Transit Funding Cuts Are Putting Bus Drivers in Danger

Attacks on transit drivers are not a new problem. But it seems to be getting worse.

A spike in violence has compelled Seattle area buses to carry this PSA. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/viriyincy/4300020950/in/pool-624040@N24/##Oran Viriyincy/Flickr##

A bus driver now gets assaulted every three days in the United States, estimates the Amalgated Transit Union. Headlines abound of drivers getting kicked, punched, stabbed and shot, while the lower-profile offenses – spitting and verbal harassment – have almost become part of the job description.

For many transit workers, it’s plain to see how the recession has inflated a trend that already existed. Working alone and dealing with money, drivers have always been vulnerable. Mix in a more frustrated, downtrodden population of passengers with a host of service cuts and fare increases, and you get combustion.

“People who are poorer than they were, … who rely more on transit than they did, who are waiting longer at bus stops for the bus to come because the service has been cut,” said Larry Hanley, president of the ATU. When they board the bus, “the driver’s sitting there in a uniform, representing the government, telling them, you got to pay a higher tax for this service,” he said.

Nationwide statistics are lacking, but many jurisdictions have reported recent increases in driver attacks. The Philadelphia Transport Workers Union local reports that assaults there more than doubled in 2011 compared to 2010. New York City has seen a 30 percent increase in 2012. There’s also not a lot of hard data linking an uptick in assaults to fare increases or service cuts, said Robin Gillespie, program director of safety and health at the Transportation Learning Center. But “people feel that way,” she said.

And attacks occur most commonly during fare collection. “The conflict is over money,” said Hanley. “It’s people who have a pocket full of empty and have to get to a place.”

As the problem gets more prevalent, transit unions are getting more organized in their efforts to deal with it.

This spring the ATU teamed up with the TWU to form a new coalition focused on driver safety issues.

“It’s a nationwide project to look at what’s going on with transit operators,” said Gillespie,a national campaign that’s organized by the international unions… with support from transit agency groups.”

And last month, TWU Local 100 helped organize what was thought to be the first national conference on transit worker assaults. The May 10 event in Brooklyn was New York City-focused – with various local officials attending – but helped fuel a broader conversation, said John Johnson Jr., president of TWU Local 234 in Philadelphia.

Johnson came to conference sharing personal experience – as a driver, he once had a gun put to his head – as well as wisdom from his union’s recent activism.

Following a marked increase in attacks in Philadelphia, TWU Local 234 organized a task force to work with city officials and community groups, and took a survey of local bus drivers. In the report Johnson sent to Streetsblog [PDF], 40 percent of responding drivers said they had been victims of assaults and 64 percent had witnessed assaults.

The survey was “the first in the country” to gather information directly from drivers, according to Johnson. In the past, he said, “a lot of them mentioned they were assaulted, but they themselves haven’t reported it” to the authorities, sometimes due to fear of taking the blame.

More research on assaults as a national phenomenon is happening right now, according to Gillespie. Her organization, the Transportation Learning Center, is working with labor unions and transit agencies across the country to pull information together.

There’s also a growing national conversation about ways to fix the problem. The new union coalition has been “working to try to figure out some creative solutions so that we can actually prevent the assaults before they happen,” Hanley said.

Some of the ideas out there are fairly experimental  — like arming drivers with pepper spray or tasers. In New York City, there’s been talk of cash rewards for riders who report assaults.

A few options would require potentially expensive changes to bus designs. Many drivers have pushed for creating a door on the left side of the bus, near their seat, so they can exit that way.

And various cities have tried enclosing drivers with a physical barrier, like a Plexiglas shield. That tactic is controversial, said Jeff Rosenberg, ATU’s director of government affairs. “Some of the drivers seem to like it, others said they didn’t like the feeling of isolation,” he said. Issues like air-conditioning can complicate design.

Last December the Transit Cooperative Research Program of the Transportation Research Board put together a thorough report on different strategies for reducing assaults.

Most effective, the report found, is video surveillance, operator training and a visible police presence. The latter has seen success in Pierce County, Washington, where a uniformed fleet of officers helped reduce criminal activity by 60 percent, and in Boston, where police cars “escort” buses on high-risk routes.

The new union coalition will also be looking at legislative solutions. Though the Patriot Act allows for up to 20 years in prison for an assault of a transit worker, Rosenberg said, “the problem is, it looks good on paper but has not actually been enforced … even in some heinous cases.”

The ATU has already been active in pressing local jurisdictions to set stiffer penalties for assaults, and to advertise those penalties to the public. In states with weaker protections, “a lot of laws are rendered meaningless,” Rosenberg said, with cases never making it to court.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    Grasping at straws, anyone?

    I especially loved this:

    The new union coalition has been “working to try to figure out some creative solutions so that we can actually prevent the assaults before they happen.”

    Thought police!Good to see the Patriot Act in the witches brew also, with the bonus observation that “It looks good on paper but has not actually been enforced … even in some heinous cases.”.  If only.

  • El Barto

    maybe is bus drivers weren’t such assholes to car drivers and bike riders… I get run into the curb or tail gated by an impatient fuck of a bus driver every month or so…

  • El Barto

    and that figure… a bus driver gets assaulted every three days in the nation? it just doesn’t seem that alarming… by contrast 3 bikes and peds are hit and left behind 3 times a day in Los Angeles city alone… 

  • Ubrayj02

    It is great to see the both bus riders and bus drivers are working hard to see whom can push the other further down the ladder of respect and tolerance.

    Assaulting someone who drives a bus is wrong because assault is wrong. We don’t live in tribal packs anymore, we leave fighting to the courts – at least in principal.

    In LA, an increased police presence on transit, and a customer service team that actually cared about customer service, would go a long way to stopping this problem.

  • Davistrain

    One quibble: Admittedly, the drivers work alone, but as far as handling money is concerned, that disappeared about 40 years ago when most transit systems adopted “exact fare only” policies as a result of increasing street crime.  An incident that is still remembered in Los Angeles was the RTD bus driver who was murdered by a punk who
    stole his change fund–probably $50 at most.  What made the case even more tragic was the fact that the victim in this case had started out running streetcars for the Los Angeles Ry. Co. in the 1930’s and was a few weeks away from retirement.  Time to amend the prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment” to allow flogging in the town square for scumbags who assault workers who are just trying to do their job.  As far as bus drivers with bad attitudes are concerned, they’re like cops who have to patrol the crummy part of town–if the people you see most often are foul-mouthed losers, the attitude tends to rub off.

  • I think this is much more serious than some of the comments make it out as being. Here is a driver in Canada who ended up with a serious concusion when he tried to collect a fare from someone sneaking through the back door

    http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Assaulted+driver+Charles+Dixon+returns+work+with+headgear/6543700/story.html

    And look at this footage of a passenger going ballistic when his foot was accidentally stepped on – thankfully the thug has been caught by L.A. Police Dept.

    http://www.lapdonline.org/lapdtv/content_basic_view/50829

  • Anonymous

    Transit cuts might actually make bus drivers safer. Less service means less opportunities to be assaulted. Decreasing span of service would mean less empty late-night buses with few witnesses to an assault.

  • Ben Kintisch

    I never condone violence, but we have to understand why folks are getting so angry. It’s not an excuse to attack bus operators, of course, but with ever diminishing service, sometimes coupled with increased fares, people are really mad and for good reason. Of course, getting violent is not acceptable, but it is helpful to understand some of the undercurrents of this violence.

  • Robin Gillespie

    A correction- some transit employers are engaging with the union on their internal programs. But the local and international unions are without a doubt taking the lead.

  • If you haven’t seen Larry Hanley on Laura Flanders here it is, he does a great interview there:

     http://rantingsofatrimetbusdriver.blogspot.com/2012/06/atu-international-president-larry.html#more

  • And don’t forget part of the problem is the transit districts themselves paint their own employees as over paid, over benefited, etc creating a public that has lost respect for drivers.

  • Anonymous

    “It’s not an excuse to attack bus operators, of course, but with ever diminishing service, sometimes coupled with increased fares, people are really mad and for good reason.”

    Lower fares and increase service, or we’ll hurt this bus driver. It’s like a hostage situation on a macro scale.

    I doubt the kind of people who would swing on a bus driver know anything about the issues surrounding transit fares and service levels, and all of the political and economic implications thereof. 

    But let’s go with it. People assaulting bus drivers are fed up with fares and service cuts. If that were the case, why would you assault the operator, who has no decision-making ability within the organization. Wouldn’t it be more logical to attack the transit executives and board members, if you were going to attack anyone?

    An otherwise sane individual was pushed to the brink by the $1.50 fare. I don’t buy it. 

  • Anonymous

    By the way, Ben, why not assault taxpayers on the street? After all, they refuse to pay the taxes to increase service levels and subsidize fares. Take them out of their cars and beat them up until they hand over tax revenues. Go into stores and recover your tax revenues from the shelves. Oh wait, that’s already happening.

    http://violentflashmobs.com/ 

    I’m sure all the “youths” are just fed up with the lack of social services (implying we don’t already have a welfare state) and the state of the economy. I even heard one flash rob participant say we have to audit the Fed and find out what is really happening with inflation. 

  • Vayos83

    give THEM a GUN and it will STOP

  • Odessa CutchinRay

    I am a transit driver in the high dersert of victorville califoria. I do not get paid the hih bucks, but yet I get the same responabilities as a driver in the big city my union is not strong. If I have a complant where do I go? 

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