The people on the bus

LA's electeds could take truly monumental steps to protect the safety of transit riders who power the entire region

A bright orange Metro bus with a banner that says "Everyone on this bus is fighting climate change" in front of a brightly pa
In case everyone forgot, we actually want more people to ride on these things

On Sunday morning, a DASH bus was parked near the LAPD Newton Division station in South LA when the driver was violently attacked by a passenger. While deflecting punches, the driver climbed out from behind a safety barrier and physically removed the passenger from the bus. The passenger was later arrested, and LA's Department of Transportation confirmed that no one was seriously injured. According to a viral video of the incident posted by OnScene.TV, "a transient female who refused to pay for a bus trip assaulted the DASH driver after being asked to leave the bus."

There are a few red flags in that description. But there's one particular error that any LA transit rider would spot right away: DASH buses are free.

DASH buses have been fare-free since March 23, 2020. This is something I can personally confirm because I ride these buses, but also because I just went to the DASH information page that says, at the top, ALL DASH BUS SERVICES ARE FREE. It's a detail that seems to have evaded the video licensing professionals at OnScene.TV, obviously a trusted source of local transit news, and who I'm sure also carefully confirmed the housing status of the person they described as "transient." But KTLA repeated this claim, and dozens of other publications cited KTLA's reporting, declaring this incident to be a fare dispute.

In recent weeks, LA's public transportation systems have been the backdrop for a series of violent assaults like this, including the tragic murder of Mirna Soza Arauz, a grandmother heading home from work on the B line. After a particularly terrifying situation where a passenger hijacked a bus and crashed it into a downtown hotel, local headlines focused in on one potential solution: bus operator demands for protective barriers to be installed on Metro buses. Last Friday, about 10 percent of Metro's bus operators — that's Metro bus operators, not the DASH bus operators who work for LADOT, although some reporters conflated the two — called in sick, disrupting service on 40 bus routes. Nearly three-fourths of Metro's passengers are bus riders, and for anyone who actually needed to get somewhere last Friday, seeing those crossed-out bus runs felt like the city was teetering on the edge of a bigger crisis.

Whether or not recent bus attacks are related to collecting fares is important because it's a part of this story that local media has effectively ignored in its sensational reporting. Among the list of six demands from SMART, the union that represents local bus operators, this is #4: "Making fare payments and monetary transactions cashless and not incumbent on the bus operator." A simple-sounding demand like not requiring bus drivers to collect fares certainly isn't as clickable as the calls to flood the system with cops and guns. But it's been absent from safety coverage — even though fare disputes are why many transit systems have installed barriers in the first place.

The ask for bus barriers at Metro is not new. Train operators work in a fully enclosed cab, but bus operators are face-to-face with passengers, which is why protective infrastructure has been demanded by unions representing local bus drivers since at least 2018. The absence of protective barriers was one reason that Metro made buses temporarily free during the pandemic, encouraging riders to also board from the rear door so no driver would contract a deadly respiratory virus while collecting $1.75. During this time, simple polycarbonate shields were installed on many LA buses, but nothing like the full enclosure union members wanted, and supply chain issues limited further development. (The DASH bus in Sunday's incident had a more substantial barrier than Metro buses, but it also wasn't fully enclosed. A spokesperson from LADOT says the department is "evaluating options to improve security including strengthening existing barriers separating drivers and passengers.")

A Metro bus showing a protective plexiglas barrier that stops just short of the farebox
Current Metro bus barriers end just to the left of where passengers pay fares, but passengers will soon be able to board anywhere, thanks to rear-door TAP readers finally being installed on buses

Protective barriers are a very reasonable demand from bus operators who have been understaffed and underpaid to do a high-stress job during the pandemic. At its April meeting, the Metro board approved an emergency procurement designation — not a "state of emergency," as widely reported — that allows the agency to buy and install fully enclosed barriers made from tempered glare-free glass on buses systemwide by the end of the year. In a statement, Metro also committed to adding more in-house security officers to buses, another union demand: "Transit security officers are now riding the top 10 bus lines that have experienced greater number of operator assaults and we are working on longer term plans, which include the addition of even more dedicated transit security bus riding teams."

Those steps were not enough for Metro board member and LA County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who introduced another motion approved at the April meeting. She wants Metro staff to examine more comprehensive security measures like gate hardening and interagency police coordination to keep certain passengers off the system. (Although she also argued that Metro already "asks too much" of police.) Barger said the recent headlines had made her, a Metro board member since 2016, afraid to use the system. "I hate to say it. I will not ride our transit system by myself," she said. "I will not ride it." To which Inglewood Mayor James Butts, a former police chief and Metro board member since 2014, offered to accompany Barger. “I'll ride it with you," he said. Personally, I would like to see evidence of the last time either of these Metro board members rode our transit system, should Torched readers possess such information. And ribbon cuttings don't count.

Nudged along by Barger's fear-mongering, the discussion around the motion quickly, although perhaps not unexpectedly, descended into a conversation among board members eager to introduce even more "upgrades" to Metro security systems, including the use of facial recognition, biometric data, and AI. Metro board member and Glendale City Councilmember Ara Najarian, who called a millimeter wave scanner a "microwave," said hardening gates sounded so old-fashioned. "If we're gonna spend the money," he said. "Let's make sure we're looking five, 10 years ahead and the technology is there." Which I took as, hey, why waste money on gates when we can microwave everyone, am I right?

Listening to that Metro board conversation, it felt like LA is one emergency procurement designation away from potentially catastrophic "safety" investments — particularly in preparation for a "car-free" Olympics where everyone, even our reluctant Metro board members, will be required to ride the bus. After that meeting, the ACT-LA coalition, which includes 46 organizations pushing for transit reforms, sent a letter to Metro's board urging them to prioritize the needs of low-income people and communities of color — who make up a majority of Metro's riders — in their budget decisions through 2028. "Excessive policing and surveillance have infringed on human rights and driven unhoused residents out of cities hosting the Games," the letter reads. "As we approach the 2028 Olympics, Metro has a unique opportunity to transform public transportation to ensure long-term sustainability, safety, and economic prosperity for Angelenos."

ACT-LA's letter has its own set of recommendations for improving safety by 2028. Namely: hiring 2,028 unarmed transit ambassadors to ride both trains and buses, outreach workers, and restroom attendants. (This could include staffing the existing bathrooms in Metro stations, which would eliminate many of the safety problems Metro has with, well, elimination.) The letter calls for more bus lanes, which make buses more frequent and reliable, and would cut down on long waits that can make riders feel unsafe, especially at night. And ACT-LA also recommends implementing universal fareless transit, which would be 1) a nice gesture to regular riders who will have their transit system upended for a month in 2028, 2) a lot less chaotic for megaevent spectators, and 3) the one guaranteed way that bus operators could completely wash their hands of fare enforcement. It's also not that far from where we are now: at this same meeting, the Metro board made a fareless pilot for 350,000 LA students permanent, and asked Metro staff to "explore opportunities to provide unlimited free rides to income-eligible riders."

Everyone deserves to feel safe on transit. But the current situation is not safe for anyone. As I finished writing this newsletter, an armed security guard shot and killed a person who reportedly assaulted the guard at a B line station. The interventions ACT-LA is asking for are much safer than putting armed officers on every bus and train. And they're also much more in line with the infrastructural legacy improvements that Metro, as an agency focused on equity, claims it wants to make. "Metro is focusing a lot of its long-term planning on preparing for the Olympic Games," says Laura Raymond, ACT-LA's director. "Let's also do that kind of intensive and visionary thinking for the ecosystem of care and safety that ACT-LA has been calling for, so that by 2028 the whole system feels more welcoming for Angelenos."

As one voice of reason on the Metro board, LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis did propose an amendment to Barger's motion to include ideas for activating Metro properties, like adding staffed information kiosks. Imagine seeing bustling transit help desks across LA, the perfect example of an investment that could immediately benefit operators, daily riders, and tourists. LA's electeds could take truly monumental steps to protect the safety of transit riders who power the entire region. Instead, we're stuck with decisions made by people who don't ride transit, their perceptions of the systems they run shaped not by their own experiences, but by viral videographers and local newscasters who claim to care so much about the safety of people on buses — but don't even know how much it costs to ride them. 🔥

🚍 The increase in bus operator attacks is not LA-specific, even though some local media would like you to believe that's the case. Last year, after a string of violent incidents on New York City buses, I interviewed a MTA bus driver who said telling passengers to pay just wasn't worth it

💳 The demand for Metro to fully switch to cashless transactions is a trickier topic to tackle since about half of bus fares are currently paid in cash. But proponents of open loop payments — basically, being able to pay fares with a debit or credit card, not just a TAP card — believe these systems can be a pathway to financial inclusion for unbanked passengers. Here's a good UC Davis study

🚸 No one should die getting where they need to go. But purely from a data perspective, there's another LA transportation system that's much more dangerous than riding transit — for both operators and passengers. I'm talking about LA's streets, where 337 people were killed by traffic violence in 2023. LA Mayor Karen Bass has now passed an emergency designation to save lives through her role on the Metro board, yet has not taken similar action to save lives in the transportation department she controls. But she could. I talked about this on KPCC's AirTalk

🏠 On a completely unrelated note, I have a story in Dwell about attending Airbnb's big annual event which was held in LA. Airbnb will now offer exclusive experiences that include staying in a real-life reproduction of the Up house. (Airbnb would probably argue that Carl renting out his house is the only way he could stay in his home as it's encroached upon by developments.) Of course there is a local Olympics angle — including the first time I've written about the actual torch

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