How Safe Is Public Transportation?

One of the buses blown to bits by terrorists in London on July 7, 2005. From

How Safe Is Public Transportation?

One of the barriers to taking transit for people who currently do not use it is a perception that taking transit is unsafe. How safe is transit?

Public Transportation: Ten Times Safer Than Driving

Transit is much safer than just about any other mode of transportation. In the United States and Canada, automobile drivers and passengers have a ten times higher traffic fatality rate than transit passengers; this difference is even higher in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, statistics show that regional per capita traffic fatalities decline as transit ridership increases. Of course, just because you may not die in a traffic accident while riding transit does not mean you cannot be the victim of a crime.

Two Sad Days For Transit: Chatsworth, CA in 2008 and London in 2005

Unfortunately, while very infrequent, safety incidents on transit systems tend to be quite horrific and draw a large amount of news coverage. Two incidents I will discuss in the rest of this article are the 2008 commuter rail crash in Los Angeles, California and the 2005 subway bombing in London, England.

On September 12, 2008, two trains operated by Metrolink, an entity which operates commuter rail service in Southern California, collided head-on in the northwestern Los Angeles district of Chatsworth. A total of eighteen people were killed; for more on the story see here.

On July 7, 2005, suicide bombers attacked London's subways and buses and killed fifty-two people. A further seven hundred people were injured. For more on this story see here.

What is interesting to note is that the deaths caused by the subway bombers equaled only six days of normal British traffic fatalities - which means that every year Britain goes through sixty terrorist bombings - but because car accidents are ordinary, run-of-the-mill occurrences they are not newsworthy.

In both of the above incidents, the immediate aftermath showed a change in commute mode in Southern California and London as commuter rail passengers switched to driving in California and subway passengers switched to driving or riding a bicycle in London. Interestingly, this mode shift resulted in more deaths, at least in England, as the latter part of 2005 had over 200 more deaths in cycling accidents in London than would be expected in historical trends. Although no similar hard data exists for the aftermath of the Metrolink train crash, one can certainly infer that additional deaths happened due to the enormous difference in fatality rates between taking transit and driving.

Improvements in Public Transportation Safety Since the Above Incidences

There have been several notable improvements in transit safety since the above incidences. For example, Metrolink has added a second employee in the cabs of approximately half of its trains in an attempt to cut down on prohibited behavior such as texting. Negotiations with the union are ongoing in an attempt to install security cameras in the cabs as well. Metrolink has also taken delivery of new cars that are significantly stronger and able to withstand crashes better than the old rolling stock, and as of September 2015 will be the first commuter rail agency to comply with new federal directives requiring advanced satellite-based automatic braking of any train that runs a red signal. Read about some safety improvements that have been enacted since the crash.

In terms of the bombings in London, any rider of subways in Boston, New York, and Washington in the past few years will have observed at one point or another random airport-style bag searches. Beijing has gone a step further and installed airport-style metal detectors at all subway entrances; doing the same in the United States would not only be cost-prohibitive but would certainly cause a massive decline in ridership, although the 2015 attacks on a French high-speed rail train have renewed calls to do so. These former riders would probably drive and end up causing far more fatalities than have occurred in all terrorist transit incidents in history put together.

Probably the biggest safety improvement since the London attacks has been the widespread installation of security cameras throughout all areas of transit operation. If nothing else, in my experience the cameras have caused a notable decline in the amount of graffiti.

Bottom Line

Overall, using public transit is safer than using any other mode of transportation. Unfortunately, heavy media coverage of the few fatal transit incidents has tended to cause people, at least in the immediate aftermath of the incident, to switch modes and use a different way of travel that is not as safe as taking public transit is.

This article makes heavy use of the statistical information reported in the Victoria Transport Policy Institute report on Transit Risk. Please read the article for more information.