Skip Navigation
A Wake-up Call for Transit System Security

A Wake-up Call for Transit System Security

A study with funding from the Global Impact Research Initiative in the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations explores the complex security and terrorism issues that affect public transportation worldwide.

This article was first published in the UCLA College Report.

By Robin Heffler

How can mass transit systems worldwide better protect their operations from terrorist attacks? That problem—all too vivid after attacks on the London transit system in July 2005 and Madrid in March 2004—is the central question behind a recently completed two-year research project on transit security that was funded in part by the Global Impact Research Initiative of the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations.

The comprehensive study, begun in 2003 and completed in June 2005, examined transit systems in Paris, London, Tokyo, Madrid and New York. It involved interviews with nearly 40 transportation officials, statements from representatives of federal and international transportation agencies, a thorough review of all previously published research, and a survey of 113 of the largest transit operators in the United States.

The study’s results reveal a variety of preparation levels, and a combination of skepticism and some optimism about the daunting and complex task of trying to make public transportation safer.

For Ronald Rogowski, interim vice provost and dean of the UCLA International Institute that houses the Burkle Center, the study goes to the heart of the mission of the Global Impact Research Initiative, which is to facilitate faculty-led innovation in international scholarship.

“This research is an outstanding example of an interdisciplinary group, working on a topic of global importance, and coming to results of immediate relevance that force both scholars and policymakers to rethink their assumptions,” Rogowski said.

“Both the research group and the Institute’s advisory panels showed extraordinary prescience,” Rogowski noted, “because the project was proposed, funded and begun before the mass transit attacks that visited death and destruction on Madrid and London.”

Professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, chair of the UCLA Department of Urban Planning in the School of Public Affairs, explained how she and colleague Brian Taylor came to be co-principal investigators of the study.

“After 9/11, but before the Madrid bombings,” she said, “Brian and I were discussing that a lot was happening to protect the airlines, but one of the most vulnerable aspects of transit is railway stations because they’re quite open, anyone can come in, and hundreds of thousands of people are moving in and out of them. In cities that had experience with terrorist attacks, we wanted to know what kind of strategies they had in place and what kind of lessons could be learned.”

They sought and received funding for the international aspects of the study from the Burkle Center, while San Jose State University’s (SJSU) Mineta Transportation Institute supported the domestic portion. In addition to UCLA faculty and graduate students, researchers at SJSU and UC Berkeley also helped to gather information.

The Mineta Institute will publish the results this fall and distribute them to the agencies and operators that participated in the study. There are 10 major findings of the research (for details, visit the Web site below). From these, Loukaitou-Sideris said three points stand out for her:

* The need for coordination among different agencies that operate at different levels. It happens more often in Europe than in the United States;

* How difficult it is to make public transportation secure because of the logistics of efficiently moving so many people through the transit systems;

* There is no one approach, but rather four categories of strategies—policing, technology, structure design and educating passengers -- to address security issues.

A primary stumbling block, she noted, is that “It’s inherently difficult to establish security points and screen people because of the time involved. The use of public transit is declining in the United States, and transit authorities are always trying to push ridership. If they start implementing a lot of delays for security reasons, they fear losing more ridership.”

Among the most active researchers was Camille Fink, a UCLA doctoral student who reviewed the previous literature, wrote the survey of American transit operators, and interviewed transportation officials in London, Brussels and Washington D.C.

“I was interested in the built environment, and how other countries had dealt with design issues of transit security, like sight lines and eliminating places where packages could be left,” Fink said. “It seemed that in the United States there was less emphasis on that and more on policing and technology. I think American operators realize that station design is an important long-term investment and that it’s fairly expensive to retrofit.”

Another insight of the project involved the process of collecting information.

“At the beginning, we didn’t appreciate the confidentiality issue enough,” said Loukaitou-Sideris. “Especially in the United States, officials were very worried about whether they would compromise security by talking to us. There was more openness in Europe.”

She said she would like to use the study as a springboard for additional research that could create security guidelines for transit operators.

“This research group has contributed significantly to global security in this dangerous period, and has set an example of how sober and painstaking analysis can help us all to meet the threat of terrorism,” Rogowski said. “We are very pleased that the Burkle Center, which, among other things, fosters research on the role of the United States in global security, could support this vital effort.”

Burkle Center for International Relations