Center for American Progress

Terrorism and Transit Security: 12 Recommendations from Progress

Terrorism and Transit Security: 12 Recommendations from Progress

Brian D. Taylor offers observations on transit security in light of rising concern over transit terrorism in the United States.

Public transit systems around the world have for decades served as a principal venue for terrorist acts. While the most significant of these attacks – such as the sarin attack in Tokyo or the bombing of the Paris Metro – garnered worldwide public attention during the 1990s, popular and political response in the U.S. was generally muted.
Whatever the reasons for this indifference among many elected officials, it was not justified.

During the mid-1990s, four separate acts of terrorism and extreme violence on U.S. transit and rail systems killed 14 and injured more than 1,000. While police and intelligence officials who oversee transit properties grew much more vigilant and vocal in the late-1990s in calling for increased attention to the vulnerability of public transit systems to terrorist acts, the issue still had not caught the attention of most transit passengers, voters, the media, or elected officials.

This all changed, of course, on September 11th, 2001. While the focus of the 9/11 attacks was on a different part of the transportation system, the effects on the affected public transit systems were dramatic and, in the case of New York, long-lasting. Concern over the vulnerability of open, accessible public transit systems and their passengers has been heightened further by the more recent, deadly March 11th, 2004 attacks on commuter rail trains in Madrid, Spain and the July 7th and July 21st, 2005 attacks on the London Underground and bus systems. Because of extensive international news coverage and elevated public concern over the London attacks in particular, transit security in the U.S. is now widely viewed as an important public policy issue.

The question is whether the attention and subsequent fear generated by these attacks will motivate policymakers into action. Indeed, one of the more sobering lessons from the research conducted as background to this paper is that significant system- or industry-wide changes in security planning have often required either prolonged exposure to smaller-scale attacks (such as those perpetrated by the IRA against transit systems in
greater London) or a mass casualty event (such as in Tokyo, Madrid, or most recently London). Absent such events, warnings by vigilant police and intelligence officials have too often gone unheeded by many elected officials.

Given rising concern over transit terrorism in the U.S., I offer here a dozen observations on transit security, drawing largely on an upcoming report I recently coauthored with seven colleagues at UCLA, UC Berkeley, and San Jose State University for the Mineta Transportation Institute in San Jose and the UCLA International Institute in Los Angeles.

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