Insights: Why is Providing Security for Public Transportation a Challenge?

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Public transportation is a prime target for terror attacks all around the world, for several reasons. The Independent reports that between 1970 and 2017, there were nearly 2,500 attacks on public transport systems. However, it has proven to be a challenge to prevent deadly attacks everywhere. Below, I list some reasons why it’s hard to provide security for public transportation, and what we might be able to do about it.

People Everywhere

#1 reason for the struggles to secure mass transit areas is the huge number of people. The busiest stations in major cities like London, New York and Beijing can have millions pass through daily, and honestly there’s very little you can do when that many people come in during rush hour. The platforms are crowded, and each bus, metro and train is also full of people.

Video cameras with facial recognition might be helpful in catching the criminals that are already in a database, but what about those who are not? Can a video camera really identify a person as a threat and determine that they act suspicious? Or should a person be pulled aside because they have a bag?

Bags Galore

How many of us go to work without a handbag, a backpack or a laptop case? Very few, I’d imagine, and especially few of those who take the public transport to work. People with bags don’t really stand out on a station, even if they have large gym bags or even suitcases. This makes hiding weapons and explosives in backpacks attractive and easy for criminals.

Currently, there is no efficient way to inspect someone’s bag without using an x-ray machine or going through it by hand. How many of us would be willing to go through either of those every day, especially when we are short on time?

A Waste of Time

For me, public transport is inconvenient. The bus takes a long time to get me anywhere, I can’t always trust the timetable, and there’s no metro or train station near my house. However, some have no choice but to use the public transportation method nearest to them.

When we already spend a significant amount of time to commute, it seems unreasonable to expect people to commit even more time to stand on a security line. The Independent references the Beijing metro’s inspection of passengers and their bags with metal detectors. Although the local police assured the check wouldn’t take longer than 30 minutes (?!), I can’t imagine that being acceptable to everyone day in, day out. At an airport, you budget that time in. You arrive 2 hours before your flight leaves. Would you really leave two hours earlier for work? I certainly wouldn’t. I would probably just switch to a method that didn’t require such intensive inspections.

Multitude of Stations

One of the most important struggles relating to security for mass transit is the sheer number of stations. Most cities that have a public transport system have multiple bus, metro, train, and/or ferry stations, making it a huge challenge to equip each with the same type of systems or guards.

Especially in cities with all of the above systems mentioned; the insane costs could never be covered. So what should one do? Only secure the biggest stations? That could leave the smaller ones vulnerable. Probably the best way is to mix and match, a tried and true method for many industries.

Next Steps

In order to provide adequate security to everyone using a public transportation system, decision makers should implement different solutions for each system and station. Stations that are more likely to get attacked should get more equipment, whereas in smaller stations the video camera and attentive staff might suffice.

Of course, there is no knowing what happens in the next five, ten or twenty years; we could have a whole new array of new security devices and methods to make sure we are all safe. Currently there already many innovative products, such as Asqella’s ARGON, that create a new way of screening people and preventing possible attacks.

I’m sure people working in the public transport sector work tirelessly to make sure the ride is the safest it can be. I’m also certain that terrorists work just as hard to disrupt our way of life. Security for places where many people gather together should be a top priority for us as communities for a long time to come.


Edited 22.1.2019