept them in public, and some systems reported difficulties in replenishing their workforces. Transit workers say harassment — physical assaults, threats and objects thrown at them — remains widespread despite the drop in ridership.

“Things have gotten worse – you have to get some stability back and you have to make things safer for people,” said Eric Dixon, president of the union that represents train workers in Chicago, who called for greater unity. heavy police presence and extra conductors on trains to fight crime.

Kimberly Benedetto has suffered her fair share of harassment in her 23 years of driving buses for the Philadelphia system – with passengers yelling at her and even spitting in her direction. But none of this compares to what she’s seen over the past two years.

“I feel like things have gotten out of control,” said Benedetto, who said he experienced a particularly chilling incident in September by a teenager who threatened to assault him for a request to wear a mask, a requirement at the time.

“I won’t stay a day after 30,” Benedetto said, referring to how long she needs to receive her full pension. “I’ll be driving school buses – I just want to get away from that.”

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