L.A.’s Third Rail

Major concerns about mass transit.

los angeles metro station
Getty Images

The public transit experience for the average Los Angeles resident amounts to peeking around buses while stuck in traffic and watching pedestrians disappear underground into the kinds of spaces they’d know better if they were living in New York, Chicago, or Portland.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

How could the L.A. car crowd know that during peak COVID, the vibe on early a.m. Downtown trains was postapocalyptic, closer to a disaster movie or a video game? Only about 17 other commuters—and possibly a couple of security cameras—realize that a little after 6 a.m. two Januarys back, I was waiting for the eastbound train on the Pershing Square Station platform when a fight broke out.

The temperature outside on the street sat just above freezing. Train fare was still suspended. Platform ridership was majority homeless, along with a few commuters. We all mixed in.

A work deadline was upon me, so as the two athletic street urchins fought, I pecked away at my phone. The fight evolved into a chase, and at some point, one kid began to shield himself by hiding behind me. I stepped aside and kept typing as he crept off.

When my train finally arrived, I moved into my car, and the little badass tried to follow, making me into a shield of the moving sort. “Oh, come on!” I shouted through my mask, headphones on. He skedaddled down the platform and out of sight.

I’m a longtime fan of public transit, but around the a.m.’s edges, I often feel less than safe. I’m not alone. Women in particular have been shy about returning to the system, according to a Metro survey from last spring. Forty-eight percent of riders from a survey of 1,200 college students reported that they’ve been sexually harassed at least once over the past three years; they’re not wrong to feel unsafe.

Remaining for the morning Metro malaise are, on average, the poor brown people who get the city ready every day for studio heads and tourists alike.

Last year’s Metro customer-service survey reported that 83 percent of the agency’s ridership earns under $50,000 a year. Judging by my own eyes, there have never been fewer white people on the Red Line. Union Station might’ve made a nice backdrop for the 2021 Oscars, but most people I know in this town are staying far away.

Southern California isn’t the only place where riders feel unsafe using mass transit. Across western states, safety is an issue. The year started with an unwell person gnawing a would-be rider’s face half off on a MAX platform outside Portland. A rider was sexually assaulted at the El Cerrito del Norte BART stop in the Bay Area. A woman in Washington State went on talk radio to declare that she’d sworn off public transit after a carful of men showed indifference at the homeless man who’d showered her with profanities.

As a housed Black person, I’ve felt most unsafe on the predawn rides in train cars filled with slumped-over and overwhelmingly Black men sleeping, sometimes two dozen to a car. These rides, which predate the onset of the virus, produce an unsafe feeling in that they make me feel as if part of me is dying. It kills me that there is nowhere these men can sleep with dignity in a city that has more building cranes across its winter skies than most other towns will ever see.

“To be sure, homelessness and safety on transit are interconnected, both for unhoused and housed riders,” says Jacob Wasserman, research project manager at the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies. “But from my research, I see responses to homelessness and responses to unsafe conditions on transit as best understood distinctly.”

“Of course, responses to one will likely help the other, but viewing homelessness only as a safety issue, or vice versa, narrowly leaves out solutions on both fronts,” he continues.

Cities are beginning to realize that helping the unhoused with better services and more support will improve their mass transit systems as well. In Denver, riders are set to benefit from the transit system’s first homeless-outreach officer. On January 15, BART announced a strategic plan “to help unhoused riders access social services while ensuring that all riders feel respected and safe while riding BART.”

One counterintuitive possible solution: eliminating fares. Groups like Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) are campaigning to eliminate Metro fares in Los Angeles, with the idea that more riders would make the whole system safer.

“It allows transit agencies to divest from policing strategies that focus on fare collection and enforcement and that consequently make riders feel targeted and harassed,” says Chelsea Kirk, SAJE’s assistant director of policy and research for building equity and transit. “A universal fareless system also increases ridership, which puts more eyes on the system, contributing to a sense of safety for riders, especially during off-peak hours.”

Another morning not many days ago, I caught the Red Line train, once again at Pershing Square. I found myself picturing a platform full of riders late at night. Clubgoers, theater fans, all sorts. Would everyone feel safer if the train were free? Would those street urchins I’d seen fighting here back in the winter of 2021 have found a less congenial environment for their mayhem were the platform more crowded?

I’m not so sure, but there wasn’t much time to think about it: I had a train to catch.•

Donnell Alexander is a non-fiction storyteller who lives up and down the West Coast.
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