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How Important Is Surveillance Tech on Public Transit?

As a major California public transit agency grapples with ongoing public safety, funding and ridership challenges — the same issues many transit agencies are facing — its use of surveillance technology is evolving.

Closeup of a camera lens.
Amidst growing public safety concerns, a major transit agency is evolving its use of surveillance technology to introduce new cameras in different places.

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), in the San Francisco Bay Area, is battling financial woes and a significant drop in ridership that has yet to return to pre-COVID levels on its 131 miles of track connecting 50 stations.

The more than 50-year-old transit agency has been surviving on federal funding that will run out in 2025, leaving the agency to face an annual deficit of $300 million.

A poll conducted to determine why riders haven’t returned to the service revealed public safety and cleanliness concerns. More than half of 1,000 survey respondents had witnessed or been a victim of a crime on BART. Meanwhile, 85 percent of BART riders who have reduced or eliminated their usage said they would ride the system more often if it was significantly cleaner and safer.

In early 2023, BART announced new public safety initiatives, most visibly, doubling the amount of officers on trains.

“This is the biggest train deployment we’ve had in the 25 years I’ve been here, if not the history of the BART Police Department,” BART Police Chief Ed Alvarez said in February.

But according to annual public reports published in compliance with BART’s Surveillance Technology Ordinance, riders also complain regularly about a lack of CCTV coverage.

Since FY 2020, the agency has received 81 complaints about its CCTV system due to a lack of surveillance coverage for train-related incidents, or parking lot vandalism and theft. No complaints were filed about privacy concerns in the same period.

BART’s CCTV camera count hasn’t changed significantly in four years. According to the latest report, the agency has 4,837 CCTV cameras located on the agency’s 862 train cars, and 3,281 CCTV operational cameras deployed in facilities across the BART system not on train cars.
Amidst the public safety campaign, law enforcement is accessing CCTV video footage for criminal investigations more often.

BART PD has requested video for criminal investigations in 4,171 cases in FY 2023 compared to 3,128 in FY 2022.
Meanwhile, BART continues to add new types of cameras to its surveillance system.

In August 2021, the board of directors approved a 10-year, $6.7 million contract for 300 body-worn cameras for BART police, fare inspectors, crisis intervention specialists and community service officers. BART hasn’t received any complaints about the cameras since employees started wearing them.

The agency has also experimented with a no-cost pilot with automatic license plate reader (ALPR) cameras in parking areas in recent years. In 2023, a test of one mobile ALPR camera allowed a parking enforcement officer to issue 288 citations in 25 days.

BART has recently celebrated some successes in public safety, reporting that in May to October, 40 percent fewer trains had been delayed due to unwanted behavior and that more riders than ever before had reported seeing BART PD on their ride.

But it’s too early to tell the overall impact the extra presence and new technology will have on crime.

According to the Chief’s Crime Report in July, total crime was up 69 percent since the same time in 2022, with the largest increases in auto theft, larceny and auto burglary. There were significant decreases in homicide, rape, burglary and arson from the same time last year.
Nikki Davidson is a data reporter for Government Technology. She’s covered government and technology news as a video, newspaper, magazine and digital journalist for media outlets across the country. She’s based in Monterey, Calif.