Combating Modern Slavery: The Role of Transportation in Human Trafficking in CA

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MTI researchers investigate the intersection between transportation and human trafficking in California
December 5, 2022
San José, CA

Human trafficking, a form of modern slavery, is the recruitment, transport, and/or transfer of persons using force, fraud, or coercion to exploit them for acts of labor or sex. The transportation industry plays a critical role in combating human trafficking as traffickers often rely on the transportation system to recruit, move, or transfer victims. New Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) research, Understanding the Role of Transportation in Human Trafficking in California, investigates this critical issue. 

According to the International Labor Organization, human trafficking is the fastest growing organized crime with approximately $150 billion in annual profits and 40.3 million individuals trapped in slavelike conditions. This study utilizes a survey of 72 multi-disciplinary anti-trafficking practitioners followed up with 25 semi-structured in-depth interviews with key stakeholders, such as labor trafficking victims, service providers, legal advocates, and local and federal law enforcement officials. 

The study’s significant findings reveal that:

  • 74% of the participants report that transportation is used in trafficking operations to transport and control the victims. 

  • While the mode of transportation changes—based on the type of trafficking, industry, geography, and distance—private cars and ridesharing are the most commonly used vehicles for human trafficking. 

  • 63.4% of respondents indicate that their organization does not collect data on transportation. For those organizations that do collect such data, the most common question is focused on mode of transportation during victimization.

  • Because human trafficking is a hidden crime, there is limited data on it.  

“Human trafficking is difficult to identify and respond to; multiple interview participants indicate that there are many misconceptions about human trafficking concerning the gender, type of trafficking, immigration status, etc. of the victims, so overcoming these myths and misconceptions is an important first step,” explain the study’s authors. 

While there are efforts to educate the public on human trafficking, some messages and images—such as girls in chains—impact the representation of human trafficking, at times simplifying and disregarding the complexities of the issue. Such images may lead the public to believe signs of trafficking need to be as overt as physical restraints. Similarly, intense emphasis on sex trafficking diverts attention from other types of human trafficking, such as forced labor, forced criminal activities, and people smuggling. Thus, the results of this study emphasize that initiatives should outline the steps clearly and be culturally and linguistically appropriate to cover a wide range of victims and public demographics, be victim- and survivor-centered, and focus on the direct role that transportation plays in the system, including in victim identification and successful exit attempts. 

The National Human Trafficking Hotline in the United States is 1 (888) 373-7888, or text “HELP” or “INFO” to 233722. Hotline is available 24 hours, 7 days a week, with more than 200 languages supported. 


At the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) at San Jose State University (SJSU) our mission is to increase mobility for all by improving the safety, efficiency, accessibility, and convenience of our nations’ transportation system. Through research, education, workforce development and technology transfer, we help create a connected world. Founded in 1991, MTI is funded through the US Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security, the California Department of Transportation, and public and private grants, including those made available by the Road Repair and Accountability Act of 2017 (SB1). MTI is affiliated with SJSU’s Lucas College and Graduate School of Business.

Dr. Yagci Sokat is an MTI Research Associate and an Assistant Professor of Business Analytics at San José State University with a passion to use analytics for alleviating human suffering in the areas of public health, humanitarian logistics, and human trafficking. She received her PhD in Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences from Northwestern University.

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