Learning from past mistakes
UCLA student writes thesis on Spain's transit security
Images of the March 11 bombings that tore through Madrid's subways in 2004 brought urban planning graduate student Rachel Factor to tears. Her Spain, where she lived for over 10 months, was one of oceans and family dinners at midnight, a far cry from the blood and desperation that caught the world's attention a year ago today.
"I was so upset," Factor said.
While government leaders originally blamed the Basque separatist group ETA for the terror that killed nearly 200, investigations indicate al-Qaeda masterminded it. Spaniards, already strongly against the U.S. war with Iraq, voted the incumbent party out of office days after the bombings.
As Spain and the international community mark the attack's first anniversary, Factor is remembering it in her own way.
She went to Barcelona and Madrid last year to do field work for a thesis on transit security, interviewing transportation officials there.
Those discussions were also documented in a project sponsored by San Jose State University's Mineta Transportation Institute and UCLA's International Institute and the Burkle Center for International Relations on transit security worldwide. The report is complete, and team members are waiting for comments from reviewers before publishing it, said Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, chair of urban planning at UCLA and a principal researcher.
Remembering anti-war protests where hundreds of thousands poured into Barcelona's streets, Factor said the March 11 attack was devastating because the people paid with their lives for a war they did not want. For her, the study of Spain's public transportation is a pursuit both intellectual and deeply personal.
Spanish officials knew how ETA operated – members of the group would call beforehand to report when and where explosives would go off, Loukaitou-Sideris said.
The government got used to that type of threat, mastering emergency evacuations and thorough searches, she said.
So March 11 came as a devastating surprise.
Factor's thesis compares Barcelona and Madrid's rail systems, examining security and reactions to last year's attacks.
She said stations in the capital have started making announcements about safety to passengers and are hiring more police and requiring staff to wear reflective vests to increase visibility.
Factor said she learned in a recent conversation that Madrid's transit managers would begin a campaign asking riders to report suspicious activity, a measure they hesitated to take because they didn't want to alarm people.
Barcelona's response to March 11 offers a sharp contrast, partly because the bombings did not happen there, Factor said.
"Nothing happened as a reaction," she said.
Differences in funding – Madrid's systems are much richer than Barcelona's – could also account for some of the divergence, she added.
In at least one instance, northern officials outright rejected methods used in the capital to create a safer environment.
At some Madrid stops, employees have begun choosing individuals to screen, Factor said. Barcelona executives were concerned the checks, similar to those conducted at airports, would lead to racial profiling or other discrimination, she said.
"They said they would never pick random people," she said.
Loukaitou-Sideris said conclusions from the wider study mirrored many of Factor's findings. Graduate students visited Paris, Tokyo and other metropolitan areas to conduct interviews.
After Sept. 11, security focus shifted to airports and planes, leaving a gap with regard to systems like railways, Loukaitou-Sideris said.
"These transit systems are so open and inherently vulnerable that they cannot be closed and secured like the airports," she said. "We really need to start looking at other options."
Researchers will send the Mineta and International Institute-sponsored study to everyone they interviewed, as well as leaders in federal transportation agencies.
Factor said that while transit managers have begun meeting frequently with government and security officials, few decisions have been made because so little time has passed.
"There were a lot of things they didn't know," she said.
A commonality between Barcelona and Madrid is the balance between building new stations and funding renovation of the old ones.
Factor's research revolves around environmental design, which focuses on making rail systems inviting and less prone to terrorism and crime.
Stops with fewer entrances and shorter pathways are easier to patrol, she said. The tops of ticket machines and other surfaces should be slanted so packages can't be left on them. Shadows should be minimized and lighting enhanced. Screens that broadcast station activity to passengers would also help.
"It's going to be super expensive, really inconvenient and just difficult," Factor said. "You're going to stop a lot of traffic."
While measures can reduce crime and make people more comfortable, total prevention is not realistic, she said. As one official told her, "The truth is that you can't do anything."
A tale of two friends
Jordi Ortega, a Barcelona native, said when he and Factor met on an intercontinental flight last November, they were "two people that were in a very different moment in life."
Factor was on her way home after researching in Spain, and he was chasing a life and career in California, where he works as a news producer for Univision Los Angeles.
But their first conversation lasted the entire trip, including the stopovers. They talked about Factor's study, and found that while a world apart in terms of their backgrounds, they had been touched by the same events.
On March 11, 2004, Ortega was in the United States following the television interviews and coverage.
"You could tell it was the average person in Spain that was in the middle of this scene, without knowing why, without being guilty of anything," he said.
"I was remembering how people talk, how people behave in their thinking. Madrid is a city that despite being a capital is so welcoming. If you ask someone for directions in the street, they will take you – honestly, they will take you to the place."
Ortega believes work like Factor's is vital to policy, which should be based on fact and not on politicians' whims.
Both he and Factor said they were disappointed with the Spanish government's initial reaction to the attacks and confused by press claims that ETA was the perpetrator.
"I knew right away," Factor said. "I just knew it had nothing to do with ETA. ... I knew too much about the history."
They both thought about the commuters who used the trains to get from the outskirts of Madrid to work and school in the city center. They thought about the university students and the immigrants who rode the rails.
Ortega said talking to Factor helped him realize what a subway is: a place where people come together, exposing themselves to strangers of varied ethnicities and walks of life, sharing a train with neighbors and travellers from overseas.
"You can really see what your country looks like," he said. "It's much easier to understand."
Published: Monday, March 14, 2005