Should Public Transit Shut Down for Civil Disturbances? — Human Transit


by Kivi



What should public transit agencies do when a city is convulsed by massive demonstrations carrying a high risk of violence? Over the weekend, many transit agencies shut down rather than risk possible harm to their staff, passengers, and equipment. This left many good people stranded as they tried to leave the demonstrations.

Christof Spieler, a Board member at Houston Metro, has some ideas in a Twitter thread.  He starts with:

As someone who shares the goals of these protests, let me gently lay out why this is so difficult for transit managers.  This is not to defend or uphold any particular choices any agency has made.  The debate about this is urgent and important.  My only point is that it isn’t easy or obvious what transit agencies should have done.  It was absolutely not OK that people were stranded, and there needed to be a solution for that, but the actual solution isn’t so obvious.

Before you say that transit should have run as normally as possible during the crisis, ask yourself:

  • If you were a bus driver, would you be comfortable being told to drive into an area where civil unrest is likely and there is some risk of violence?
  • If you were a transit manager, who has seen plenty of pictures of burned and vandalized buses, what should be your tolerance of the risk of destroying or damaging the fleet, thus making normal service impossible?
  • But, you might say, buses could run normally to near the edge of the affected area.  OK, but how is the transit manager supposed to know the boundaries of that area in advance?  These are not obedient events.  They can rove fast and unpredictably.  They can even erupt from nothing where they weren’t planned at all.
  • But surely they could have kept most of the system running, far from the events?  I think there are cases where I’d have recommended that, but again, transit managers can’t predict where events will erupt.  What’s more, good transit networks are all interconnected and interdependent.  You can’t just turn off a piece without it having a huge effect on the rest.  This is especially true when that piece is downtown, where lots of lines meet or flow through.
  • If you say, yes, but they need realtime monitoring and guidance about how to detour in response to what’s happening:  Buses have limited option to maneuver as conditions change.  They don’t fit down every street.  They may need several blocks to turn around.  The dispatcher/driver ratio is far too low for dispatchers to give each bus driver the best advice for their situation when everything is changing so fast.

All this has to be figured out in realtime by staff who probably support the demonstrators’ goals, in a situation where they will be attacked for whatever they do.  They’re being criticized for holding back, but they’d also be criticized if the evening news were full of burning buses and injured drivers and passengers.

Of course, as with the sudden service changes required by Covid-19, these decisions were made fast by people who might have made better decisions on reflection, and will learn from this experience. But these decisions are hard.

Finally, regarding the use of transit vehicles for police purposes:  Most cities put a lot of effort into interagency emergency planning, where the various functions of government decide how they’d work together in various crises.  In most situations, that’s exactly what we’d want them to do.  Clearly, those plans around civil disturbances are going to be reviewed now, and deserve some public discussion.  Obviously, the crisis of trust around policing in the US needs to be considered when transit agencies decide how to work with them in these emergencies.

Those plans also need to address transit system shutdowns, because in a big city these are emergencies all by themselves.  They need to honor the limitations of each agency’s product and not expect the impossible from them, while also creatively addressing the challenges.  The Los Angeles transit agency reimbursed people’s Uber, Lyft, and taxi rides out of the demonstrations after they shut down service.  Was that the right thing to do?  Right now, give them credit for doing something.

Finally, if you care about these decisions, you might want to direct some of your activism toward influencing your city’s emergency planning.  Many people who do that work are exasperated by public apathy and may welcome your respectful interest.

But please, don’t make these emergency decisions sound easy and obvious, because they aren’t.

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