Saturday, August 07, 2010

They mean well, but...

Today's Herald Sun has an article about a personal safety campaign targeted at international students travelling at night on public transport. Possibly a response to student safety concerns, it is supported by major universities (and other bodies) in Sydney and Melbourne. Transport departments, industry bodies or operators appear not to be involved.

Campaigns such as Think before you travel must be designed very carefully or they can do more harm than good. It's a fine line between encouraging modified behaviour (which may lower an individual's risk) and fuelling the perception that 'public transport is unsafe'.

If too many take the latter to heart, it becomes a self-fulfilling spiral - even fewer travel, the perception of safety declines further, causing even fewer to travel until a point is reached that only trouble-makers and the desperate are travelling.

Unfortunately I believe that elements of 'Think before you travel' do risk being counter-productive.

My first worry is the name of the campaign - 'Think before you travel'. Though milder than 'Think whether to travel', there is still a message that people should voluntarily restrict their liberty and not travel (as it's a big bad world out there). Or if they do travel, drive instead of take public transport (given ads and tips focus on or near public transport, as if that's the only place where bad things happen).

In contrast, a 'Think when you travel' message, although it's a change of just one word, would be more positive, not discourage transit use and support freedom to travel as a right in a civilised society. Any such campaign should also cover driving as well as public transport to fairly reflect risk.

The point about liberty is important, especially for people from societies less free than ours. Travelling alone is not a crime. People should not be chided as being somehow reckless or irresponsible for doing so. And accounts of assaults should not blame the victim for exercising this right.

The idea that people should restrict their freedom, though apparently desirable for safety, is an acquiescence to tyranny, or the fear of it (albeit committed by criminals rather than governments). We should not accept this as satisfactory; it diminishes us all if the exercise of a significant freedom is discouraged as part of a (well-meaning) taxpayer-funded campaign.

This is particularly if campaigns discourage the exercise of liberty that is socially beneficial, which I will explain below.

There are some liberties that we accept even if (inappropriately exercised) the consequences to others range from discomfort (eg clipping nails in public) to mild harm (eg passive smoking out of doors). People are legally free to do these sorts of things but there is reliance on civil society concepts of consideration to minimise detriment to others. A polity that seeks to prohibit everything runs out of police and prisons to enforce all infractions.

However there is also a virtuous group of liberties which if exercised by one person improve things for everyone else. Walking and travelling on public transport at night is one such example due to 'safety in numbers'. Campaigns that even only slightly lessen the propensity for people to exercise such 'virtuous liberties' are counter-productive and ought not run.

A couple of the safety tips are doubtful or don't apply in all areas. One display a wariness about public transport interchanges. For example: "Avoid long waits on platforms and around Public Transport hubs. If you do have a long wait stay in well lit areas or near open shops." In Melbourne a railway station large enough to be called 'a public transport hub' will be a premium stations, with a staff presence and often enclosed waiting areas. Some car parks aren't the most savoury of places either, and I'm not sure that hanging around an open liquor store or hotel car park is necessarily safer than a station platform.

The suggestion about the guards compartment does not apply nation-wide. And that such warnings apply 'outside of peak times' as well as at night seem over-cautious. Besides being impractical if everyone did it given the good patronage of many off-peak trains in Melbourne. These points underlie the hazards of trying to apply a Sydney campaign to other cities without making changes for local conditions.

The clip ends with a message 'Are you feeling lucky - think before you travel'. Which again conveys the perception of risk or travel being a safety lottery.

The best way to increase safety on public transport is to encourage more people to use it. This means making it more attractive for people to use. For example reduced waits through frequency and co-ordination, better urban design, staffing and so forth. Carriages should be numbered inside for easier identification by people dialling 000. While a role exists in passenger education, it is extremely important that it encourages rather than discourages patronage, as may be the risk with aspects of this campaign.


heisdeadjim said...

You realise, Peter, that the RTBU LD is opposed to having carriage numbers on the inside?

I really don't know why, but, it's a fact!

Riccardo said...

Presumably they oppose because they don't want their members to be fingered by the public for driving too fast, running late or general bad behaviour.

cf the road transport industry with "My driving is on display...if you have any complaints please call"

Imagine that on the trains! You can't trust the unions.