Fear of Riding Transit in LA (Part II)

COMMON SENSE CONTINUED--In a previous article,  writing about the fear of riding buses and trains in LA, I shared with readers how, in 1992, I began to ride transit in the Los Angeles region. My main concerns have been to reduce my carbon footprint locally, to reduce Los Angeles’ notorious and harmful air pollution, and globally, to help reduce the looming threats of global warming and climate change.  

Destructive changes are occurring due to carbon gases emitted by using fossil fuels to power cars and trucks. Yes, some buses burn natural gas, and that produces less carbon gas than does gasoline or diesel fuel. When a bus carrying forty people is powered by natural gas or a train with a couple hundred passengers is propelled by three electric motors, the efficiencies are greater and less polluting than the hundreds of single passenger vehicles stuck in gridlock with exhaust pipes pumping poisons in the air. 

As I reflected on other people’s fear of riding mass transit in Los Angeles, I began to take more careful note of who it is that rides our buses and trains. I wanted to examine each transit experience closely, beyond the routine of just getting on a bus or train. Looking for the source of these fears, I find it is different for women than for men. Do crimes occur more often when riding or close to transit? Or do crimes happen more often away from transit? (For me, most rides are without incident.) How safe are parking lots and structures? How safe is just walking home from a movie or eating out or shopping? 

The following observations are only a short list of my experiences riding buses and trains from morning to 11:00 p.m. at night. But I hope they can provide some insight for others: 

This is real-life: Riding mass transit in Los Angeles or anywhere else is not like getting on rides in amusement or theme parks within a controlled environment, even though, in those controlled “happy places, there are incidents of crime. Amusement and theme parks must have their own security forces to handle problems. 

Riding transit is different. It’s a real-life parade of humanity, but that’s what makes it both exciting and yet, often quite routine.  

Since we’re talking about real-life, you need not play policeman. If someone or a whole group of fellow travelers is too loud, just let it go – one of you will eventually leave the train or bus. Of course, if anyone is about to be assaulted or harmed, then action is needed: call out to the driver or the train operator, call 911, or intervene with others. I must add that in my years of riding transit in LA, I have not experienced this.  

But you need to approach transit riding with care. Police in my neighborhood, where there have been a rash of burglaries, advise us to “harden the target” by locking doors and windows to make it more difficult for burglars, creating your own “safe” house or apartment. The same is true for riding transit: harden yourself, do not become a target.  

Do not walk blindly to and from the bus stop or train station. Look around to see who is there. If someone bothers you, stay away. Do not wear flashy clothes or jewelry.  

Riding transit should not be a cause for fear, but an opportunity for exploration. It allows us to experience the city outside the cocoon of the car and to appreciate the wealth of diversity here that is too often hidden from view when sitting in gridlock. 

Police patrols: Before recent changes made by the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department, they were the officers who patrolled Metro; it was spotty at best. If the deputies were seen, it was usually a large show of force on some train platform, and that was it. They were rarely seen in the evenings on regular patrols. Now, local municipalities supply police coverage, so LAPD is actively patrolling Metro stations and trains within Los Angeles city limits. The change is dramatic. Police patrol at all hours, making their presence known; they also engage with the riders. It is reassuring to see them. 

Homeless riding buses and trains: Los Angeles is the homeless capital of the nation. It is logical that they ride transit since it is their only way to move around the city. Some homeless people ride for the purpose of having temporary shelter.  

I see them with all their earthly belongings in trash bags, suitcases, backpacks, duffle bags, and boxes strapped to luggage carriers. They may take up two seats, but do I object? No. I have a roof over my head, a bed to sleep in, and a closet full of clothes. I have too many possessions to carry. I also get three meals a day.  

How can I feel resentful toward a person who may have not eaten that day, or the day before, who may have spent the night awake keeping watch over meager belongings, afraid of being robbed or beaten, and who is now asleep in the daytime, taking up two seats on a bus or train? I cannot.  

Recently, after 10:00 p.m., I was returning from the Hollywood Bowl by taking the Red Line to the 7th Street Metro Station, and from there, connecting to the Expo Line. After some initial confusion about whether the train on the track was indeed the Expo Line, I boarded. A woman pulling a large two-wheeled, collapsible cart hesitantly entered the train car, looking for a place for the cart and herself. She was followed by a man with a large box on a dolly who was encouraging her to find somewhere to sit. They looked clean, as if they took care of themselves, but both seemed very tired.  

They were homeless, looking for places to put their belongings. My seat had an open space in front, so I moved to another seat so they could move their things to that space, out of the way of other passengers and the train aisle. They were being conscientious about keeping the aisle clear. 

I took my new seat and they went to their seats. These people were polite and mostly quiet. Soon they were fast asleep, probably grateful for some moments of respite and shelter before going back to the streets. Some object to homeless people being on trains or buses, but they are there and will be until a solution to the housing crisis is found.   

There are levels of homeless as transit riders. Once a year or so I see a homeless transit rider who is beyond sanity, who smells and needs to be taken by authorities to be cleaned, sheltered and evaluated for competency. In my experience, though, this is not the norm.  

What I do see is homeless people with fear in their eyes and some shame on their faces. Fear for their safety, and shame that they exist at that level, trying to live life on the streets. They do not bother me and I do not bother them. There is a strange coexistence among strangers that occurs when riding transit. This is a prime example. 

I try to follow the compassionate teachings of my Catholic faith, aware of the heightened awareness Pope Francis has brought to the plight of the homeless everywhere.  

Do the homeless really cause fear in some people? 

Senior Citizens: The senior population in Los Angeles and the nation is growing, and I am seeing more of them on transit. They board buses and trains with their canes and walkers and they move slowly. They are regular riders, and do not seem fearful. Indeed, these are tough people, adjusting to a life compromised by time who refuse to be cowered into staying at home. They are engaging and most are polite, good at conversation. With the senior population growing, they will make up a growing percentage of transit riders.  

Are those fearful of riding buses and trains fearful of senior citizens? 

Students: I see students from junior high, high school, and colleges and universities. I keep an eye on the younger ones for their safety. Many of these kids are well behaved, but naïve; some act like I did when I was their age riding buses, loud and little rowdy. Does this make me fearful of riding transit? No. 

The college and university students are young adults and take care of themselves. They represent a polyglot of ethnicities; many study while riding the bus or train. 

Suspicious people: Some transit riders do raise suspicion. They can be loud, obnoxious, and so forth. But this does not mean they are a threat. Some are mentally ill, talking in a stream of consciousness to no one in particular. I leave them alone and they usually just continue spouting off; some of what they say can be startling in its honesty. 

There are signs and announcements on transit asking riders to report anyone or anything that seems suspicious. Such suspicions are not exclusive to transit riding but apply everywhere in daily life. 

People of other colors and ethnicities: Riding transit in Los Angeles exposes riders to a wide variety of people living in the Los Angeles Region. It’s a democratic experience to sit next to, stand near, or pass close to others completely unlike yourself in skin color, ethnicity, cultural background, social standing or economic class. There are many times when I am the only white man on the bus, and it is not a problem. I am not bothered by anyone. Since the trains carry more people, being the only white man is less likely, but it happens, and that is fine, not a problem. 

If you believe in a color-blind society, there should not be fear of riding transit. 

Fear of workers: Riding transit, I see all types of workers on buses and trains: office workers, tech industry workers, construction workers, restaurant workers, store clerks, house cleaners, nannies, security personnel, medical techs, sometimes young doctors wearing their gowns with their names and titles, home healthcare aids and bus drivers. 

Are these workers making others afraid of riding transit? 

Fear of accidents: In my transit riding since 1992, taking thousands of buses over thousands of miles, there have been only a few very minor bus accidents, and these were in the previous century. This is remarkable considering the increased bad driving and callousness I encounter when I do drive.  

This summer I was rear-ended and it was a shock. In an instant, everything changed. It was not a major accident, and I was not injured, but every time we drive, we are in danger of being in an accident, whether minor or major with life altering injuries or death. I consider riding buses and trains a very safe activity. 

Fear of dogs: This I share with others. There are some people who bring their pets, particularly dogs, on trains. Pets are not allowed on mass transit unless they are certified service animals. What gives me the greatest sense of worry are pit-bulls. As City Watch articles have stated, the greatest number of dog attacks and bites are from pit-bulls. They are unpredictable and have no place on a crowded train. I have seen far fewer dogs on trains since the LAPD took over patrolling Metro Rail. 

There needs to be caution when riding transit, just as there needs to be when walking down the street or driving, but fear of riding buses or trains may be caused by the ignorance of some who are unwilling to try a new way to experience the city.  

One bad experience on a bus or train cannot be the deciding factor for riding transit. I have some bad days, but there are mostly good days when it is all routine. I will continue riding buses and trains. Our planet and the future of the environment depends on it.

(Matthew Hetz is a Los Angeles native. He is a transit rider and advocate, a composer, music instructor, and member and president and executive director of the Culver City Symphony Orchestra.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.