Child wearing a backpack watches the link light rail pull into a station

Everyone deserves to be safe on transit

We know that transit is one of the safest modes people can use to get around — but there’s still a significant conversation about safety on transit right now. From some increases in reported incidents to a few high-profile headlines — we take transit safety seriously. As a transit advocacy organization, we know it’s not just about how often your bus comes — the belonging and community that comes with it are just as important. 

One of Transportation Choices’ top policy priorities has been continuing to improve ridership and the transit experience for riders, operators, and other frontline staff. We want to understand what safety looks and feels like for people of different backgrounds and at agencies of various sizes from around the state. Then, we want to make a difference where it counts — by identifying best practices, resources, and funding that can make a meaningful difference, everything from improved lighting at transit shelters to agency partnerships with social services. 

Most importantly, we want to help people get the support they need rather than rely on punishment and policing. Our emphasis on Mobility Justice means we must redefine safety to include the right of Black and Brown bodies to be free from harassment and police violence and to reduce the number of people who suffer financial and mobility impacts from getting caught up in the court system. Reducing safety incidents while reducing harms from enforcement is crucial to our work. 

The state of safety

First, we want to affirm that taking transit is a very safe choice. In terms of crashes, transit is 10 times safer than taking a car. Hundreds of thousands of people ride transit in Washington every day without incident — the overall number of serious assaults is low per trips taken. Additionally, secondhand drug exposure is unlikely to pose a health risk, and research shows that transit use is not a singularly important factor in the transmission of communicable diseases. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. Everyone deserves to ride free from violence, harassment, discrimination, and exposure to drugs or pathogens, and we know many agencies in Washington have robust programs and policies in place to keep riders and frontline staff safe. Agencies have been swift to respond with a variety of interventions when incidents occur or increase. 

It’s also important to note that these issues are not specific to transit. There are many systemic social factors contributing to people’s experience of safety and security. In the past few years, COVID undermined existing safety nets and exacerbated existing crises: the lack of affordable housing, the opioid epidemic, and a breakdown in healthcare and treatment for behavioral and mental illness have left a lot of people struggling and vulnerable without many public spaces or resources to meet their needs. Hate crimes and harassment have also experienced a resurgence. (If you ever witness a threatening situation, here are some rider resources for different agencies.) 

The reality is that the people often blamed for safety issues are also the ones most likely to experience safety impacts. For example, drug users are most likely to experience harm from drug exposure or risk an overdose, and people experiencing homelessness or untreated mental illness are at much higher risk of assault and being the targets of hate crimes. We want to ensure that people get the resources and support they need and are not subjected to further harm.

We’re interested in supporting both root cause and quick-to-implement solutions that reduce physical violence, exposure to drugs and pathogens, and feelings of physical or emotional insecurity — all without increasing harms from policing and enforcement. Beyond that, we want transit to feel warm, welcoming, and inclusive. 

What we’re doing

Our goal is to develop an organizational grasp of the underlying issues contributing to these challenges and a robust understanding of a wide variety of upstream and downstream interventions that could help improve things. We’ll use that information to help educate the public, support agencies to get what they need, and work with legislators to help create and fund solutions. If we do it well, we are confident this work will improve the long-term health of transit. 

Our process so far has included an initial scan of academic research and the transit field, learning from nonprofits, experts, and agencies nationwide that have a deep understanding of these issues and have implemented programs and policies to address them. 

Based on our initial research, we’ve identified a variety of possible ideas. Over the next year, we’ll explore with our partners which of these could make the most impact and how Transportation Choices could support them, whether by disseminating information, supporting new policies, or advocating for robust safety funding. 

Transit agencies are acting quickly to improve safety

An equitable approach to safety planning is essential for transit agencies to fulfill their role as responsible and responsive public transportation providers. Progressive policies adopted by agencies statewide are reimagining the safety framework in their systems, offering a promising way forward. Highlighted below are just some of the innovative programs agencies are exploring. We look forward to learning more about what more communities and agencies around the state are doing in this area — feel free to reach out to share!

  • Community Transit in Snohomish County introduced Transit Security Officers (TSO), who are unarmed CT employees, to have a presence on buses, stops, and facilities. They work closely with a dedicated social worker to respond to incidents. Service ambassadors assist riders, answer questions, and check fares.
  • C-TRAN in Vancouver, WA, has Field Supervisors who respond swiftly to bus incidents and offer investigative support. C-TRAN vehicles are also known as “Safe Houses on Wheels” and can be flagged down by anyone who needs immediate emergency assistance. 
  • Whatcom Transportation Authority in Bellingham has transit safety officers, added this year, who have an active presence on routes, stations, and high-incident areas. They connect people to necessary services and are trained to differentiate mental health from drug-related situations. 
  • Valley Transit in Walla Walla, in response to safety concerns, increased transit safety with security personnel and layout changes in transit centers. Drivers received de-escalation training and self-defense training. 
  • The Seattle Department of Transportation adopted the Transportation Equity Framework as a crucial step towards rectifying the historical injustices that disproportionately affect the BIPOC, low-income, disabled, and other vulnerable populations. One tactic focuses on identifying existing non-punitive alternatives to transportation violation fines & fees and coordinating with community-based organizations to recommend new or revised non-punitive alternatives and reward positive safety-related behaviors.
  • King County Metro’s SaFE Reform is an agency-wide initiative for safety and security enhancement. Key areas of focus include a pilot program for behavioral health specialist outreach services, Transit Center Ambassadors for customer support, revising Code of Conduct responses to reduce adverse impacts of enforcement, and updates to fare enforcement procedures.
  • Sound Transit Fare Ambassadors, part of the agency’s fare compliance team, provide fare inspection and rider fare education, while providing a friendly agency presence.

What’s next

While many national leaders in the transit space have produced early research on safety (e.g., TransitCenter and TransForm), we know that local context matters. We want to learn how safety issues play out in different parts of Washington for transit agencies of various sizes and how these issues and solutions impact people of different races, abilities, genders, and more. 

We also want to learn more about innovative programs and policies that agencies have already explored or implemented, and which policy recommendations and programs would make the most impact. 

To do that, we’ll need to engage a variety of partners around the state. Our engagement plan includes:

  • Surveying transit agencies and workers to hear directly about their experiences and what solutions and support would be helpful
  • Talking one-on-one with a wide variety of partners around the state and country
  • Convening listening sessions for those most impacted by safety issues (pending funding)
  • Presentations to groups with affected constituents who may want to learn more or share their experiences
If your organization or constituents want to discuss this issue, please email In particular, we’re always looking for folks to help us learn more about equity considerations for this work or groups that would like to help us advocate for new safety funding, policies, and programs! Check out our one-pager on this issue here
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