A Surprising Number of Bank Robbers Use Mass Transit for Their 'Getaway'

In the modern city, criminality meets multimodality.

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Aaron Hockley/Flickr

The use of public transportation as a getaway mode for criminals is pretty baffling. First there are the potentially long waits. Then there are the frequent stops and, on a bus, the traffic. And let's not forget the fellow passengers (aka eye-witnesses) with little to do but wonder why the person beside them is sweating so much and holding a duffel bag with wads of cash stuck in the zipper. Very often there are cameras on board, and at the very least there are drivers and conductors in direct contact with local authorities.

So even factoring in a getaway driver's cut of the loot, transit seems like a poor option for fleeing the scene of a robbery. And yet it happens. Quite regularly. Get enough Google Alerts about transit and you'll discover that a surprising number of bank thieves make their run on the bus or the train.

Just yesterday a man (allegedly) robbed $500 from a bank in metro Philadelphia only to get apprehended on a SEPTA bus. The same thing happened to a bank thief (alleged) in British Columbia in late April; a bus driver noticed a passenger acting "a little strange" — he cut in front of a wheelchair to board, then stashed some clothes under a seat — and told the police. Late last year, a man was arrested on the Long Island Railroad carrying a cash register from a robbery (alleged-ish) the night before.

The recent spate is not unique. If headlines are any indicator, 2012 was a banner year for transit-riding-bank robbers. A man (allegedly) held up a bank in Cambridge, Massachusetts, only to be caught on an MBTA bus after the teller slipped a GPS device into the bag. Meanwhile a metro Boston woman (allegedly) hit a series of banks, taking the bus from one heist to the next. A man was stopped on the D.C. Metro after (allegedly) robbing a bank in Washington, and the same thing happened to a Portland bank robber who boarded the MAX light rail system right after his (alleged) crime.

The trend seemed to pick up after the market crash. Back in late 2007, a St. Paul man robbed a bank (allegedly) and, perhaps realizing the flaw in his plan, tried to "hail" a Metro Transit bus. The Twin Cities got hit again in 2009, when a Minneapolis man held up a bank (allegedly) for $3,760 then was arrested on a bus carrying $3,740; he'd used $20 for a fare card. He hadn't purchased a fare card ahead of time. A metro Atlanta bank robber didn't even make it on board in 2008; after flubbing the (alleged) crime, he was caught waiting for a MARTA bus. After a bank robber (alleged) in San Jose was caught on a light rail train in 2010, a police spokesman said the transit getaway was "not something I've heard of before."

Must be a rookie.

It's not just a digital-age-bizarre-news-loving thing. A quick scan of the New York Times archive brings up the case of Annie Cobbins of Providence back in 1979. Cobbins (allegedly) held up Industrial National's main branch one morning, then made her way to a Rhode Island Public Transit Authority bus stop a few steps from the bank entrance. She was nabbed on board two minutes later, according to the Associated Press. "There are getaway cars and there are getaway cars," said one police official.

The frequency of such events is no doubt distorted by the media's tendency to highlight them. Then again, the mass transit getaway might happen even more than we know, since these cases only make the news when the suspects get caught. There's also a long related history of people who steal transit vehicles, though no sign of any mastermind who dared to rob a bank then a bus.

Which brings us around to one parting message to anyone who might still be considering a post-robbery transit getaway. It's nice of you to be multimodal and all, but in addition to crippling your own escape, you're perpetuating the erroneous belief that transit is associated with crime. On the contrary, the latest evidence suggests transit stations might actually reduce crime in an area. So please, find a getaway car.

Or, better yet, don't rob banks.

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