As graffiti grows, operators pay the price

photo of graffiti in metro

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Graffiti on public transport is a growing problem, according to anecdotal evidence from UITP member operators, who are constantly tasked with removing new graffiti from public transport infrastructure and rolling stock.

Costs for cleaning and repairs, as well as preventative measures to protect infrastructure assets from vandals, often comes from already-stretched budgets and the growing incidence of the problem is putting increasing pressure on operators.

To make matters worse, operators are often faced with clauses in their contracts with authorities that forbid them from operating dirty or graffitied trains. The result is they have to clean the damage from trains before they go into operation, or else they pay a penalty.

Public perception of graffiti

Graffiti, an underground subculture closely linked to hip-hop culture, is not always taken seriously in the courts, so operators are left to deal with the problem alone. From their perspective, vandals’ unauthorised access to closed areas is a major cause of insecurity; what other kind of damage can they cause? If vandals can get into a depot to spray graffiti, then they can also get into trains, sabotage them, block exits, and even plant bombs.

People often feel that public transport is public property and that graffiti is a victimless crime, when in fact, many people suffer from the proliferation of graffiti. Late and cancelled trains due to cleaning and repairs cause problems for everyone.

Graffiti also makes places look dirty and neglected. It strongly affects people's perceptions of crime and personal security, giving the impression an area is unmanaged and out of control. The 'broken windows' theory, developed in the United States, proposes that if a broken window is left and not repaired, other windows will soon be broken. The message this gives to both offenders and residents is that no one cares. Consequently offenders are not deterred from committing similar acts again, and a perceived rise in vandalism becomes a reality.

Crime and punishment

How graffiti is perceived depends on the region, and that is the kind of research that is currently needed. In some places, it is considered a nuisance, while in some places it’s a felony. Public prosecution seems to be the best solution, because if it’s taken seriously by law enforcement then the operator has some kind of leverage. 

Some regional examples: in New York, graffiti is a felony when the cost of the damage exceeds $250, and otherwise it is a misdemeanor offense. In the UK it’s classed as a crime and criminal damage if there is a cost involved with the removal of the graffiti or in the repair of the surface.

“In Austria it is property damage, a crime,” says Thomas Kritzer, head of security at Wiener Linien, an operator in Vienna. “But the problem is that we need to assign a number to the direct damage costs. Delay in operation, image problems, perception… it is still not clear if we are able to put in also these costs.”

“Very often we only have the cleaning costs. It depends on the judge, but penalties are normally very low. The cleaning costs are often only in the hundreds, and very often they have to pay for the damage but the perpetrators are young, living in the house of their parents and have no income, so it very often depends on the judge.”

According to Ricardo Ortega Paricio of Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona, “In our opinion graffiti in public transport is organised vandalism, and that means they must be considered a crime requiring investigation tools and methods. The main concern is that our laws have moved in the other direction: in the past were considered crimes in our penal code, but the last reform changed them to misdemeanors.”

First, study the phenomenon then find the solutions

Perhaps the rise in graffiti is, like many things, down to the Internet. It’s now very easy to publish images and taggers can easily build a following in the community. The audience has expanded.

It’s too late to discourage hardcore taggers, but with younger people, we can try and to stop them getting into graffiti. Prosecution and heavier fines might be the solution. However, some cities are looking into clever educational campaigns and community outreach programmes with some success (the US-based Graffiti Hurts in a non-profit with a nice selection of ideas for combating vandalism.)

Later this year, UITP will begin looking into existing and proposed initiatives to curb the problem, but one thing that is clear: collaboration with law enforcement is going to be vital, as are educational projects that work with the younger generation to make them understand the damage that it causes, as well as public awareness campaigns. Once the phenomenon is more thoroughly understood, the solutions will follow.

  • A special security dossier has been put together by UITP’s librarians to provide further reading on the topics presented this month on on the subject of security in public transport.

    Members of UITP can gain full access to the range of hand-selected security-related publications on Mobi+, UITP’s online library by clicking here.

  • For more information contact Andrea Soehnchen,  andrea.soehnchen(at)

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