Fighting transit fear with transit facts

By Bill Holloway

While per-capita traffic casualties are declining with increasing transit ridership, many people still harbor an irrational fear of public transit—making them less likely to use transit or support increased transit service.  Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (VTPI) released a new study last month that delves into this issue.

Passenger safety is one concern that people have expressed about transit. In fact, riding transit offers many safety benefits. As the report notes, transit riders have a 90 percent lower per-mile fatality rate than automobile passengers, and when risks to non-users are included, transit still is twice as safe as passenger car travel on a per-passenger-mile basis. There also is a strong relationship between overall traffic fatality rates and annual per-capita transit passenger miles, with fatalities decreasing as transit ridership climbs.

Concerns about crime and terrorism also contribute to the perceived risk of using transit. The relationship between transit and crime is complicated by transit service and ridership being greatest in urban areas, where crime rates tend to be higher. However, there is a strong argument that transit reduces crime by increasing passive and active security in an area, and in the longer term, better transit access can yield economic and crime-reduction benefits by increasing economic opportunities for disadvantaged populations. Also, while news coverage of terrorist strikes against transit facilities has fed transit fears, the risk to automobile passengers from traffic crashes vastly exceeds terrorism-related risks to transit riders.

Public perceptions of the risks associated with transit are fueled by greater media coverage for transit versus road fatalities, transit agency messaging that emphasizes dangers, the minor discomforts that sometimes accompany transit use, and other factors. To combat irrational fears about transit, whether based on crime, terrorism, or traffic safety, the study recommends that agencies focus on improving their messaging to craft a new “safety narrative.” By conveying a consistent message that emphasizes the overall safety of transit travel, provides realistic information about potential risks, and empowers passengers and communities to improve safety, public transit agencies can improve passenger peace of mind, increase ridership, and build public support for transit service.

Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.