Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

How should WMATA address suicides and sexual harassment?

March 9, 2012 - 09:51 AM
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(Photo: Jay Westcott)

Another apparent suicide attempt resulted WMATA closing the Foggy Bottom Metro Thursday afternoon on the same day Metro officials debated progress on the agency's suicide prevention program. The man who jumped died later at the George Washington University Hospital. Metro's report included the chart below listing the number of attempts and deaths since 2005 as well as other relevant information, such as the fact that suicides have been attempted at more than half the stations, 68% of attempts succeed, and that attempts most frequently happen on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, respectively. You'll want to add one more death to the 2012 bar in the chart.

Another big if unsurprising fact — in 90% of the cases, the individuals, unfortunately, suffered from a history of depression.

The nature of transit is complicated because society's problems permeate its corridors. I see a connection between the problem of sexual harassment and the problem of suicide attempts here. Both occur wherever there are masses of people, and the Metro, open all day long, carries several hundred thousand people every day. No wonder that these societal tragedies carry over into the trains and platforms. WMATA has new goals to address sexual harassment, with a special e-mail address at which incidents can be reported and new initiatives like a public awareness campaign. Yet Metro General Manager Richard Sarles noted last month that sexual harassment exists widely enough in society at large and the Metro incidents are one dimension of a grander challenge.

What, then, is the role of a transit agency in light of these problems of society?

Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: WMATA)

Metro is not responsible for fixing them entirely, nor should anyone expect them to. The agent, in both examples, is the individual. WMATA's responsibility comes down to managing the incidents and providing the appropriate outreach to prevent them when possible, the appropriate follow-up. In the case of suicides, this outreach translates into employee training and the posting of suicide hotlines in addition to providing public information about what is happening to people's commutes. In the case of sexual harassment, better reporting mechanisms and raising public awareness.

To expect WMATA to prevent these actions outright is to expect them to change human nature and society — or to enact constant surveillance, which isn't realistic (although Metro workers should be aware of both attempts and harassment and prepared to intervene if they can).

What matters here is that the transit agency tends to significant public space. They act as caretakers of huge crowds of people and, if they want trust, need to facilitate these issues in the best ways possible. The agency's behavior contributes to the culture of the space, which carries the weight of these misfortunes in painful ways. Metro seeks to regulate the behavior of those who ride, from a prohibition on food to the creation of the Transit Police decades ago to ensure safety. WMATA acted wisely in the case of sexual harassment this year. The problem arose the D.C. Council, and Metro quickly reached out to the women who testified. They synchronized their priorities and created proposals. WMATA has attempted this in the past with suicide prevention but fell behind schedule, its program introduced in fall of 2010. It has trained 195 employees so far but has hundreds upon hundreds remaining to be trained still. The goal is 896 by January 2013. They still have to develop awareness posters and add crisis hotline phone numbers to the stations. Why has progress been so sluggish? Is the pace consistent with what we should expect about sexual harassment outreach efforts? Rail suicide is a global problem, and transit agencies around the world have struggled with the question of how to address it.

Transit can't ignore these societal problems that enter its space. No silver bullet will fix human depression or aggression but these efforts, from public education to fast reaction time to outreach (for sexual harassment victims, for people fraught with depression) is wise and correct when possible and feasible.

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