Thursday, August 5, 2010

Transit and safety

Over at, a frequent poster who is a harsh TriMet critic posted a news item concerning a recent act of violence involving the MAX system.  Apparently, a pair of hoodlums were having a smoke at Gateway TC, when a TriMet employee and an off-duty deputy (who flashed a badge at 'em) told them to put it out.  They did, but got on the same southbound Green Line train as the deputy, and after the cop got off the train at Clackamas Town Center, the two men jumped him.  The attackers were quickly subdued and arrested, but the deputy suffered a few minor injuries.

The thread quickly turned into a heated debate about transit safety, or Why (Everyone Thinks) Transit Is Dangerous.  The incident is an isolated one, no civilians were injured, and the security personnel involved did their jobs.  Yet the attack was featured on no less than three different evening news programs, and prompted a few of the local anti-transit advocates to fan the "TriMet is unsafe" flames.  (Disclaimer:  Some of the content here was taken from my comments on that thread...I'm a sucker for a good heated debate).

Is TriMet dangerous?

The safety of TriMet has been in the news quite a bit.  There are two essential components of safety--risk of accidents, and risk of crime--and TriMet has attracted much bad press (some of it deserved) on both counts.  A series of high-profile attacks on the Eastside Blue Line a few years back prompted TriMet to install fare gates at some platforms (the system mainly runs on the proof-of-payment system; the fare gates are intended to keep thugs off the line under the theory that potential violent offenders are also likely fare-jumpers).  Recently, the Clackamas County Sheriff complained that crime had risen in the vicinity of Clackamas Town Center since the Green Line opened.  TriMet disputes these claims, and has been trying to get clarification on these claims--including information as to whether apprehended miscreants were (ab)using MAX, or whether the new park-and-ride is an attractive target for thieves, or whether this is just a result of increased traffic, increased law enforcement presence, or coincidence.  It's worth noting that the sheriff has publicly complained about tax-increment financing for the Milwaukie Line, so there's some evidence of a strained relationship between his department and TriMet.

TriMet has been fortunate in that it has not experienced any accidents resulting in serious injury to passengers in quite a while.  However, pedestrians and cyclists have not been as fortunate, and there have been several incidents in recent years of walkers and bikers being struck by busses and trains--in some cases, the fault of the operator, in others, the fault of the person struck.  After the April 2010 accident where a bus ran down five pedestrians in a crosswalk, killing two, the agency engaged in much navel-gazing, culminating with the appointment of a director of safety; who reports directly to the general manager.    

Or are standards too high?

Certainly, TriMet has had problems.  But are expectations too high for the agency (or conversely, too low for other forms of transport?

One common area of criticism from many critics is that the agency doesn't "do enough" to promote safety.  There are often calls for the agency to hire more security and more fare inspectors, to install fare gates on more of the system, or to even close stations in blighted areas.  Often, such calls come with the expectation that the cost of this will be borne by the agency and its passengers--not by additional tax increases beyond what the agency already receives--implying that the difference will need to be made up by lesser service, higher fares, or both.

But is this fair?  States, counties, and local governments in Oregon spend hundreds of millions, if not billions, on police officers (and other emergency responders) designated to traffic patrol--essentially, security services for roads and highways.  The Oregon State Police patrol division--which doesn't do anything but patrol the state highways of Oregon--has a budget of over $100 million.  The thirty-six county sheriffs and numerous municipal police departments in the state likewise devote considerable resources not to crime prevention or investigation, but to nabbing speeders and drunks and cleaning up accidents.  And virtually all of this police work is paid for out of the general fund.  There aren't suggestions that ODOT ought to pay for the OSP Patrol Division out of gas tax proceeds (in fact, OSP was funded by gas taxes in the past, but the law was changed twenty years ago).  Patrolling the highways and byways (and many other public speces) is generally assumed to be part of the job description of police--they just do it.  However, patrolling transit is treated by many law enforcement agencies like a budget-busting headache.

Of course, the "transit is dangerous" meme is an old one.  There are some places where public transit is (or was at one point) the exclusive province of the poor, and violent incidents on bus lines or subways are not uncommon.  Many people are uncomfortable travelling with other demographic groups, and this discomfort is often perceived as a safety issue.  Even in New York City, where busses and trains run every few minutes, you can get anywhere on transit, and driving is miserable--there are lots of residents who use taxis to get around.

A question of structure

But this debate poses an interesting question:  Why has there been complaints from law enforcement about servicing transit, when you don't hear the same complaints uttered about patrolling parks, highways, local streets and sidewalks, shopping malls, and other public (and quasi-public) places? 

Part of the issue might be one of structure.  There are several different arrangements by which public services (public works, police, fire, transit, schools, ports, utilities, etc.) can be provided by the government:
  • As a department within "general" government (a city, state, county, or national government agency)--where the head of the department in question reports to, and serves at the pleasure of, elected officials.
  • As a department within a larger general government, where the department head is him/herself an elected official; a common example in Oregon are county sheriffs.  
  • As a "special district", separate from any mainline government agency, where a board of directors is elected by the voters, and in turn hires a manager, approves budgets, etc.
  • As a commission, or similar arrangement, where an independent agency has directors which are appointed by an elected official.  Unlike department heads, who serve at the pleasure of their superiors in mainline government, the commissioners in such an arrangement are often appointed for fixed terms, and in many cases cannot be removed without due process (and generally not without cause).
Many public services can also be provided by the private sector; those arrangements aren't relevant to this post.

In a post at The Urbanophile, Aaron Renn mentioned an article concerning mergers among fire departments in the Midwest, and whether that would produce cost savings or not.  He concluded his remarks with this:

I’m generally all in favor of eliminating non-general purpose units of governments that aren’t controlled by elected officials of a real government that people actually care about (e.g., a city or county). But not for merger related savings, which don’t seem to exist. 

In a comment, he added the following:

I do dislike special districts that aren’t accountable. Indiana township government is a perfect example. Indiana townships are not general purpose governments. They provide only certain functions like poor relief and fire departments (mostly in rural areas). They are controlled by their own elected officials, who operate largely out of sight, out of mind with the public. Unsurprisingly, the trustees and boards who run them do so as if they were personal fiefs, often employing relatives, and giving themselves generous pay and benefits for almost no work. Center Township in Indianapolis, for example, which is entirely inside the city limits, has amassed a huge property portfolio and over $10 million in cash for no apparent purpose.

Schools are another interesting one. They are often a similar case. I support mayoral control of schools, generally.

This old school notion of Tocquevillian style government with a plethora of elected officials and a patchwork of jurisdictions is simply not relevant in the current era. For sure it doesn’t work, or get the benefits that Tocqueville saw from it today. I do happen to think there’s a loss there. For example, we’ve seen the rise of the political class versus the citizen government ideal of old. But we can’t roll back the clock, and today’s urban scale is very different from the past.

In general, my preference is for competent governance.  Muni is subordinate to the city of San Francisco, and the service their stinks in large part because city government is famously dysfunctional.  However, Renn has a point.  Many special districts are run by officials who are elected in noncompetitive elections that nobody cares about.

But another issue, that is relevant to this post--is that in Oregon, transit authorities are generally special districts (TriMet is run by a governor-appointed commission); whereas the police and public works are generally part of mainline government.  While Metro and other MPOs can help bridge differences; it often remains the case that public agencies which are not part of a common reporting structure will have different organizational missions and goals.  Communication may be deficient--as nobody is responsible for the intersection of the services provided.  They may compete with each for public resources, and in some cases, may actively try to undermine each other.  Such arguments may occur within mainline government of course, but when two departments are part of the same larger organization; there is a built-in means for resolving such disputes. 

This arrangement can have consequences beyond law enforcement complaining about the cost of patrolling transit.  Jarrett blogs about a recent event in Ottawa, wherein construction crews tore up a downtown stretch of the Ottawa Transitway, without informing the transit agency--resulting in a major disruption of bus service.  And many efforts to install BRT are routinely stymied by public works departments, who view signal priority for busses with hostility--understandable, as their organizational mission is often centered on efficiently moving cars.


  1. See my comment over at Portland Transport:

    August 7, 2010 3:18 AM
    Max Says:

    re: MAX crime

    Forgive me if this has already been said; since I largely ignore all of the comments due to the continual non-productive regurgitative arguments between Karlock + others, but...

    It seems like these high profile cases are the result of someone deciding it was their duty to tell someone else how they should act.

    Ex: Off-duty officer tells two men to stop smoking/drinking on the platform

    Ex: Chilcote (the "poor elderly gresham man") "chastised the boys, telling them their mothers should be ashamed at how they treat others."

    I think the moral of the story is: maybe it's best to keep comments like these to yourself. In bringing this up, what are the chances this will actually affect change in the other person's behavior?

    I don't think these people should have been assaulted as a result of their comments; but I think they certainly played a role in escalating the situation.

    Maybe next time it would be better to tell an operator or call the police, or....(ready for it?).....JUST WALK AWAY.

  2. Meh, come on now Max.

    One's a public health issue (besides the fact that smoke is disgusting, there are also many people who are deathly allergic to it) and the other is a "we live in a civilized society and don't drink outside in public places, especially at train stations" issue.

    The libertarian argument doesn't work here, sorry. Especially when there's no rule against the kid walking ten feet off the platform and having a smoke there. You can see trains coming from half a mile away in both directions from anywhere at Gateway / NE 99th TC, platform or parking lot, etc.

    And not to mention that, ummm, the two people involved were A POLICE OFFICER AND A TRIMET EMPLOYEE!

    Sorry for yelling, but really. Your call for them to just "walk away" and, I guess go find another police officer and another TriMet employee, makes absolutely no sense.

    And this situation is in no way comparable to the one in Gresham. That's not just a stretch, that's a beginners-in-yoga-like-shoulder-dislocation.

  3. Scotty,

    The simple truth is that without the Special Districts transit would receive almost no funding. Remember, it's the icky "poor" who it serves in the mind of the insufferable elite that are most media personalities and their economic masters. Like it or not, they set the boundaries of what is "acceptable" for governments of all levels.

    Were it not for the special districts established in the pre-Reagan progressive era (even Nixon was pretty progressive economically), there would be nothing like Max because politicians would be afraid of offending the media jerks for "wasting public money".

    In Tocqueville's time everyone who voted for anyone either knew him (there were no "hers" running) or had a cousin or good friend who did. There were advantages to having government be as local as possible.

    Now that most political activity exists within the narrow bounds of the right-leaning media and are essentially glorified beauty pageants, a profusion of governments does not add value.

    But the special districts typically have their own legislatively protected sources of funding, so they do get to complete their special mission. It may not be effectively or efficiently if the agency is corrupt, but at least an effort is made.

  4. JayinPortland:

    I agree one should not smoke or drink on a platform, or be an idiot on the MAX.

    The argument I'm making is very simple -- when deciding to opening your mouth, ask yourself:

    a) Will what I'm about to say actually do any good?

    b) How will this person react to what I'm saying?

    c) How much do I care about what this person is doing?

    ... and then weigh (a) vs (b) vs (c).

    I see lots of people everywhere that I think "That guy sure doesn't know how to {act,drive,ride a bike safely,do their job,etc}" -- but I generally keep these comments to myself. It's simply not worth getting {into an assault,run over by a car,into an argument} over it; and the reality is what I say will probably be meaningless to that person anyway.

    Generally speaking, these are not "teachable moments."

    BTW: Regarding the deputy, I believe there are differing accounts as to whether or not he identified himself; or whether or not the assailants knew he was a deputy.

  5. Forget Karlock and all the angry baggers who spend 24/7 on the local news comment boards ranting about Obama, Portland, TriMet, bicycles and the 'fedurul guv'mint.' As someone who rides TriMet very often I absolutely feel TriMet needs to do much more about security and safety.

    TriMet needs zero tolerance for this sh*t. They need to make it super clear that if you do this on TriMet property you wont get away with it and will pay dearly for your crime and punished to the fullest extent of the law. I would go the NYC subway approach and even heavily go after relatively petty crime, if its a rule, enforce it no matter how minor. The NYC subway all taught us that petty crime/criminals breeds serious crime/criminals.

    There needs to be a lot more police presence, and I mean real police too. Private security guards are worthless people, they are absolutely unacceptable to be patroling busy public facilities like transit. Any person onboard can be the watchful eyes and call the police. You dont need to pay a company to pay an untrained individual minimum wage to do so. You need the authority, arrest power and knowledge of the law of real police officers. And many of the police should be undercover traveling in small groups, you certainly need a good number in uniform for visibility. The only time I ever get my fare checked is weekdays at mid day and rush hour. Thats the time they shouldn't be checking. Check nights and weekends, thats when the roving packs of teens looking for trouble are riding and clearly riding without a fare. But there is nowhere near enough official presence on the system.

    I've said it since they first went into service but the new LRVs are poorly designed. 1) They work terribly when they are packed especially with the floor-to-ceiling handrail blocking the area by the door, 2) the amount of seating located at the end of the car (and away from the door) is too much because standees stand in that narrow aisle and, 3) I think worst of all, the territorial nature of the seating area where the operators cab would otherwise be... that space is made perfectly for large packs of kids to hang out in and comfortably watch over the train.

  6. Sorry I disappeared for nearly a week--was on vacation, and had limited Internet access.

    Certainly, anything can be made safer; transit is no exception. I'd like to see a combination of a) increased fare inspection, including during non-peak hours; b) fixing the dang fare machines (or getting better infrastructure) so that the "ticket machine was broke" excuse isn't so readily available; c) steep fines for flagrant fare offenders. (Does anybody know--do fines for fare-jumping go back to TriMet, or are they returned to the general fund, like traffic fines are in many jurisdictions?)


Keep it clean, please