Recognizing Transit’s Safety Benefits

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By Barb Thoman, Executive Director

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Most people know that public transit provides mobility, reduces pollution, and saves riders money. What we don’t often hear about are the significant safety benefits that transit provides.  It’s time that transit agencies and groups like ours start making the case for shifting trips from driving to transit as a strategy to reduce fatalities and injuries on the road.

Travel by public transit has about one-tenth the rate of traffic injury and death of automobile travel according to data in “Safer Than You Think! Revising the Transit Safety Narrative,” a recent paper by Todd Littman, director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (VTPI) in British Columbia.

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Littman’s analysis of FHWA and APTA data indicates “transit tends to have lower crash rates than automobile travel, even taking into account risks to other road users.” Source: VTPI

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In his paper, Littman discusses some of the reasons people overestimate the risks associated with riding public transit and underestimate the risk of driving or riding as a passenger in a private vehicle. The reasons include:

• Most drivers forget about the risk that they or other drivers pose when they speed, drive while impaired, or are distracted.
• People who don’t ride transit may not think about the protection afforded by a large very visible vehicle operated by a professional driver.
• Crashes involving public transit gain media attention, while car crashes are so common they are covered less often and then only locally.

Littman references other interesting research. He notes that regions with higher transit ridership and transit-friendly public policies—including Denver, Los Angeles, and Seattle—had lower traffic fatality and injury rates compared to auto-oriented cities with meager transit options (his examples: Cleveland, Dallas, Milwaukee). It appears that the same policies that increase transit ridership—lower traffic speeds, better connected road networks, higher development density, a good walking environment—also reduce vehicle trips, trip distance, and speeds, and contribute to improved traffic safety.

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Littman’s research suggests “pro-transit policies can significantly reduce traffic fatality rates even in newer, automobile-oriented cities.” Source: VTPI

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Littman’s paper also debunks some misconceptions about public transit and crime. The incidence of violent crime on transit vehicles and at transit stations is very low. For property crime, the rate of theft from private cars far exceeds the rate of theft at transit stops, stations, and park and rides.

Littman notes that transit agencies don’t often promote the safety benefit of transit use. In a review of the web pages of 20 major transit agencies, Littman notes that their messages typically emphasize perceived risks by focusing on personal safety and security, responsible behavior, reporting crime, transit policing, and terrorism. Metro Transit’s safety and security page falls in this category.

On the websites that I briefly reviewed, Tri-Met in Portland was unusual in having a positive statement about the safety of riding transit. It reads:

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Security fact: Most crimes reported on bus, MAX and WES are minor incidents and property crimes, such as vandalism. There are about three reported incidents a day, which is about one in every 100,000 trips.  

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Nevertheless, Tri-Met—like other agencies—forgets to talk about the safety of riding transit as compared to travel by private car.

Littman is right. It’s time for a new transit safety narrative.

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