By Angie Schmitt, December 19, 2014
Keep this in mind the next time a high-profile train crash generates
more press coverage than a year’s worth of car wrecks: Despite the media
sensationalism and overwrought regulatory responses that follow such
events, transit is already a lot safer than driving.
Looking at traffic fatalities per mile traveled in the U.S., analyst
Todd Litman found that riding commuter or intercity rail is about 20
times safer than driving; riding metro or light rail is about 30 times
safer; and riding the bus is about 60 times safer. Factoring in
pedestrians and cyclists killed in crashes with vehicles, the effect is
smaller but still dramatic: the fatality rate associated with car travel
is more than twice as high as the rate associate with transit. Litman’s
study was recently published in the Journal of Public Transportation [PDF].
Litman notes that most transit travel involves some walking or
biking, which carry a relatively high risk of traffic injury. But those
risks are mostly offset by the health benefits of physical
activity. Living in a place with good transit has safety benefits as
well: Litman cites research showing that cities with higher transit
ridership rates tend to have lower per-capita traffic fatality rates.
Using FBI data, Litman also busts the myth that transit is linked to
high levels of crime. While direct comparison is difficult because
transit riders and drivers are susceptible to different types of crimes
(transit riders are more likely to encounter assault and property theft,
while drivers see more to road rage incidents, vehicular assault, and
auto theft), Litman shows that on balance, people riding transit are
less likely to be victimized than car drivers, passengers, and owners.
While much transit service operates in low-income communities with
relatively high crime rates, Litman writes, relatively few crimes occur
on transit property. In fact, when you normalize for exposure, owning a
car and making driving trips is riskier than riding transit, Litman
finds. Litman says transit facilities tend to have low crime risk
because of there are so many other people around keeping an eye on
things: employees, passengers, and bypassers.
“The greatest risks occur when passengers walk and wait in isolated
areas, but these risks are no greater than what motorists encounter
walking to and from isolated parking lots,” he writes.
Furthermore, the types of property thefts transit riders usually
encounter — a stolen wallet or phone — generally incur much less expense
than having your car stolen or vandalized. The average car theft costs
about $6,000, according to Litman.
In media coverage and in transit agencies’ own public messaging
campaigns, transit is often linked to the threat of terrorism, but
internationally, Litman notes, about 360 times more people are killed in
auto collisions than in incidents of terrorism.
Litman concludes that transit agencies should make the safety of bus
and rail travel more of a key selling point, instead of broadcasting
messages like the “If you see something, say something” campaign that end up contributing to a heightened sense of risk.