When Is Fear Only a Feeling?
Researchers from Freie Universität study transit passengers’ sense of safety and security.
Apr 23, 2018
It’s just after midnight when Jana K. passes the Berlin Ringbahn railway on Hermannstrasse in Neukölln, traditionally a rough-and-tumble working-class district and now home to a large immigrant population. She has the hood of her black coat pulled up and is listening to music.
The date is October 27, 2016, and it is a cold night. At 12:18 a.m., she goes downstairs into the subwayo station to warm up. She walks along the last landing on the right. She can already see the train platform. Just another six steps, then five, when suddenly she feels a sharp push in the lower back. She loses her balance, falling headfirst down the stairs and landing on her face.
Dubbed the “subway kicker case,” the incident attracted attention in Berlin and all over Germany and made many people feel unsafe. Months later, a similar attack took place on Alexanderplatz, also in Berlin. At the Schönleinstrasse subway station, a group of youths throw a burning tissue onto a sleeping homeless man. In Cologne a man was pushed in front of a light rail car as it entered the station and died.
These acts represent specific moments in time. Because of their brutality and the public attention they have generated, they immediately spring to mind for many people when thinking about safety on public transit. But above all, they are isolated incidents, and they paint a distorted picture of the actual risks people face on buses, in trains, and at transit stops.
Still, the question remains: How safe do we feel when using public transit? “Are trains even still safe to ride?” the tabloids ask. The companies that operate transit services are worried about their passengers – and about their own reputations. They are looking for solutions to improve actual safety and perceptions of safety alike.
Innovative Data Collection: Passengers Report Their Perceptions Via an App
Under the leadership of Professor Lars Gerhold, André Jaworski, and Kilian Dorner, all researchers at the Interdisciplinary Security Research group at Freie Universität, are currently studying how safe residents feel when they use public transit. Their work is part of a project entitled “Cost-Effectiveness of Security Measures in the Public Transit Sector” (Wirtschaftlichkeit von Sicherheitsmaßnahmen im öffentlichen Personenverkehr, or WiSima), which Freie Universität will be working on in the position of coordinator, together with Wildau Technical University of Applied Sciences, the University of Bremen, the Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems (FOCUS), Deutsche Bahn AG, and six associated partners until the summer of 2019.
The team of researchers is studying what safety and security measures on public transit enhance passengers’ subjective sense of safety, and which measures also make sense from an economic standpoint. The project is receiving funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).
“Our job is to achieve as detailed an understanding as possible of how passengers on public transit feel about their personal safety,” Dorner says. “We want to be able to provide meaningful information on what makes them feel afraid,” he adds. Dorner, a political scientist, is currently working with his colleague André Jaworski, an economist, to analyze and interpret the responses provided in a representative survey of about 2,000 randomly selected participants that was conducted online in early April.
In the fall of 2017, the researchers began using an innovative method of data collection using a cell phone app, with the assistance of 100 test subjects from Bavaria, Bremen, Brandenburg, and Berlin: Passengers were surveyed during their time on transit – an exploratory study that offered new opportunities to gain insight. Unlike in the representative survey, the participants in this phase of the study were not chosen at random, but instead were selected according to certain criteria. “They all had to have a monthly transit pass, and we tried to include all parts of society: old and young, men and women, rural and urban, and those with and without immigrant backgrounds,” Jaworski says.
The Fraunhofer Institute developed a smartphone app specifically for the study. It can use the mobile device’s geodata to see when a person selected for the study moves more than 500 meters. “When that happens, questions appear on the smartphone screen,” the researcher says. The first thing asked was whether the person was moving from one place to another, and if so, whether he or she was using transit. After that, further questions were asked, depending on the situation: Are you on the way to a stop or station? Are you on the bus or train now? Or are you on the way from your stop to your destination? Do you feel safe? Why not?
“In this way, the study has already given us an important window into how transit users feel, since thanks to the app, we were able to collect data on how travelers felt about their safety almost in real time,” Dorner explains. “These data were used to lay the groundwork for our representative study. They allowed us to make our questions more precise and improve them. For example, test subjects had a much more heightened sense of being in physically restricted spaces than had been described in previous studies, while the study’s participants viewed other factors, such as graffiti and trash at transit stops, as being much less problematic in terms of safety than had previously been described in other studies.
This allowed the researchers to adjust the questions accordingly for the representative study. “We already have clear indications that poor lighting at stops or on transit makes people worry; now we can focus more on the question of what that is the case,” Dorner says. And the researchers want to find out to what extent the objective safety situation overlaps with subjective feelings of safety. For example, the data from the app-based study showed that participants felt less safe when the train or bus was very crowded.
Is it actually more likely that an incident will occur on a crowded train? Or is the objective safety situation different? To find out, the researchers are also analyzing data supplied by the German federal police and Deutsche Bahn AG. At the end of the study, the group plans to present a list of specific recommended actions for the operators of public transit.
The goal is to improve passengers’ sense of safety and security. Is it enough to provide better lighting for dark corners of urban train stations, or is a heightened security presence on platforms needed? How crowded can trains be before they are perceived as being too crowded? Might video surveillance improve passengers’ sense of safety? The cameras at the Hermannstrasse station did not prevent the attack in October 2016, but at least they helped to identify the perpetrator.
- Professor Lars Gerhold, Interdisciplinary Security Research Group, Freie Universität, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- André Jaworski, Interdisciplinary Security Research Group, Freie Universität, Email: email@example.com
- Kilian Dorner, Interdisciplinary Security Research Group, Freie Universität, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org