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Designing for TerrorInside Madrid's Atocha station: terrorists' bombs killed nearly 200 railway commuters in or bound for the station on March 11, 2004. (Photo by Patrick T. Power,

Designing for Terror

Institute-funded study of transit security, begun before bombing attacks in Madrid and London, finds officials concerned about physical design of stations, riders' perceptions of risk. Europeans get higher marks for coordination than more secretive American officials.

By Kevin Matthews
Senior Writer

It was not surprising, but it was interesting to find out that what the transit agencies are in the business of doing is really giving the perception of security, and this was really very candidly admitted a number of times.

Glass that doesn't reduce to shards. Inclined tops on vending machines. A clear line of sight down the platform. These are examples of "environmental design" upgrades that can make subway cars, trains, and stations less tempting targets for terrorists.

According to UCLA Urban Planning Chair Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, who led a team of researchers in a study of post-9/11 mass-transit security in the United States and foreign capitals, casualties in bombing attacks on mass transit result mainly from flying shrapnel, and replacing glass and other materials is cheaper than many upgrades. Good environmental design, which is easiest to achieve when transit stations are first built, also makes packages hard to hide and has the welcome side-effect of reducing petty crime.

Among U.S. transit officials, openness to the use of environmental design in security strategy has increased since Sept. 11, 2001, the study found. "A number of agencies said that they did not even think about it prior to 9/11," Loukaitou-Sideris said.

Study authors highlighted some key findings in an article in a recent issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Public Transportation. Publication of the full study, entitled "Designing and Operating Safe and Secure Transit Systems: Assessing Current Practices in the U.S. and Abroad," is expected soon by the Mineta Transportation Institute, which co-sponsored the project with the Global Impact Research Initiative of the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations at the UCLA International Institute.

The study included a survey of 113 U.S. transit agencies in 40 states and case studies based upon interviews with transit officials in the New York City metropolitan area, Paris, London, Madrid, and Tokyo. In addition to Loukaitou-Sideris, a specialist in urban design, key participants from the UCLA faculty were Brian D. Taylor, a transportation planner, and Robin Ligget, who produced a quantitative analysis of the survey data. Professors Martin Wachs of UC Berkeley and Peter Haas of San Jose State University were also on the research team. UCLA students pitched in by conducting interviews abroad.

Work on the study began late in 2003, months before nearly simultaneous bombing attacks on March 11, 2004, on four commuter trains in Madrid. The team submitted a full draft of the study a week before terrorists set off bombs on July 7, 2005, in London's Underground and on a double-decker bus.

Balancing Acts

The study contains groundwork for future discussions of transit security and enumerates ten "lessons learned," the first of which is that transit stations cannot be made perfectly secure. Large systems in particular are attractive targets and difficult to defend. In addition, transit officials repeatedly and sometimes anonymously confided that security was not and could not be their only concern when making policy on security-related issues.

Conflicts arise, for example, between security and more mundane safety considerations. Having trash cans in stations prevents fires on the tracks, but the containers are good places to hide bombs. Glass shatters in an explosion, but glass barriers also prevent fatalities from falls and pushings.

In Tokyo, officials reported that removing trash cans from subway stations made them easier to clean, apparently because riders carried their litter home with them—a lesson perhaps best lost on New York City officials, as Loukaitou-Sideris points out.

But even more often, the conflict is between security and system efficiency, according to the study. Airport-style security checks and metal detectors would deter terrorists but back up the system, and, as transit officials the world over know, overcrowded stations are dangerous places. What's more, riders do not put up with them. Unlike airlines' captive clientele, subway, train, and bus riders can take to their cars, with immediate financial consequences for transit agencies.

Crowd Control

The most sensitive of all balancing acts involves what and how much to tell the public about security. Although she credits transit officials with making sincere efforts to protect riders, Loukaitou-Sideris also says that the officials repeatedly described security in terms of public relations. The goal of at least some security-related decisions, that is, is to stave off a decline in ridership.

"It was not surprising, but it was interesting to find out that what the transit agencies are in the business of doing is really giving the perception of security, and this was really very candidly admitted a number of times."

One contentious issue among policy-makers is whether to ask for passengers' assistance in identifying suspicious packages and other threats. In the United States, Loukaitou-Sideris said, educational campaigns designed to involve transit riders in security are not advanced.

Loukaitou-Sideris contrasted the approaches of officials in London who encourage input from riders and some in Madrid who fear that announcements about suspicious packages will scare people away. She prefers the British approach and argues that, with concerns about terrorism running high globally, "I don't think that announcements over the microphones are really going to scare people."

The British approach, she noted, has the drawback of overwhelming resources, as transit employees in London sometimes field hundreds upon hundreds of phone calls involving perceived threats.

Transatlantic Divide

Probably owing to greater experience with terrorism, European transit agencies displayed more capacity than their American counterparts to coordinate intelligence and policies, researchers found.

The Europeans were also more forthcoming in responses to researchers' questions. New York City officials, "understandably," Loukaitou-Sideris says, were the most tight-lipped. Researchers did not inquire about some sensitive issues, including details of police deployments and strategies.

Burkle Center for International Relations