Image Credit: Igor Ovsyannykov

Research by FUSADES on public transit related crime in El Salvador has contributed to a number of national public awareness campaigns led by transit authorities and civil society groups. These seek to improve public safety for transit users, while also promoting respectful behavior amongst riders, particularly towards women and girls.

SETTING THE SCENE— In El Salvador, more 80% of citizens regularly use public transit as their primary means of transportation for traveling to work, going to school, or accessing services[1]. However, violence and crime have been on the rise, and data shows that 3.3% of all homicides in the country between 2008 and 2013 occurred within a public transit vehicle[2]. Also, victimization surveys conducted in 2013 and 2015 confirm that an estimated 20.6% of all thefts and robberies happen on a bus, with an additional 7.5% at a bus stop. This poses some serious safety concerns and also contributes to increased fear and unease amongst transit users. Unfortunately, there is limited information available about the factors that underlie these particular crimes, seeing as official statistics are either scarce or difficult to obtain and little research has been carried out to date on violence in relation to public transit.

WHAT FUSADES DID — Given this lack of information, FUSADES led a study to better understand the causes of violence within public transit systems and the implications for users, while also gathering data to help inform decision-making on appropriate interventions. Although crime occurs in many areas, FUSADES decided to focus on crime specifically relating to public transit, due to the lack of available research and evidence for understanding its magnitude and particularities. As such, their study sought to identify practical solutions for preventing crime and disorder relating to transit, while also reducing fear on behalf of users. FUSADES conducted a systematic analysis of public transit in the city of San Salvador and adjacent metropolitan areas, did a review of the relevant legal framework, and led focus group discussions with different stakeholders – transit users, bus drivers, bus owners, and police officers. These discussions helped to identify some of the main sources of disorder and forms of crime, as well as identified some possible options for improvement.

It is worth noting that public transit in El Salvador operates under a concession arrangement: the State is the official owner of the different routes, which are operated entirely by private companies. The Vice-Ministry of Transportation determines which companies may provide service on which routes. Key findings from FUSADES’s work show that San Salvador’s public transit system is largely perceived as chaotic, promoting excessive and disorganized competition amongst companies to gain users. It was also found that permits are often awarded to companies and individual bus owners who do not have the necessary administrative and financial capabilities to guarantee proper operation.

Other sources of disorder that were identified include poor condition of buses and bus stops, lack of enforcement of laws and regulations, inadequate supervision by authorities, and inappropriate behavior by bus drivers and, in some cases, users themselves. Findings showed that crimes typically occur on buses or at bus stops, and of those reported, the most common include sexual harassment against women, thefts and robberies, extortion of bus owners, and collusion between operators and criminals.

THE OUTCOME— The study suggested that crime could be substantially reduced through a sustained program of situational crime prevention. A number of policy recommendations were shared with policymakers, including the Ministry of Labor, and other involved stakeholders. These include introducing measures that deter specific crimes from occurring on buses or at bus stops, ensuring proper enforcement of laws and regulations, and conducting awareness campaigns to promote respect between users and address safety concerns.

These recommendations are already helping to inform a number of efforts to improve safety on public transit in El Salvador. For instance, the Integrated Transportation System for the Metropolitan Area of San Salvador (SITRAMSS) launched campaigns to promote respectful behavior amongst transit users, especially towards women and girls. This included displaying messages on television screens in buses, having print advertisements available on buses and at bus stops, and reaching to transit users through social media.

A women’s initiative known as the “Table of women leaders”, with representatives from both the private and public sectors, is also using the findings on sexual harassment against women to inform an upcoming nationwide awareness campaign. This campaign will focus on promoting respect towards women, and will encourage those affected by sexual harassment to report it. In addition, the findings are being used by the Escuela de Comunicaciones Mónica Herrera as a case study in one of its post-secondary courses. Students are asked to review the findings of the study and prepare proposals on strategies for preventing sexual harassment against women. Discussions are now underway for the best proposals to be shared with the “Table of women leaders”, for use towards future awareness campaigns.

Combined, all of these efforts and initiatives are an important step forward towards improving safety for transit users in El Salvador and promoting respectful behaviour amongst riders, particularly towards women and girls. 

[1] Viceministerio de Transporte (VMT) (2013). Información General de Rutas de Autobuses y Microbuses. San Salvador
[2] Instituto de Medicina Legal (IML) (2013). Estadísticas sobre Homicidios, Departamento Académico y de Estadística, San Salvador.