The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), the main public-transportation option for L.A. County’s 10 million residents, has acknowledged a staggering drop in the number of passengers using its buses and trains. Overall train ridership is at just 62 percent of pre-pandemic levels; bus ridership, 71 percent. Female bus ridership fell from 53 percent to 49 percent and rail ridership dropped from 46 percent to 44 percent, compared with pre-pandemic figures.
The cause of the drop-off is no mystery: the Metro is beset by drugs, bodies, human waste, and violence. Nearly 50 percent of women surveyed cited crime, homelessness, sexual harassment, and lack of safety as their main concerns, and cleanliness was the top issue for all passengers. Reports of violent crimes—including murder, rape, aggravated assault, and robbery—in the system rose by 24 percent in 2022 compared with the previous year. Complaints about drug use and sales reported by riders on the Metro Transit Watch app skyrocketed nearly 100 percent during that same period. Twenty-one people have died on trains and buses in the Metro system so far this year, already equaling the total figure for 2022 and a significant uptick from past years.
The Metro helped create the crisis it now faces. The agency has sided with anti-police activists and worked to remove officers from buses and trains. In the summer of 2020, directors voted 9–2 to study ways to deemphasize the role of police in the system. Eventually, these reforms came to include hiring unarmed social workers, or “ambassadors,” to work at stations; expanding fare discounts; no longer sending police to respond to nonviolent crimes; and shifting funds to homeless outreach. Central to these reforms was the recent approval of a five-year, $122 million pilot program to place up to 300 uniformed and unarmed social workers on trains and buses, starting last fall, to help passengers feel safer. Former progressive councilman and Metro board member Mike Bonin, who introduced the reform package, declared, “We have a very long history . . . of passengers complaining about racial profiling and racial bias.” He suggests that nonwhite riders feel threatened by police on the system but have no choice but to continue using it. In fact, riders’ top recommendation has been to ramp up the police presence.
A board of directors, composed of 14 of the area’s most powerful politicians, including all five supervisors and the newly elected Los Angeles mayor, Karen Bass, oversees the Metro’s $8.7 billion annual operating budget. These board members are political appointees, with no required background in transportation, economics, or management, and they act like it. Take supervisor and board member Lindsey Horvath, who tweeted a picture of herself walking through a Metro turnstile, adding that “it’s so important to actually understand & experience the systems we’re entrusted to lead. I’m committing to riding metro los angeles regularly, & I’m encouraging all of my colleagues to do the same.” No word on whether she was traveling with private security personnel during this transparent photo-op.
In any case, the principal users of public transit aren’t L.A. County supervisors, who earn about $335,000 annually in combined pay and benefits. More than eight in ten Metro riders report a household income of less than $50,000.
The move to replace police officers with unarmed ambassadors gained traction in 2020, and few are willing to call for a reversal. In June 2022, for example, while Horvath still sat on the West Hollywood City Council, she successfully championed an effort to defund the salaries of five sheriff’s deputies and funnel the money toward unarmed security ambassadors. “Prioritizing people’s safety doesn’t just mean people with badges and guns on the street,” Horvath said. This mentality reigns in the city and county’s political class.
According to the Metro’s 2023 adopted budget, the system will spend nearly $300 million in public safety initiatives and investments, including law enforcement. Of this total amount, $40 million is allocated to unarmed ambassadors, and $15.3 million toward homeless outreach. With crime spiraling, it is questionable whether nearly one-fifth of the Metro’s security budget should be directed to such purposes. After all, the Metro is not a homeless-service provider.
No amount of unarmed social workers can take on gun-packing criminals, drugged-out train-hoppers, or mentally ill homeless men. With public outcry over drug use, crime, and overdose deaths on Metro trains and buses, transit officials are in denial, while urbanist advocates idly lament falling ridership. To reverse public transit’s decline in L.A., the first step is obvious: law enforcement must make it safe.
Photo by Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images