John Habermann, Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) research engineer, recently coauthored the article “The Contribution of State and Local DOTs to Disrupting Human Trafficking” in the June 2021 issue of the ITE Journal published by the Institute of Transportation Engineers. The publication reaches nearly 16,000 subscribers.
The article defines human trafficking as the “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person through force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of financial gain through labor and/or sex, essentially as slaves.” According to Habermann and his coauthors, in 2016, some 400,000 people were “living in conditions of modern slavery in the United States alone.”
Roadways, terminals, transit stations and vehicles are often the first places where victims are recognized by those looking to exploit them. The team traces where human trafficking intersects with transportation to recommend ways for transportation professionals to help end the practice. For example, local or state departments of transportation can aid human trafficking prevention in this early stage by
- increasing awareness of what human trafficking is,
- conducting routine training on preventive measures,
- collecting frontline data to help other agencies join the fight, and
- partnering or assisting regionally to intervene.
Not only can transportation professionals help effect immediate change related to human trafficking, but they can also contribute to developing future counter-trafficking tools and strategies by participating in regional coalitions. The article points to examples of just how effective coalitions can be.
The Texas attorney general estimates some 300,000 trafficking victims in the state at any given time and more than 25,000,000 worldwide. Andrea Sparks, director of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s Council on Child Sex Trafficking Team (CSTT), notes that under Habermann’s leadership, TTI’s partnership in the Heart of Texas Human Trafficking Coalition has helped further the cause in the Lone Star State.
“CSTT has persistently developed collaborations to fight against human trafficking,” Sparks says. “The cooperation with TTI, our fellow state agency, is one we find valuable.”
One example of an agency acting at the federal level is the Federal Transit Administration, which is currently working to improve training and awareness materials to help with crime prevention, including human trafficking, in transit facilities. To increase awareness at transit facilities about human trafficking, Habermann notes that in the next year and a half, TTI will develop outreach materials and training curricula. TTI Associate Research Scientist Zach Elgart will lead these efforts with support from TTI Assistant Research Scientist Lisa Minjares-Kyle and Senior Research Scientist Troy Walden, director of TTI’s Center for Drug and Alcohol Education.
Though the transportation network is often used to further the practice of human trafficking, Habermann is quick to point out the network can also be conducive to healing. Survivors need connection to recover and rebuild their lives — counseling, employment and community — but often don’t have the resources to access it, even when it’s provided free of charge. Local transportation agencies can help survivors with free rides via buses, subways and taxi services to access the vital services they need to move forward and normalize their lives.
“What once was a community-involvement activity for me has developed into a passionate research area in my field of study,” Habermann says. “Pursuing this was only possible through the support of TTI leadership and TTI’s commitment to contribute to a safe transportation system for all users, including victims of human trafficking.”