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Public Transit Crime - Another Global New Normal?

A spate of crimes in recent months has led almost 60% of Canadians polled to feel less safe when using public transit and this rises to as much as 71% in Ontario. Ridership of city transit systems inevitably fell during the pandemic but even though ridership has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels (StatCan estimated that in July 2022 versus July 2019, ridership had returned to around 62% of what it was previously), the number of reports of crime taking place on trains, subways and buses appears to be growing.

Public Transit Crime Magnitude Runs as Deep as it does Wide

Crime rates on public transit can vary widely between countries and even within countries, based on differing socioeconomic factors, culture and law enforcement approach. It's very difficult to get a facts and figures comparison, however the problem appears to extend far greater than Canada.

Despite being very divergent countries, many regions who previously had little problem with crime on transit are also reporting an uptick, particularly since lockdown restrictions were lifted. In addition, these crimes seem to be moving away from more petty theft and vandalism, which most cities’ experience, to more serious crimes including assaults on both passengers and transport workers.

Although we can’t make blanket statements about a global public transit crime crisis due to lack of standardized data (timeframes, type, reporting process or whether crime was committed against passengers or workers), there have been many reports of increased crime in some regions and we’ve compiled a list of some of the statistics we could find below.

In the U.S. for example there have been concerns about an increase in assaults on public transit, particularly on buses and trains in some cities. In some cases, a good proportion of instances in San Francisco, NYC and Philadelphia have been linked to issues like mental health and drug addiction. In other parts of the world, there have been reports of other types of public transit crime, such as theft, harassment and vandalism and German media reports an issue with heightened knife crime.

What Measures can Countries Take Against Transit Crime?

Some countries can and have taken various measures to protect people from crime on public transport, others have yet to cover all the basics including…

  • Increased police presence: one of the most effective measures to deter crime on public transit is by increasing the physical presence of police officers. Since January, Toronto police have increased the number of officers on daily duty in response to increased attacks and concerns from the public.

  • Installation of camera surveillance and increased surveillance both aboard transport and in transit hubs to deter crime and identify suspects.

  • Emergency call buttons: installation of emergency call buttons on public transport vehicles and in stations can allow the public to alert authorities quickly in the case of an emergency or perceived threat.

  • Promoting public awareness: campaigns to help educate passengers in taking preventative safety measures and recognising suspicious behavior can help foster a safer network. Having dedicated contact numbers for the public and staff that deal with this activity, is another way to support public safety.

  • Implement access control measures: turnstiles or barriers can help prevent unauthorized and potentially dangerous access to stations and vehicles and drivers must be protected from random attacks which threaten everyone on board.

  • Improved lighting throughout the transport system to mitigate the risk of indiscriminate attacks.

  • Collaborative work between government, police and transport companies on regular safety audits, ongoing training and preparedness.

The commonality between these measures is that they’re all reactive but the more you learn about the increased violence, the clearer it becomes that the problem runs more than face deep and complex root causes are often ignored. Simply putting a band-aid over the problem is a short-term and costly solution for cities and soon enough they will have to confront why more crime is occurring and deal with some uncomfortable truths.

Transit Crime Cause and Effect

There are two key themes running through the causes of transit crime; homelessness and mental health and each one has layer upon layer of sub-problems, many of which were growing concerns before and have surely been aggravated by two years of pandemic.


Homelessness is a complex issue that requires a multifaceted approach to address it effectively. Some strategies that cities can employ are;

A housing first approach: This approach focuses on providing permanent housing as quickly as possible to those experiencing homelessness without them needing to meet certain conditions or requirements. This has been shown effective in breaking the homeless cycle before it even begins and reducing numbers on the street.

Providing a range of supportive services: Alongside housing,homeless individuals may need access to other services such as mental health and substance abuse treatment, job training, resettlement and healthcare. Cities should partner with social service providers to ensure homeless people have access to these services that they need to stabilize their lives.

Prevention is better than cure: Cities should investigate programs that help individuals who are at greater risk of homelessness before it happens. Higher risk groups such as ex-prisoners and veterans and low-income families may benefit from financial assistance for rent, eviction prevention and subsidized legal services.

Outreach in the community: taking outreach programs into the homeless community can connect homeless individuals with the housing and services they most need. This may look like on-street teams, assigned case managers and mobile medical clinics.

Collaboration: more collaboration is needed between government agencies, social service providers and the community. A dedicated provincial task force and working groups can bring together the different stakeholders and develop comprehensive plans to address growing homelessness.

Advocacy: Particularly in Canada with the tiered levels of government, it’s vital for provinces and cities to advocate for policy changes that address homelessness including more funding for affordable housing and support services and reducing the barriers to housing development.

Affordable housing: We can’t talk about homelessness without talking about affordable housing; many cities worldwide have an affordable housing problem including Toronto. There’s a certain correlation between affordable housing and crime on public transit due to its increasing role in homelessness and mental health issues. Rents are at an all-time high with no sign of abating and as people are forced from their accommodation with nowhere to go, it only adds to the homeless issue. Lack of affordable housing options can contribute to economic and social inequality, increasing the likelihood of criminal activity in certain areas, including public transit.

Overall, addressing homelessness requires a long-term commitment and a comprehensive approach that focuses on prevention first and foremost and in the worst case support for resettlement.

Mental Health

A vast subject in itself and one that only qualified individuals can speak to but there is a feeling that we’re on the precipice of a dire mental health crisis worldwide and people experiencing these complex issues make choices that are difficult to understand, including the random and unprovoked attacks on public transit that are all too commonplace is recent times.

The last few years have been incredibly hard, even more so for those that already suffered from mental health conditions and as world news and events continue to be overwhelmingly negative, mental health challenges must be treated like any other physical illness to protect sufferers from spiralling. The crisis is even worse for our young adults as almost 50% of those aged 18-24 reported having experienced depression and anxiety which is more than any other age group and more needs to be done to provide easy access to mental health resources in colleges and universities.

Source: Accessed: 01.05.2023.

It’s clear that the pandemic will have lasting effects on mental health for years to come with many psychologists and the world health organization noting that for many people, the situation could have triggered a post-traumatic stress response and mental health systems must be strengthened throughout the world to deal with the lasting impact. There is no simple nor quick answer to supporting people in managing their mental health but however difficult, it must be done.

Proactive Approach Needed to Transit Crime

Toronto is the fastest growing city in North America and a growing population needs a safe, world-class public transit system. Whilst there are still billions of extensions and improvements in the pipeline for Toronto’s transport network alone, countries’ need to adopt a more proactive approach to dealing with crime, not only in terms of public safety but for commerce and the economy.

If workers who rely on public transit no longer feel able to use it and businesses can’t attract their workforce back to office, there’s a real economic impact for businesses struggling to rebound and for getting essential workers where they need to be. It will also be difficult for newcomers to Canada to settle in our cities.

From an investment perspective, social investments into multifamily, affordable housing and in facilities that provide much-needed mental health resources could be a very rewarding prospect, not only financially but altruistically as well; helping to improve the lives of those living on the streets and reduce crime overall. Governments will increasingly partner with the private sector to bridge the affordable housing and services gap which should result in less red tape and more incentives for developers, as signified by the ambitious Toronto 2023 Housing Action Plan which addresses all aspects of housing policy and planning.

For the specifics about the commercial real estate opportunity in the GTA, reach out to us today.


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