Assaults on bus operators are up; new funding and legal protections may help

With bus operators enshrined as a protected class and new funding for safety on the way, can Virginia turn the tide on assaults against these essential workers?

April 18, 2023 12:02 am

Standard security cameras on a public bus in Richmond. (GRTC)

For years, the Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC) would witness an assault against one of its bus operators every few months. However, as COVID-19 surged, such attacks became almost a monthly occurrence in 2020 as anti-social behavior took hold across America. The increase in assaults on such essential workers is not unique to public transportation and mirrors a national rise in violent crime since the start of the pandemic.

During the 2023 General Assembly session, lawmakers finally took note of this dangerous new normal and passed legal protections for bus operators. With a stroke of his veto pen, Gov. Glenn Youngkin also amended a bill that would have directed dollars towards bus electrification planning to instead fund safety improvements for public transit. With bus operators enshrined as a protected class and new funding for safety on the way, can Virginia turn the tide on assaults against these essential workers?

Assessing assaults

Since 2011, Virginia’s legislature has sporadically debated ways to make driving a bus in the commonwealth safer, from establishing assaults on operators as felonies to adding drivers as a protected class. Each time, concerns around mandatory minimum punishments tanked the proposals. This year — at the behest of transit agencies and labor unions — Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond shepherded HB 2330 through the General Assembly, to offer operators additional legal protections and ban aggressors from transit systems in the case of a conviction.

Currently, someone who assaults a bus operator could face up to a $2,500 fine as well as a year in jail. In practice, those who commit assaults often flee the scene before authorities can arrive, and even apprehended perpetrators frequently fail to receive any jail time.

Since 2017, of the nine assaults on GRTC operators where police did catch the suspect, only two were prosecuted and neither of them saw any time behind bars, according to Joe Dillard, GRTC’s director of equitable innovation and legislative policy.

“Nobody wants to see anyone go to jail, but we can all agree that a person driving a bus with dozens of people on it should be a protected class stronger than just someone walking on the street,” he said. “With the housing crisis we have going on, there is of course going to be an increase in homelessness and mental illness society-wide that will trickle onto public transportation, so we felt this year was the perfect time for us to advocate to do more to protect our operators.”

Assessing just how many assaults on operators take place nationwide is tricky. While some agencies collect data on verbal assaults, others only document physical altercations. Although public transportation experts agree that the number of attacks on operators has risen, no one agrees by how much.

The data used by the American Public Transportation Association shows roughly a threefold increase in operator assaults from 2009 to 2020, while a recent report from Transit Center — a New York City-based, non-profit think tank — estimates a quadrupling of such occurrences over the same period.

Beginning this year, the federal Transit Worker and Pedestrian Protection Act will end the uncertainty by requiring agencies nationwide to report assaults on employees annually. That bill, included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also provides public transportation systems with $125 million in funding over the next five years to implement risk reduction programs, to build out safety measures such as barriers around bus operators and to offer de-escalation training for drivers.

Funding for fixes

Virginia’s transit providers will also enjoy a second source of funding for safety improvements thanks to the governor’s amendments issued late last month.

SB 1326 from state Senators Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond and Jeremy McPike, D-Woodbridge initially would have allowed agencies to apply for additional funding through the Department of Rail and Public Transportation’s Transit Rider Incentive Program (TRIP) to build out better bus infrastructure and begin planning for how to electrify their vehicle fleets. Gov. Youngkin, however, axed the electrification dollars in favor of adding safety improvements as a reason to apply for funding.

Until this recent change, TRIP has only been allowed to fund new regional routes and free and reduced fares initiatives since its creation in 2020. Although some bus operators suspect that the continued (and potentially permanent) lack of fares on more than a third of Virginia’s public transit systems allows riff raff to ride and raises the risk of assaults, such zero-fare service may actually make operators safer.

“Somebody getting on the bus and not having enough money for their fare is a huge source of assaults,” said Chris Van Eyken, Transit Center’s director of research and policy. “There is no solid data on this, but anecdotally we hear that lots of arguments between operators and passengers come at the point where they get on without paying their fare and it leads to an escalated situation where violence may enter the picture. I would imagine free fares would do something to alleviate it.”

Beyond ensuring the safety of operators and passengers, reducing the number of assaults on public transit is also key to ending the nationwide operator shortage holding back the full restoration of service to pre-pandemic levels.

“Driving a bus or train has become a more dangerous job and that has impacted recruitment numbers quite a bit,” explained Van Eyken. “Making the job of an operator safer is a top concern of many agencies because they want the job to be desirable so that they can be fully staffed and provide the service riders are promised.”

Although repair needs and supply chain backlogs are the biggest pain points Virginia’s transit providers report to DRPT, that doesn’t mean that agencies won’t find good uses for the new safety-focused funding. Applications for such TRIP dollars could cover anything from additional cameras on board buses to new shelters and better lighting at stops.

“I really value innovation and creativity in how we solve problems, so I certainly don’t want us to structure the program in a way that is very tight and specific in terms of what measures would improve safety,” said DRPT director Jennifer DeBruhl. “I look forward to having a conversation with our transit agencies to hear more about what they need and think might help improve safety for their systems so we can incorporate that into the policy for the program and potentially a mid-year solicitation for new [TRIP] applications.”

Even though the Youngkin administration and DRPT never took official positions on either of the two transit bills passed by the legislature this year, DeBruhl views the recent amendments as fully in line with her agency’s long-standing mission to improve public transit across the commonwealth.

“The whole point of the TRIP program is to increase ridership, and part of that is providing safe locations to access public transportation and ensuring people are going to be safe on the system,” DeBruhl said. “These changes from the governor all fulfill the HJ 542 modernization study and are reflective of policy that meets transit where it is at in 2023.”

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Wyatt Gordon
Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon covers transportation, housing, and land use for the Mercury through a grant from the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The Mercury retains full editorial control. Previously he’s written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Honolulu Civil Beat, Style Weekly and RVA Magazine. He also works as a policy manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network.