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Transit Funding Cuts Are Putting Bus Drivers in Danger

Attacks on transit drivers are not a new problem. But it seems to be getting worse.

People crossing Ocean Avenue into Downtown Santa Monica from Palisades Park. Photo via the Pedestrian Action Plan.

A bus driver now gets assaulted every three days in the United States, estimates the Amalgated Transit Union. Headlines abound of drivers getting kicked, punched, stabbed and shot, while the lower-profile offenses – spitting and verbal harassment – have almost become part of the job description.

For many transit workers, it’s plain to see how the recession has inflated a trend that already existed. Working alone and dealing with money, drivers have always been vulnerable. Mix in a more frustrated, downtrodden population of passengers with a host of service cuts and fare increases, and you get combustion.

“People who are poorer than they were, … who rely more on transit than they did, who are waiting longer at bus stops for the bus to come because the service has been cut,” said Larry Hanley, president of the ATU. When they board the bus, “the driver’s sitting there in a uniform, representing the government, telling them, you got to pay a higher tax for this service,” he said.

Nationwide statistics are lacking, but many jurisdictions have reported recent increases in driver attacks. The Philadelphia Transport Workers Union local reports that assaults there more than doubled in 2011 compared to 2010. New York City has seen a 30 percent increase in 2012. There’s also not a lot of hard data linking an uptick in assaults to fare increases or service cuts, said Robin Gillespie, program director of safety and health at the Transportation Learning Center. But “people feel that way,” she said.

And attacks occur most commonly during fare collection. “The conflict is over money,” said Hanley. “It’s people who have a pocket full of empty and have to get to a place.”

As the problem gets more prevalent, transit unions are getting more organized in their efforts to deal with it.

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