Let's say you run a business and your front door opens 310,000 times a day to let customers inside. Many are regulars, going in and out a few times daily. They are mostly strangers to each other, and once inside they spend a lot of time crowded together in small spaces. At any given time, some are running late and very cranky; others are lonely or wasted; buried in a tattered copy of The Da Vinci Code; and/or just plain nuts.
If you had just three reports of people being hurt or harassed each day, people would think you were doing a decent job on the safety front, right? Yes, unless you're a public-transit agency.
Those stats (number of "boardings" vs. crimes reported) belong to TriMet, which runs 600 buses and 150 MAX light-rail cars a day in and around Portland. The agency's been in the news quite a bit lately, following a stabbing, a beating, and a sexual assault in the past three months.
Big, honking caveat time: This is not meant to minimize any crimes, or dismiss the fear and suffering of victims a whit. But it seems worth noting that covering transit crime has some differences from bad acts happening elsewhere, and we media folk could do better. This coverage is important; aside from the obvious public-safety and accountability reasons, we also seem to care more about transit crimes.
I asked Sound Transit spokesperson Linda Robson why a bus-stop assault causes more uproar than one down the street at a regular corner. Her answer was a good one:The public is invited into transit stations by a public agency; we've asked them to take advantage of our services, so naturally they hold us accountable for what happens there.
She was kind enough not to mention another reason that transit stuff gets more air time – the ease of setting up these stories for broadcast: A news guy stands in front of the bus shelter, reports the latest incident, notes that Riders Are Worried. Boom, done.
As I've watched coverage of the most recent such crime here in Portland – a sexual assault reported to TriMet and police, but not reported to the public until the angry victim did so herself – I'm reminded of another way that transit-crime reporting is different.
Transit turf, in Portland, Seattle, and most other cities of any size, is patrolled and protected by a mix of city, county, and transit police, and public and private security. (And that doesn't even take into account the Guardian Angels or that guy who used to ride the No. 8 Metro bus in Seattle, who politely asked each embarking passenger to state her or his name, then wrote it down in crayon in his tattered notebook.) This shared turf spreads security costs across sprawling systems, but can muddy the chain of command for releasing public information.
Along with Robson in Seattle, I traded e-mail last week with Mary Fetsch, TriMet's communications czarina. I've yet to talk to a transit flak for Metro, Sound Transit, or TriMet and get a weasely answer about crime; dissemblers they ain't. TriMet's Fetsch added this after the crime numbers I'd requested: During our recent safety summits that [TriMet General Manager] Fred Hansen pulled together, he heard from the police that stated that in the past 18 months or so, they've seen an escalation in rowdy, obnoxious and intimidating behavior on parts of the system, and which is substantially more pronounced at night. So despite low reported incidents, we need to do more for the safety and perception of safety on the system.
All this ruminating has prompted a few ideas on ways mainstream media could better serve its readers/viewers around public-transit:
- Newspapers and news sites covering transit could regularly surf and then link to those community blogs that discuss the issue thoughtfully, with a minimum of ranting.
- News outlets could institute a regular feature with a designated citizen transit-rider who writes/blogs/talks for a week or a month, commenting on what she or he experiences. This isn't a replacement for reporting, but when bad stuff happens, there would be real context from regular riders familiar with the transit landscape, not another one of those "man on the street" features that rarely capture a real sense of the reactions out there.
- Instead of the usual maps that show past crime stats, post system-wide interactive maps that allow registered users to record transit incidents as they happen.