Cities want to return to pre-pandemic life. An obstacle: Transit crime.

CHICAGO – For months, Anna Balla, 47, tolerated the unruly behavior she says has become commonplace when she drives on “L” in the center: smoking, harassment and even a stranger’s unsolicited use of her shoulder to vault into a place in a crowded train in Chicago.

But it was a ride in March that made her swear all the way from the trains. At a busy stop in the heart of the Loop during rush hour, she saw a young man without a torso jerk at a woman and hit her with an empty beer bottle as she crouched down and screamed on the platform. Ms. Balla jumped out of the packed car and fled onto the street.

“I was just worried that someone would pull out a gun, or if the police arrived, it would turn into a shootout,” Ms. Balla, a museum registrar in Chicago. “It had that feeling over it.”

Just as a number of major cities are trying to lure people back to formerly bustling city centers, executives are facing transit crime rates that have risen above pre-pandemic levels in New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Earlier this month, a Brooklyn subway shooting injured 23 people. In other cities, stories of violent assaults, assaults and stabbings on buses dominate and took the evening news and worried conversations in the neighborhood’s apps.

The low number of passengers has led many passengers to say that they feel more vulnerable than before. In Philadelphia, the number of certain serious crimes reported on public transportation is higher than before the pandemic, and in New York it is roughly equal to previous levels, although the number of passengers in both places is significantly lower. In other cities, fewer crimes are reported than in 2019, but crime has increased because there are so few passengers.

The crisis in public transport systems threatens the nation’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic: Restoring confidence in subways, commuter railways and buses, officials say, could help save local economies from two years of hibernation, encourage more workers to return to city offices and make tourists enjoy moving around the cities freely. In densely populated places like Chicago and New York, where public transportation is essential for millions of people, the well-being of the system can feel like a proxy for the city itself.

Mayors, transit agencies and police departments are struggling with ways to reduce crime and restore commuter confidence, but the fate of public transport and city centers, experts say, can be intertwined in complicated ways: If more people return to public transport while walking. back to offices and shops, trains can feel more secure; But if transit systems feel insecure, people are reluctant to return to the city centers that hollowed out in the middle of Covid.

In Chicago, where the nation’s second-largest public transportation system served an average of 800,000 riders on weekdays in March, crime on city trains and buses has risen this year – and even before the pandemic, serious crime on public transportation rose. Last month, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced increased security and additional police officers to address fears from riders.

“It’s one of the most important things we can do to actually change the perception of the city in general,” said Kevin Ryan, vice president of security for the Chicago Transit Authority, about the safety of the public transportation system. “This is the first thing many people who enter the city see. It is the lifeblood of many of the underprivileged or poorer communities that do not have private vehicles that depend on this. That’s the key to CTA being a secure system. “

The number of crimes reported on public transportation in Chicago is about half of what it was pre-pandemic, he said, but the number of passengers has also dropped by about half. The decline in riders on many public transportation systems is crucial to the crime rates on these systems: In Los Angeles, the raw number of crimes recorded in 2021 was lower than in the years before the pandemic, according to data provided by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. , the number of crimes per trip was higher.

In other cities, such as Philadelphia, the actual incidents of certain crimes on public transportation have been on the rise throughout the pandemic. In 2021, SEPTA police recorded 86 aggravated assaults, up from 46 in 2019. Robbery rose to 217 from 118 during that period. Crime figures from the first months of 2022 indicate a small decrease in cases of aggravated violence.

The challenges are not limited to transportation, said Jamie Gauthier, a Philadelphia City Councilman, but part of a broader trend toward rising crime and violence across the city.

“We have an opioid epidemic and we have a housing crisis,” Ms Gauthier said, “so the things we’ve seen in the city, by and large, have also migrated into our public transport system.”

Part of the growing concern about crime, experts said, may reflect changing perceptions among commuters, many of whom at least stopped their usual trips on buses and trains during the pandemic. The prospect of returning to public transportation has left some people assessing safety in ways they might never have considered when daily commutes were provided. To increase the excitement for some passengers, the withdrawal of the mask rules for public transportation in many cities was after a Florida judge struck down federal mask mandates on planes and public transportation.

Christopher B. Leinberger, an emeritus professor of business at George Washington University who studies urban space and transit, said the most effective way to reduce violence on public transportation systems was to get more people back to driving on them. “Having lots of people from all different incomes on mass transportation is the best way to suppress crime,” he said. “Obviously the police have a big role to play, but it’s really about having people, many eyes, on different people.”

Long before the pandemic, several public transport systems were already challenged by funding problems, high maintenance costs and stagnant passenger numbers. Then came the virus, which set in motion a sudden drop in passengers amid shutdowns and shutdowns, starved transit agencies of revenue and raised questions about the fate of some systems. Now the faltering returns, partly spurred on by hybrid office work, and the rising crime rates in some systems are expanding this uncertainty.

In Los Angeles, crime on the county’s subway system has risen during the pandemic, fueling long-running debates over police work, homelessness and mental health.

“Most of our problems at Metro are about people who are not protected,” said Hilda Solis, a Los Angeles County supervisor who also chairs the Metro board. “So it’s more of a housing issue than a law enforcement issue.”

Darrell Owens, a member of the East Bay Transit Riders Union and a Bay Area transit advocate, said public transportation was sometimes the only place Americans encounter strangers, meaning that fears for safety there are often disproportionate to the dangers of to drive a car, which is often the biggest. dangerous regular activity for Americans.

“The public is suffering in American cities,” he said. “That’s why American transit is so crowded: It’s one of the only times secluded people see other members of the public.”

In Washington, crime on the subway has fallen this year from earlier in the pandemic, but remains higher than before the pandemic. In particular, the number of mental health-related calls has increased drastically.

At Metro Atlanta’s transit system, MARTA, officials have sought new ways to deal with people seeking refuge on public transportation during the pandemic. In August 2020, the system launched a program in which officials said uniformed, unarmed security personnel would help the homeless by referring them to shelters, counseling and treatment when needed.

“I think you will see more and more of it throughout the transit world,” said M. Scott Kreher, MARTA’s police chief.

At the forefront of the country’s challenges with public transport are workers. They had already faced a higher risk due to the virus because their jobs kept them in the public eye, and some systems have reported struggles to rebuild their workforces. Public transport workers say harassment – physical assaults, threats and objects thrown at them – remains widespread despite declining passenger numbers.

“Things have gotten worse – you need to get back to some stability, and you need to make it safer for people,” said Eric Dixon, president of the Chicago-based train workers’ union, which has called for a more robust police presence and additional conductors in trains to fight crime.

Kimberly Benedetto has experienced her fair share of harassment during her 23 years of driving the Philadelphia system’s bus – passengers yelling at her and even spitting in her direction. But none of that compares to what she’s seen over the last few years.

“I feel like things have gotten out of control,” said Mrs Benedetto, who said she experienced a particularly frightening incident in September of a teenager who threatened to assault her over a request to wear a mask, a claim at the time.

“I will not stay one day for the last 30 years,” Mrs Benedetto said, referring to the term of office she needs to receive her full pension. “I drive school buses – I just want to get away from this.”

Sophie Kasakov reported from New York, Jill Cowan from Los Angeles and Richard Fausset from Atlanta. Jonah E. Bromwich contributed reporting from New York.

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