How to Make Public Transportation Safer on a Shoestring Budget

Posted by Alissa Walker

Bus stop
For the past five years, I've ridden trains and buses in Los Angeles at least three times a week. But many of my female friends won't join me because of very real concerns about safety.

Such fears are common in every city, but especially sprawling ones like Los Angeles, where riders must walk further distances to our stops, and often through less populated environments. For women who have a choice about whether to drive or take the subway, the thought of a crowded platform or dark sidewalk is enough to keep them in their cozy cars. So how can a city like Los Angeles make its streets and transit more comfortable for women—and for everyone? 

Last year, after a fatal stabbing at a Red Line station (the only fatality since the system opened in 1993), Metro released comprehensive crime statistics that showed 1,216 "part one crimes" reported on Metro buses and trains in 2010. Most were thefts, but that category also includes rape or attempted rape, assault, robbery, and burglary. That adds up to about 2.77 crimes for every million passengers, which is more than Boston (2.63) but far less than DC (6.68) or Dallas (11.03).


A British study showed that men and women have different fears about riding public transit.

But vague statistics do very little to assuage one's concerns while standing at a dark and deserted bus stop, waiting nervously for a bus that's already 20 minutes late. An unwelcoming physical environment and unpredictable schedules are the greatest fears for female transit riders, according to Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, an urban planning professor at UCLA's School of Public Affairs. In 2009, she co-authored a study on how to improve transit safety, but since then, she's been disappointed at the lack of response from U.S. transit agencies. "I have not seen much in terms of outcomes, as far as agencies acting differently," she says.

While budgetary shortfalls might be to blame for the lack of safety innovations, Loukaitou-Sideris says there are low-cost solutions. Sometimes it's as simple as relocating the bus stop. "You can put the stop half a block away, but by a business that's open late and that has pedestrian traffic," Loukaitou-Sideris, she suggests, adding that many women reported walking farther to a different stop that was better lit or had more people around.

Training transit personnel to help make women feel at ease is another key to creating a positive transit experience, she says. This could include teaching drivers to be more accommodating to strollers (which are most often carried by women), as well as policy changes like allowing bus drivers to stop anywhere along their route late at night.

"The issue that came up again and again is that it's about feeling alone and intimidated," Loukaitou-Sideris says. Asking transit authorities to audit station design and employee policies and report on the changes they're making will not only encourage more women to try transit, it will improve the experiences of what she calls "captive riders"—the mostly lower-income women who don't have a choice.

Transit safety also requires improving the path to stations, says Jessica Meaney, an organizer for Safe Routes to School who works to identify and solve the problems keeping students and families from walking and biking to school. "In some communities it's hostile traffic conditions," she says, "but in others it's issues of personal safety—[including] gang presence, loitering, intimidating unleashed dogs, and other factors which can be scary and overwhelming." 


An example of an improved streetscape and bus stop from the My Figueroa project

Something as simple as overflowing trash cans can make transit riders feel uneasy, Meaney says. "What I'd like to see more are places to wait that are enjoyable, and that provide shade and dignity." Steps like beefing up crosswalk signs, reducing speed limits, and adding more shade can make a big difference, she says. And such measures not only improve the experience for riders, but also for walkers and drivers that who want safe streets too.

What do you think makes the best car-free day in L.A.? Vote for your favorite submission and help it win $500 to make it happen at the LA/2B GOOD Maker Challenge. Voting is open until May 31 at midnight PST.

This post is the second in a series exploring transportation issues in Los Angeles sponsored by LA/2B, an ongoing collaboration between the Los Angeles Department of City Planning, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LA DOT) and GOOD/Corps, an affiliate of GOOD, that provides an opportunity for people in Los Angeles to discuss the future of our streets and transportation.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user ciocci