5 ways to better protect vulnerable transit

The Brooklyn subway attack in April was a stark reminder of the vulnerability of the nation’s transit system. Thousands of commuters combined with multiple exits and entrances make metro, bus and train systems extremely difficult to secure.

An added complication is that there is always a tension between security and convenience. The purpose of mass transit is to move large crowds of people. So safety and efficiency will always be in conflict. Understanding this constraint is key to finding viable solutions.

It is important to note that major cities such as New York, Los Angeles or DC are not the only ones facing these challenges. Even mid-sized cities like St. Louis, where I am, need to develop strategies to secure their transit systems and protect the public from attack. After all, public transit is critical infrastructure, and as a nation we must allocate funds to strengthen it against attack, whether by domestic or foreign terrorists, lone wolf actors or people with mental or emotional disorders.

The following five strategies can help law enforcement improve their transit security:

  1. Reassess current security

Of course, each transit authority prioritizes security and has the usual contingent of law enforcement, cameras, entry and exit stanchions, and other measures to fight crime and prevent abuse. to safety. These include uniformed officers, plainclothes police and security cameras. However, what was adequate before 9/11, or even 10 years ago, may no longer be effective. If security hasn’t been updated in the past few years, it’s time to take a fresh look. Especially when it comes to technology, there are additional challenges – but also solutions.

Most people think of subway trains as mechanical systems. However, they are in fact largely automated and any automated functionality is susceptible to hacking. Imagine the chaos that can be caused if the software that opens and closes subway doors is compromised. Any door that requires a keycard, such as one in a maintenance area, can also be hacked. Cameras can be turned off or hijacked, or their files erased.

The challenges of a networked environment mean that everything on the network is vulnerable. However, transport authorities can enhance their security by taking advantage of the same network infrastructure. So-called smart cities use digital technology and data collection to make cities safer and reduce crime by sharing the data they collect using artificial intelligence. The same technology can be used to connect transit system security data.

A transportation system that networks its cameras, radios, sensors, and other devices can share data in the event of suspicious activity. Maybe a camera is following someone putting a bag down on a subway platform. This could be flagged as suspicious and the device may share the data on the system. The sidewalk-platform sensors, which are being designed by the Science and Technology Unit from the Department of Homeland Security, could be used to monitor and assess threats as people move through the station.

  1. Perform camera audits

Cameras are important tools in the security toolbox. However, too many agencies set them and forget them. Transport authorities should perform top-down technology audits, at least quarterly. This security audit should cover recording time, camera model, and features, such as the ability to zoom or pan, maintenance schedule, training schedule, and obsolescence. Camera placement may also need to be reviewed.

As technology advances, agencies will want to gradually introduce new equipment with new features. Although it depends on the budget, it is important not to rely on outdated equipment that no longer works at full capacity. At the University of Maryville, where I teach, I developed phase-out plans and kept detailed records of patterns, years of use, end of training, when new technology should be introduced, etc.

  1. Engage in training

Training isn’t about sending a link to a webinar, scrolling through agents, and then taking a short quiz. Instead, there needs to be more intentionality on the part of agencies when it comes to training.

Training is the actual physical application of the particular function. Once trainees pass through this function, they are evaluated and given various ways to improve and meet established criteria.

In addition to more effective training, transit authorities should conduct regular tabletop exercises with all involved stakeholders, such as state, local, and federal law enforcement and city administrators. With each iteration, agency staff will develop a greater culture of awareness and insight, learning more about their systems as well as their strengths and vulnerabilities.

  1. Set up a security center

One of the most effective strategies for combating terrorism and other security threats is a coordinated security center that combines city management and state, local, and federal law enforcement. Most major metros already use the model, but even medium-sized cities should operate a fusion center.

The benefits are multiple. It helps to have a single lens to see all those security tools, from cameras to panic buttons to radio communications between law enforcement and beyond. Information is no longer compartmentalized but disseminated to all stakeholders. There is no choke point where information does not pass.

These security centers became standard practice in law enforcement after 9/11. Several large companies and organizations have taken this route, along with utilities and other infrastructure. Since public transit is part of the nation’s critical infrastructure, establishing a security operations center is an important part of security response and prevention.

  1. educate the public

Finally, millions of commuters use public transport daily. Getting public buy-in will not only help people understand the importance of safety procedures, but also how they can help. Security measures are not there to prevent them from moving from place to place. Educating the public can engage them in the process and help develop individuals who care a little more about their surroundings. Rather than being unhappy or inconvenienced, they have a better understanding of the secure environment and will be more likely to ask for advice or otherwise participate in security efforts.


There is no miracle solution to prevent security breaches. Agencies need to take a layered approach, combining a number of different solutions. This means the physical presence of uniformed officers for deterrence and plainclothes officers for surveillance. It also means cameras, as well as panic buttons such as blue light boxes on college campuses. As cities become increasingly digitally interconnected, another layer will be smart sensors that collect data as commuters move from points A to B. Finally, a central post is needed to coordinate all of this data and to make sense of, as well as to respond effectively. to a threat.

Allocating funds to update security may seem expensive, but an attack will be even more expensive. Unfortunately, terrorists see public transit as an opportunity to make a splash. Public transport systems are one of the most open systems. It’s time to take action to ensure cities have the right safeguards in place.

Melvin Z. Madore