Seeking Perspectives Outside the US: Mental Health and Behavior Issues on Public Transport

In the second edition of Human Transit, which I’m working on how, there’s a new chapter about the need to plan for a diversity of riders, as against the classic fallacy of planning separately for different demographic groups or, even worse, dividing customers into “choice” and “captive.”  This leads me into discussing people’s ability to be comfortable around a diversity of strangers.  From there, I find myself drawn into saying something about the rise of crime and antisocial behavior on public transport during and since the pandemic.  Of course, public transport is just a kind of public space, and most of the same issues are arising in many kinds of public space, including parks, sidewalks, etc.

I would like to separate this behavior issue from the issue of homelessness, a different problem that also affects public space and sometimes public transport.  I want to focus on behavior, regardless of whether the people behaving badly are housed or unhoused.

This is a real issue in the US.  One friend who is a bus driver in a major US city tells me that the frequency which which a trip has to be paused or even canceled because of passenger misbehavior has gone up markedly since the pandemic.

I want to better understand what is going on in comparable countries.

Since the pandemic, my only public transport experiences outside the US have been in Europe, namely Spain, France and Switzerland in February of 2023.  I noticed that the issue didn’t seem to be nearly as bad, but of course one person’s experience is too small a sample.

My first impulse, on seeing that this problem is worse in the US than in Europe, is to assume that it’s tied to the poor safety net and especially the difficulty of accessing mental health care.  But it seems to be bad in Canada too.

If you’re outside the US, I’d love to know both how much worse you think the issue of misbehavior on public transport has become since the pandemic. and how it’s perceived, and whether that perception is affecting patronage/ridership.

It’s probably too soon to have good studies about this, but if you’ve seen one I’d love to see it.  Any other data you’re aware of would also be welcome.

19 Responses to Seeking Perspectives Outside the US: Mental Health and Behavior Issues on Public Transport

  1. Alon Levy April 22, 2023 at 1:31 pm #

    I haven’t seen any of this in Germany. This is despite the fact that starting with the introduction of the 9€ ticket last summer, fare inspections seem to have ceased. And I say this having lived the entire time on U8, a line connecting two working-class neighborhoods north and south of city center, facing a lot of unfair negative stereotypes from the gutter press. Incidents like spilled beer on the floor of the train occur at the same low frequency as before.

    Bear in mind, I also haven’t seen any of this during my last three trips to New York – there was one person screaming for no reason a year ago but that would occur (albeit rarely) before corona too.

  2. Jarrett April 22, 2023 at 1:52 pm #

    Alon. When was your last trip to NY? Post-covid?

  3. Alon Levy April 22, 2023 at 4:51 pm #

    March 2022 for three weeks (of which one was in Boston, where I don’t remember seeing antisocial behavior either), October-November 2022 for another three weeks, February-March 2023 for four weeks.

  4. CVT April 23, 2023 at 3:15 am #

    In January, the Danish Railway Association carried out a questionnaire survey among staff on well-being at work, focusing on the daily interaction with passengers. The results show a frightening picture of working days with travellers:

    The survey results show the following:

    17.4% have been physically assaulted one or more times in the last 3 months. Most physical assaults happen in the context of ticketing (57.5%), but almost one in five physical assaults are unprovoked (18.8%)

    77.1% of people have experienced one or more verbal assaults in the last three months. Most verbal assaults are related to ticketing (61.1%), but one in four verbal assaults are unprovoked (25.4%)

    57,4% experience that, “The tone has become more raw after the Corona epidemic”

    415 have participated in the survey, giving a response rate of 39.2%.


  5. Simon April 23, 2023 at 4:03 am #

    No idea of any good studies, and nothing here refers to the sort of behaviour that cancels journeys. But anecdotally, over the pandemic people seem to have forgotten how to behave in public. An average long-distance train journey will now have two people in your coach watching Netflix without headphones, and another having a videocall with somebody on speakerphone.

  6. Michelle Bacon April 23, 2023 at 1:23 pm #

    I’d like to point out that access to mental health supports and supportive housing is very poor in Canada, and has only gotten worse since the pandemic. We’re not doing OK here.

  7. crzwdjk April 23, 2023 at 4:10 pm #

    I haven’t seen a substantial increase in Mexico City either. There wasn’t a huge problem before the pandemic and it doesn’t look substantially different now. Nobody smokes on the train or in the stations for example.

  8. JackTatt April 23, 2023 at 6:11 pm #

    Here in Toronto, we are dealing with a few things.
    1. I take transit regularly to university (doing a masters in civil engineering on public transit :)), and have noticed people in general to have lost their manners since before COVID (what happened to saying excuse me). There are a lot more people with housing or addiction or mental health issues on the subway and streetcar. Most of this I think is because of a lack of social supports and facilities to actually care for and help these people, combined with the housing crisis in Toronto and mental health from the pandemic and isolation (COVID lockdowns in Ontario were fairly strict compared to the USA at least). People are lonely, and those without lots of supports in life are having trouble. The pandemic interrupted a lot of social and community services that helped these people stay sane. More well off people are also having trouble but they respond by being more on edge or being rude, others respond by antisocial or outright criminal behaviour.

    2. On the other hand, you have criminal behaviour (stabbings, assaults, setting someone on fire). I have been blessed not to witness any of it but hear it on the news and see delays/service suspensions due to it. Some of the offenders have been reported to have mental health and housing issues, which is probably not helping them from staying out of violence. On the other hand, federal rules around bail have made it easier for people to get released upon arrest, according to police and provincial justice ministers. Local and provincial politicians are pushing for reverse onus on repeat firearms offenders, where they will have to prove why they should get bail not the other way around. This is because a few of the offenders involved in recent crimes (a stabbing of a 16-year-old boy at a subway station was by someone currently on bail and was wanted for arrests by Newfoundland authorities, and a shooting of a young provincial cop outside Toronto was by a man on bail for multiple firearms offences after previous firearms convictions). I don’t know what’s causing all the violence. As a Canadian, I do have to take a jab at lax gun rules in the USA which make smuggling guns from the US to Canada a boon for crooks.

    3. Fortunately, their is an understanding by the TTC and most city politicians that law enforcement (police and special constables) are only part of the solution. Mental healthcare people and shelter services are needed to help these vulnerable people get back on their feet and give them a safe place that is not a subway station or streetcar. Transit is for mobility. In a society without enough shelters and underfunded social services, public access transit with little fare enforcement (suspended for COVID) becomes the shelter and social service of last resort, a job it isn’t designed or meant to fill.

    4. The city is looking tired post-COVID. Roads look like a mess. The King Street Transit Priority Corridor is falling apart. Traffic enforcement seems to not exist. So, some of this I think is due to municipal cost cutting and politicians who won’t raise property taxes. Staff need to be more out and about.

    Will look into research. I don’t recommend you talk about this too much in your book, because it is mostly short term lingering effects of the pandemic (at least in the opinion of me and many I have talked to). It will probably go away over the next few years, especially as social services are expanded and society moves on from the pandemic.

  9. Jonathon April 24, 2023 at 1:48 am #

    In my trips to Toronto every couple of months, I have definitely noticed more of the minor nuisances that I remember being very uncommon on the Toronto subway before, and was much more used to seeing in US cities- those minor things like passengers making messes of food or other things on seats, passengers sleeping on rows of seats, people talking and yelling to themselves up and down the trains, etc. I have not witnessed serious or violent incidents, though the news coverage of violent incidents on transit, particularly against young people, is concerning. In general, it just changes the feel of the system- I don’t think of the TTC subway as quite as spotless, clean, and friendly as before.

    While many of the older adults I know have not returned to using transit regularly, among the young people I know, largely university students, they are afraid now where they never used to think about it, going so far as to avoid taking the subway late at night. This is completely new behavior.

    Interestingly, these things do not seem to be true of the bus network, where ridership has recovered much more, and more quickly. In the central city buses I’ve taken, there does not seem to be an issue, and this may owe to the fact that the buses are about as busy as they used to be, crowd-wise. The subway, however, has seen a few service cuts.

    Eight minutes might not seem like a lot, but in Toronto that’s quite a long wait for a train, and it seems like its leaving potential passengers more worried about waiting on platforms for those extra minutes.

  10. David G April 24, 2023 at 7:52 am #

    Here in Scotland, there have certainly been anecdotal reports of worse passenger behaviour and anti-social behaviour (e.g., particularly since the recent introduction of nationwide free bus travel for young people (e.g. Whether or not this is true, I don’t know, but we do get some level of complaint that things are at least perceived to be worse than pre-Covid.
    Personally, as a regular user of all modes of public transport, things don’t actually feel any worse to me. But service frequencies have been cut on both bus and rail in the evening, so I can certainly see how people may be more likely to have a worse experience in some circumstances if they are having to wait longer for services in particular stations/stops, and if there are fewer services to spread the passenger loads between.

    In wider GB, Transport Focus publish a set of regular bus and rail user surveys which includes questions on “Satisfaction with other passengers behaviours” and “Satisfaction with personal security”.

    Most recent bus user survey (21 April) – (PDF pages 21 & 27).

    Most recent rail user survey (21 April) – (PDF pages 23 & 29).

    Unfortunately I don’t think data was collected in the same way pre-Covid but the Transport Focus website does have a number of reports where similar questions have been asked, for example this report on anti-social behaviour on buses (June 2013) –

  11. Nico M April 27, 2023 at 2:00 pm #

    Here in Buenos Aires, misbehaviour in public transport is barely heard of. I take the bus regularly since I was a kid (I’m 33 now), and odd situations are rare, both before and after the pandemic, so any first-hand experience is mostly anecdotical. I even found it odd that sometimes I read on the internet people relating public transport with homelessness and people defecating or using drugs.

    The most important issue regarding public transport is safety, mainly pickpocketers, but also the ocassional armed robbery (not that I experienced them first-hand, but are the events that get to the news).

  12. Jonathan Monroe May 4, 2023 at 11:32 am #

    Anecdotally, no significant increase in problems on commuter rail in London.

  13. Nathan Landau May 8, 2023 at 1:13 pm #

    I’ve wondered if some of the U.S. problem is that problematic people and behavior have become more visible on transit. American transit lost a lot of ridership during the pandemic, and most systems have not gained all of it back. There was antisocial behavior before the pandemic, but it got more submerged among the “normal” riders. But with fewer people on the train, it is front and center.

    At least in California the general consensus is that, to the extent there are increased behavior problems, they are much worse on trains than buses. Each bus has a worker, the bus driver, within it. Even if they’re not actively intervening with trouble, their mere presence tends to calm things down.

  14. Georg D May 9, 2023 at 8:10 am #

    Vienna, Austria, anecdotal:
    The pandemic did lead to an increase in confrontations over masking, as requirements have been dropped, there are now only rare reports in social media of people being told to drop their masks.

    Otherwise, things have not changed noticeably. If you have a regular line, especially subway, you do know a few “regulars” who are not neurotypical. Some even get local “fame.”
    The extent of crime is hard to gauge, as reporting corresponds to local election campaigns, but things don’t seem to have been “better” pre-pandemic.

  15. Thomas May 12, 2023 at 3:50 am #

    Drivers for National Express West Midlands, the main bus company in Birmingham UK, recently went on strike. Among their complaints was the harassment and bad behaviour from the public. I reckon drivers, at that and other companies, will be some of the best placed to comment.

    Anecdotally, a video did the rounds of people kicking off (not during the strike period), attacking a bus driver and the bus. This was in the city centre during the evening, very close to a rail station, and went on for some time with no sign of any police. Absence of policing seems to be a problem in the UK.

  16. Thomas May 12, 2023 at 4:00 am #

    PS: I think in Britain misbehaviour on public transport and in public generally is less commonly associated with mental health problems per se, and more commonly associated with alcohol or drug use whether or not that’s connected to a mental health issue. The UK is often described as having a “binge drinking” culture – it seems like this is common complaint across English-speaking countries actually.

  17. Chris June 16, 2023 at 11:13 am #

    Here in Austria I’ve also seen reports of more assaults on train staff, but as far as I can tell these are not the classic mental ill people I’ve seen in the US, but mostly aggressive people that don’t quite fall on the urgent need of medial treatment spectrum. I’ve personally not witnessed any of those or any other issues with mentally ill people on public transports.