In the transportation industry, most negative workplace health and safety incidents (PDF) occur during workers’ interaction with machinery or materials. However, in transit workplaces specifically, a fast-growing number of incidents are occurring between workers and riders.

All workers should be able to perform their jobs in safe and healthy working conditions. The absence of that assurance has consequences for operations. Fear of on-the-job violence has contributed to operator shortages currently preventing many transit agencies from running the highest-quality service possible. Bus drivers in particular have made clear that safety concerns are a major part of their reluctance to return to work for those who left during COVID-19 cutbacks. Those who’ve remained have widely expressed the desire to be reassigned off the frontlines. In this post, I look at what might be fueling this increase in assaults and recommend ways to reverse the trend.

Using data from the National Transit Database, I find that “major” assaults on transit workers (PDF)—defined by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) as an event resulting in a fatality or injury requiring medical transport—nearly tripled between 2008 and 2022, from 168 to 492 annual events nationwide. Given the high reporting threshold for inclusion in the dataset, this staggering increase should be interpreted as an undercount of the true magnitude of this issue. New Jersey Transit, for example, reported three major assault events in 2021, but reports from other sources have cited the agency with more than 130 assault events for the same year.

Assaults, both those that do and do not meet the FTA’s “major” threshold, include stabbing, spittinghitting and kicking, and unwelcome sexual misconduct. Operators have also reported being robbed, having things thrown at them, being doused with urine and hot beverages, being threatened at gunpoint, and shot at.

This acceleration begs the question: “What’s being done about this issue?” Advocates, unions, legislators, and governments have focused improvement efforts on the following:

  • Lessening the opportunity for assault. 
  • Increasing consequences for assaults.
  • Compensating and training workers for the conditions they presently face.  
  • Establishing a foundation for accountability and mitigation through data enhancement. 

Read the full article about urban transit workers by Lindiwe Rennert at Urban Institute.