TSA Brings Body Scanning to Transit Stations

Atlanta residents voted to expand MARTA service last fall, but the Trump budget would throw those plans into turmoil. Photo: Scott Ehardt via  Wikimedia Commons
Atlanta residents voted to expand MARTA service last fall, but the Trump budget would throw those plans into turmoil. Photo: Scott Ehardt via Wikimedia Commons

It’s the invasion of the body scanners.

Los Angeles Metro will be the first U.S. transit agency to use a security system created by the federal Transportation Security Administration to scan riders as they enter the system, the agency announced this week. New York and San Francisco has also been testing the technology, which TSA says will thwart terrorism or mass shootings. The agency says it plans to install the system at transit stations around the country, the New York Times reports.

These body-scanning machines are similar to those used at airports, but not as obtrusive to customers. The machines do not require passengers to wait in line but simply scan riders from a distance of 30 feet in search of items such as explosives or assault rifles, an LA Metro spokesperson told the paper, dismissing riders’ inevitable concerns about privacy or inconvenience. But authorities admit there will be false positives among scanned customers, leading to delays.

Some critics say the devices will not likely have a big impact on safety and will instead make public transit more of a hassle — and inconvenience and delays are two of the leading factors that depress transit ridership. Metro officials told the LA Times‘ Laura Nelson that if people do not agree to be scanned, they will not be allowed to ride the train that day — a policy that has Fourth Amendment implications.

Metro’s embrace of TSA scanners also raises questions about over policing and racial profiling, which has dogged LA Metro, says Streetsblog LA’s Sahra Sulaiman.

“These are sort of constant issues that are raised,” she said. “Who are we protecting? Who are we protecting them from? It’s sort of a security theater approach.”

LA is rolling out the new system as it prepares to host the Olympics in 2028, said Sulaiman. But if the scanners are randomly deployed at only a few stations, the protection against terrorism is mere window dressing, as a would-be bomber could simply go to another station to board. Metro officials did say that the new TSA checkpoints will not coordinate with any immigration enforcement agencies, but that policy is rare around the country.

Then there’s the question of how much these types of scans will really help improve safety. New York’s Port Authority bus terminal was the site of a pipe bombing, late last year, but no one was killed or injured. The Mineta Institute reports only 12 attempted attacks on U.S. transit systems since 1970. Only three of those were fatal and it is not clear that they could have been prevented with body scanners. In 1995, for example, an Amtrak train was derailed by a neo-Nazi, Mineta reports. Then again, a body scanner that happened to be deployed in the right place at the right time might have deterred Long Island Rail Road gunman Colin Ferguson, who killed six people with a 9mm pistol in 1993.

Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA told the New York Times that transit riders are still much more likely to be a victim of a more mundane crime on transit than a terrorist attack.

Security lines like this one at an airport inconvenience many customers. Photo: ##http://theotherhubby.com/2012/08/##The Other Hubby##
Security lines like this one at an airport inconvenience many customers. Photo: ##http://theotherhubby.com/2012/08/##The Other Hubby##

Sulaiman points out a man was caught masturbating this week aboard an Expo Line train and he is still at loose. And almost a two years ago, a young man, 23-year-old César Rodríguez, was struck and killed by a Metro train fleeing a police interrogation over fare evasion, an incident local civil rights activists say never should have occurred. Such actual crimes are more likely than the vague threat of terror to undermine confidence in a city’s transit system.

Beyond that, there is little evidence that TSA scans are very effective at reducing the likelihood of a terror attack. A team of undercover Homeland Security officers tested the effectiveness of the airport system in 2015 by sending 70 agents with weapons through security. All but three were cleared for their flights. Many experts doubt that the TSA scans have ever stopped a terrorist attack, but they have certainly made flying a bigger hassle. Some experts question whether the current airport scanning systems are even necessary. And if airport hassles incentivize people to drive more, such systems will end up leading to more deaths, not fewer.

There have been few transit-related terrorist attacks in the U.S., but there has been a rash of criminals using cars and trucks as their weapons. The murderous attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year and on the Hudson River Greenway in New York the previous year could not have been prevented with scanners at local train stations. New York City has moved to install bollards in crowded areas to prevent these kinds of attacks. London has made infrastructure changes to deter terrorist attacks on trains by, for example, limiting the number of trash cans on platforms and deploying see-through bags.

Prior to the latest development, U.S. transit agencies mostly use special bomb-sniffing dogs or “See Something, Say Something” campaigns to guard against terrorism.

  • qrt145

    Did they finally invent “Total Recall scanning technology”? 🙂


    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wY0bk31ylA

  • jennix

    Fluoroscopes were invented in 1895.

  • RepubAnon

    So, how does the NRA feel about this blatant disregard of the right to bear arms? If the government bans people from carrying firearms, knives, etc on public transit, things will get amusing.

    And these scanners – are they the infamous “naked” scanners that see through your clothes as though you were naked? Will cancer rates jump due to radiation exposure?

  • MassMan

    Let’s just get it over with and mandate full strip searches, DNA collection, armed guards who demand our papers, retina scanners, rectal exams and finger print scanners at all public places. We’re fooling ourselves to think that the government isn’t slowly but surely eroding our rights in the name of “safety” and “security”. It’s totally Orwellian and it’s a slippery slope that no one can navigate. It’s over, folks, and the US Constitution is dead.

  • zucho drig

    Also, as Russian Railroads did (not) learn the hard way (the do not learn), such security lines themselves become targets for attacks.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Why Charging Transit Riders to Transfer Makes No Sense

|
Paying twice for a single trip that requires two buses makes no sense, says Jarrett Walker. Photo: FMynameisharsha/Flickr Los Angeles Metro recently eliminated the charge for transferring from from one transit line to another. Eliminating transfer charges is becoming more widespread among transit agencies, and at Human Transit, Jarrett Walker explains why that’s a very […]

New Website Prompts Transit Agencies to Open Data to the Public

|
(Image: City-go-Round) The software developers and open data advocates at Front Seat, known more familiarly for their Walk Score rankings of the most walkable U.S. cities, have turned their focus on transit agencies that have resisted opening transit data to third-party, open-source developers. Their new website, City-Go-Round, is an effort to encourage agencies to release […]

Funding Mass Transit Security After Bin Laden

|
The demise of Osama Bin Laden has transit officials across the country preparing their agencies for possible retaliatory attacks. In Washington, Mayor Vincent Gray informed constituents via Twitter that “users will see an increase in # of officers throughout [Metro] system (trains & buses).” In New York, a spokesperson announced MTA had “increased security at […]

Too Many Transfers, Too Much Parking, Not Enough Multi-Modalism

|
Around the Streetsblog Network today: When Transit Agencies Don’t Coordinate Well: Traveling between transit service areas in the same region can be a pain. You may have to pay an additional fare or transfer several times. It all depends on how well adjacent transit agencies cooperate and coordinate. According to an analysis by Jason McHuff […]

Why Are U.S. Transit Agencies Failing to Implement Modern Train Designs?

|
Almost every urban rail system in America lacks a key design feature that’s become standard in cities around the globe: open gangways, which let people easily walk between cars, increasing capacity and leading to smoother operations. Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic points out that even New York City’s extensive and crowded subway system won’t be including […]