It's not a great time to be a transit rider. Metro areas across the country are addressing budget shortages for public transportation by cutting service, or raising fares, or doing both. Bad as things are for passengers, it may be an even worse time to be a transit worker. In several large cities, passenger abuse of workers is on the rise.
That's certainly the case in New York. In late October the New York Daily News reported that passenger assaults on bus drivers were up 20 percent in 2011 compared with the first nine months of 2010. The same trend was unfolding underground. A week later the News reported that assaults on subway workers were up nearly 16 percent this year compared with last. While the precise figure is a bit hazy — NY 1 reported a 24 percent rise for subway-worker assaults — the trend toward rider aggression is frighteningly clear.
Leaders for the transport workers union blamed the rise on hard times, citing service cuts and a general climate of economic despair. As the neighborhood face of city transit, subway and bus workers must bear the brunt of this customer frustration. In the words of one MTA board member: "We've had to make difficult decisions, and the front line troops are the ones that are feeling it."
New York workers aren't alone. Last Friday, some 120,000 Detroit bus riders were stranded after roughly 100 drivers refused to work in protest of an assault perpetrated against a colleague. The drivers ended their walkout after Mayor Dave Bing agreed to provide additional security. In an interview with The Hill, the head of a Washington-based transit union said the Detroit attacks mirrored a broad national rise in worker attacks, and pointed to fare increases as a potential cause of the violence:
"We have a national consensus that you don't raise taxes in a recession, even on millionaires, but transit riders are facing drastic fare hikes and service cuts," he said. "Bus drivers are the only government tax collectors that actually see the people that are being taxed."
In Boston, employees of the city's transit system — known as the T — often suffer the indignity of being spit on by passengers. The system's police chief recently told the Boston Globe that about 30 percent of all abuses directed at T workers involve spitting, that such incidents often result from fare disputes, and that these types of assaults are on the rise.
Spitting incidents can be particularly scarring for transit workers. In New York, where spitting incidents have also been on the rise, city bus drivers who were spat on took nearly three months paid leave after the assaults, according to a report last year in the New York Times. While that absence could be seen as excessive, a union leader told the Times that being spat on is a "physically and psychologically traumatic experience" and that the leave is necessary for employees to recuperate.
In response to the trend, some cities have started to collect the saliva of spitters to keep as DNA evidence. T authorities plan to do just that. The Boston Herald reports that the city's transit police will begin swabbing passenger spit and enter the DNA profile in a database maintained by the FBI.