City buses and trains are vulnerable to terrorists, but trying to make them safer would ruin them.
Volgograd, Russia, was rocked this week by two bombings that killed more than 30 people. The first bombing was at the city's central train station; the second was on a city trolley during Monday morning rush hour. Officials in Russia suspect the bombings are the work of the Caucasus Emirate, a group of Chechen separatists who have pledged to disrupt the Winter Olympics at Sochi however they can.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that Sochi is secure and the Olympics will go ahead as planned, but is it really possible to guarantee safety after Volgograd? The latter city suffered its first suicide bombing of 2013 back in October. A young woman from Dagestan exploded a bomb on a public bus, killing six and injuring at least 30 others. Last year, a trio of Islamic terrorists in Bulgaria detonated a bomb next to a bus carrying Jewish tourists, killing six and injuring more than 30.
The nature of the city bus—expedient, casual, anonymous, ubiquitous—makes it next to impossible to prevent these sorts of attacks (and drug trafficking). That's why terrorists love them. “It's something that we've seen in reporting over time that terrorists around the world clearly are interested — because of the accessibility, the open architecture — both of buses and rail,” TSA Administrator John Pistole told reporters in 2011. Earlier this year, the TSA began stationing "Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response squads" in Amtrak stations. Bomb-and chemical-sniffing dogs are also a common site for Amtrak commuters. Aside from random checks by local law enforcement and the Department of Transportation, we'll likely never see that kind of security presence on buses in the U.S. (not that the threat of arrest would deter a suicide bomber anyway).
But there's another question we should ask ourselves besides, can we make buses safe? And that is, should we even try? Who would take a city bus if he or she had to go through a metal detector before boarding? Requiring identification would make boarding even more tedious. And a system like TSA Pre Check could drastically shrink the riding population of the average city bus. In short, transferring even a few security measures used in airports onto buses would make them exponentially less convenient. (It's not even clear that we need these measures in airports, as Dylan Matthews recently demonstrated by surviving a flight that TSA didn't screen.)
Brian Taylor of UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies has written that we shouldn't think of all transit-related terrorists attack as having similar ends. For instance, a recently foiled plot to blow up a New York-to-Toronto train as it crossed over the Niagara River saw transportation as both the means of the attack, and the end itself. Though the plotters didn't get far, their goal was to kill people and destroy a means of transit. But bus bombs aren't meant to shut down bus systems. They're simply meant to kill a lot of people while simultaneously instilling fear in every person who rides a bus in that community.
Even if we could make buses secure, Taylor argues that there "would still remain a considerable number of potential venues for tragic and devastating attacks on large crowds of people." Make buses secure, and you still leave malls. Meanwhile, by securing mass transit the way we've secured airports, Taylor says we'd be striking a "devastating blow to an industry already buffeted by decades of competition with private vehicles."
Top image: Investigators work at the site of a blast on a trolleybus in Volgograd December 30, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer