Examining the safe in safe, reliable transit

MBTA needs to prioritize needs of most at-risk riders

LAST DECEMBER, a report by the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security concluded that bias-motivated incidents (hate crimes) in Massachusetts are at an all-time high in the last decade. Unsurprisingly, individuals of color and young women (statistically) face increased threats, particularly when traveling alone and/or late at night. It is typical for society to respond with bland rhetoric (e.g. “they need to learn to watch out for themselves!”); but truthfully, there is no guaranteed way for an individual to ensure their own safety, as violence and kidnappings in Boston continue to occur in broad daylight and in public squares.

It’s time that we consider the role of how the T facilitates broader public safety, particularly in securing the protection of our most precarious populations in an era where the vulnerable feel even more so. Transit advocates routinely call for the MBTA to provide “safe, reliable transit,” but often only voice support for the importance of reliability. Looking forward, advocates and policymakers alike need to ensure that the T prioritizes the inclusion of our most at-risk riders. After all, when you buy a Charlie ticket, you expect the T to take all necessary precautions to guarantee you a safe ride—whoever you may be.

The Globe reported last week that violent crime is down on the T, a tribute to recent efforts by the Transit Police. But it’s important to consider the other kinds of safety that the T is responsible to provide, namely that of preventing verbal harassment, administering accessibility to those with special needs, and providing service to those running out of safe options for challenging commutes. These are all different (perhaps more challenging to address) facets of the same solution.

The first concern – on-board safety against harassment – is a challenge to law enforcement across the globe. Nationally, the vast majority of crimes occurring on public transit are thought to go completely unreported, which makes addressing the problem even more difficult as we cannot accurately evaluate its scope. However, we know that instances of groping/sexual assault happen frequently and it demonstrably shapes the way that women commute, according to Streetsblog. Thus, it seems the only way to address the issue is to get ahead of it.

To this end, the MBTA has run anti-harassment campaigns, the most recent having been in November 2016.  The campaign featured 800 signs and digital displays. The result of collaboration between the MBTA, the MBTA Transit Police, the Boston Center for Independent Living, and the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, the campaign managed to inform passengers how to report harassment both as a bystander and as a victim. But providing riders with information from this campaign for one winter by no means fixed the problem indefinitely. We need to ensure that we continue to invest in anti-harassment messaging, reviving campaigns such as this one repeatedly and cyclically.

The campaign was also explicitly inclusive of people with disabilities, as those with disabilities currently face enough challenge onboard the T. While the MBTA has made considerable headway in addressing gaps in its service to the disabled through Uber and Lyft partnerships, the problem is by no means solved. Advocates, like those featured in the linked article, need to continue to be a part of the solution.

The second major safety concern – proving public transportation as a comparatively safer option to other modes – is also a global concern. In every city, travel inherently poses danger, no matter the mode. However, Boston has been relatively unkind to those traveling late at night, namely by culling late-night rapid transit service. This compels night owls (who are disproportionately from low-income communities, as these are the individuals who must work jobs outside of the 9-to-5 norm) to opt to walk home alone or take a costly Uber or Lyft.

Data on the safety of these ride-hailing apps are notoriously hard to find, given their practical incentive to hide internal misconduct. However, countless police reports and Department of Public Utilities driver background checks suggest they are not nearly as safe as they might have you believe. Given this situation, it is the obligation of the state to fill in where gaps in safety are present. A city as diverse and filled with young people as Boston is needs to address this issue more head-on.

Currently, the T’s pilot of late-night bus service has partially succeeded in addressing this concern. But it doesn’t go nearly as far as it needs to. Only a handful of lines run late, and they run relatively infrequently. As we consider planning for a safer future, it is critical that we consider expanding the availability of transit late at night (it doesn’t just serve drunk college students), so we no longer force Bostonians to choose between rocks and even harder places. Even if the service operates at a financial loss, it would be money well spent if lives are saved or improved.

Meet the Author

Rachel Adele Dec

Public Affairs Associate, MassINC
If the T is indeed raising its fares this summer, so, too, should the positive experiences of all of its passengers. While it is indisputable that the MBTA needs to improve its reliability and efficiency, the distinct needs of the most vulnerable cannot be forgotten as they too often are. The T needs to be made readily available to riders who need it most, and those riders need to feel safe while they are on board. To best serve these populations, we must ensure that the MBTA works towards mitigating harassment/misconduct on its cars and in stations, ensuring the antiquated system continues to modernize at a faster pace to serve those with physical disabilities, and increasing hours of service to best provide for those traveling at night. Reform, particularly in the realm of public transit, shouldn’t just be about bottom lines and budgets; it needs to center on principles and service.

Rachel Adele Dec is a public affairs associate at MassINC, the publisher of CommonWealth.