Effective responses to security on public transport

Explore • Pulse #8 • 6 MIN
By Adeline Tissier

In addition to dealing with general public safety issues, public transport networks face specific kinds of anti-social behaviour, such as passengers flouting rules and regulations and everyday tensions that can arise in shared public spaces. To tackle these challenges, French public transport authorities and operators are strengthening their strategies through a threefold prevention-deterrence-fare enforcement approach. Pulse reviews the most effective levers available.

In France, recent data (from 2019 to 2021) points to a significant drop in pickpocketing and non-theft related physical assault. At the same time, however, robbery using violence, intimidation or threats is on the rise. The French rail and public transport union (UTP) has reported an increase in fare evasion, the carrying of illegal weapons and the emergence of train, bus or tram ‘surfing’ – riding either on the side, rear or roof of vehicles – which not only puts people’s lives at risk but also seriously disrupts traffic. The Covid-19 pandemic and the protective measures introduced to prevent the spread of the virus have also exacerbated tensions and aggressive behaviour among passengers and towards staff.


This is a tricky issue because there’s a high risk of either reading too much into serious but isolated incidents, or overlooking antisocial behaviour (ASB) that creates a feeling of lack of safety among passengers. A prerequisite to effectively tracking and determining actual rates of crime and antisocial behaviour is to compare data from all available sources. In France, this means collecting data from network operators, the police authorities and public surveys on perceptions of safety and fear of crime on public transport. “The other imperative is to enable operators to all speak the same language. This calls for a specific classification of crimes committed on public transport that covers the entire spectrum – from antisocial behaviour to the most serious offences,” explains Fabrice Fussy, head of the government observatory for crime on public transport (ONDT) set up by the Ministry of Transport. “In France, the ONDT has established a national classification comprising four main categories and 27 types of offences, which is now available to transport operators.”


In recent years, ‘exploratory walks’, led by groups of women or diverse customer panels, have emerged as an effective way of improving situational crime prevention. These walks allow people to identify facilities that make them feel safer including lighting, video surveillance, urban equipment and overall cleanliness. Used extensively in Lyon and Lille, this form of ‘dynamic assessment’, which relies on the involvement of volunteers from the public, has also sped up the rollout of on-demand stops for buses that operate in the evening, where such needs exist. Introduced by 12 Keolis networks in 2021, this service reduces the distance passengers have to walk to reach their final destination.


In addition to helping the police identify criminals recorded with cameras, video surveillance is increasingly deployed for crime prevention, thanks to ‘virtual patrollers’ trained to detect suspicious behaviour on control room monitors. Providing body-worn cameras (BWCs) for operators’ accredited security staff is another effective tool to help protect against verbal and physical assault. BWCs have been deployed to great effect by French national rail network SNCF, helping to defuse potentially conflictual situations between staff and the public. As a result, sick leave due to physical assault on staff wearing a BWC dropped by 27% in 2021 compared to 2020, while there was only an 8% decline for staff without them.


In France, public transport operators work within the scope of local partnerships governed by local safety and crime-prevention contracts, which are overseen by each municipal authority. Preventive actions are therefore tailored to local specifics. This notably includes the deployment of “mediators” who form a visible presence on and around public transport to make passengers feel safer and who can intervene to ease tensions caused by antisocial behaviour, like playing loud music, smoking and fare evasion. Preventive actions are also conducted in schools and sports clubs, helping to promote better behaviour on transport networks.


Improving safety on public transport also entails strengthening partnerships between operators and the police authorities. Keolis takes a proactive stance through formal agreements that effectively structure collaborative efforts, such as sharing information and video surveillance footage in real time between transport operator and police control rooms and organising regular joint operations. For example, a threefold increase in one year in the number of agreements between the Bordeaux Métropole network and the municipal police force led to 67% more joint operations in 2021.

Public transport:
particularly prone to SEXUAL VIOLENCE

In France, the so-called Savary Law of 2016 on safety on public transport, followed by the ‘LOM’ law of 2019 on sustainable mobility, gave accredited staff expanded scope for intervention, while also making network operators more answerable for tackling gender-based assaults and harassment. Twenty-five percent of France’s network operators that took part in a 2020 Transport Ministry survey had introduced targeted actions, including staff training, passenger awareness campaigns, and alert and reporting mechanisms. Keolis networks account for 75% of them. Similar efforts are being made around the world. In the UK, for example, Keolis has deployed a mobile patrol unit at five stops on the Manchester Metrolink tram/light rail system to reassure female passengers and help prevent sexual assaults.

Ensuring safety on public transport includes preventing verbal abuse and physical assault (passengers and staff), damage to property (wilful degradation or destruction), disorder (antisocial behaviour) and malicious acts intended to disrupt service (activation of safety equipment, etc.).

In France around 6% of physical assault offences occur on public transport (according to the definition used in the survey, L’enquête de victimation “Cadre de vie et sécurité” – Crime and safety in public spaces, 2021, L’Institut Paris Région).

Stress factors on public transport in the Paris region are, in order of predominance: people under the influence of alcohol or drugs, antisocial behaviour, insufficient staff on-board and deserted open spaces.

“Feeling unsafe” is the fear of falling victim to an assault or robbery. In the Paris region, almost 4 in 10 people say they feel unsafe on public transport, rising to 30.2% on the RER suburban network and 29.2% on the metro, both perceived as more stressful travel experiences.

Transport safety is the focus of the 7th International Conference on Crime Observation and Criminal Analysis, to be held in October 2022 in Paris, and organised jointly by the French Ministry of Transport (through its ONDT observatory), the International Centre for the Prevention of Crime (CIPC), the International Union of Railways (UIC) and the International Association of Public Transport (UITP).

The four most effective preventive measures according to daily commuters (out of six proposals) are: the presence of operators’ own security guards (59% of respondents), a police presence (45%), video surveillance (33%) and on-demand stops for evening/night buses (21%).



Fabrice Fussy, head of the government observatory for crime on public transport (ONDT).

“One of our key roles is to enable transport operators to measure and monitor crime and antisocial behaviour on their networks and compare data with other networks either of a similar kind or close geographically. Thanks to a tool called ISIS developed by the Ministry of Transport, we can now collect data from around 20 operators, particularly those in France’s large metropolitan areas, which meet around 40% of the country’s shared mobility needs. Our aim is to be as exhaustive as possible, especially by integrating data from other urban networks as well as intercity networks and school services. Not all of these operators have the resources to collect information about incidents, so at the end of 2022 we’ll launch a new tool that will enable their staff to report crime and antisocial behaviour directly via a smartphone. Another of the ONDT’s tasks is to raise awareness of these issues through studies on specific topics. For example, we recently produced our first report on sexual assaults and harassment on public transport. In addition, we provide network operators with guidelines for implementing concrete preventive action.”

Fabrice Fussy

Head of the government observatory for crime on public transport (ONDT).


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