What we need is a surge of bus investments

A majority of Metro's nearly 1 million daily passengers are bus riders, who are often left waiting in more ways than one

A rendering for the Vermont Corridor Bus Rapid Transit project showing dozens of people crossing a street to a beautiful bus
Let's increase LA's deployment of better bus service instead

I was waiting for a bus when I read the headline: “Mayor Bass says she no longer thinks LA's Metro system is safe.” Last week, after a series of violent attacks on transit riders and operators, LA Mayor Karen Bass stood with fellow Metro board members and called for a "surge" of policing on Metro. It's what I expected Metro's leadership might do, especially as LA's promise to deliver a "car-free games" is placed in the international spotlight. And I had a long time to envision what this might mean as I stood on the sidewalk at twilight, my supposedly "rapid" bus still 25 minutes away.

Only one year ago, the narrative around Metro safety was very different. During the first two months of 2023, 21 people had died on Metro's rail system. Alarmed Metro board members took a field trip along the B line. (I say field trip because it was abundantly clear many of them hadn't been there in a long time, if ever.) Unarmed green-shirted ambassadors, part of a just-launched program, were deployed to the stations to assist passengers and report maintenance issues. An aggressive new cleaning regimen was put in place. Then the regional connector opened, guaranteeing faster and more frequent service on Metro's trains. If you've been traveling underground lately, the stations are immaculate, well-populated with staff, and busier than ever with passenger activity. For LA rail riders, the past year on Metro has been pretty damn good.

But a majority of Metro's nearly 1 million daily passengers are bus riders, who are often left waiting in more ways than one. We're used to our leaders salivating over big-ticket subway extensions while we get conciliatory gestures that rarely, if ever, materially improve our day-to-day experience. I do believe that Metro wants to make changes to keep bus riders safe. But the challenge, from the agency's standpoint, is that what will actually make riding buses feel safer — a bus coming every 3 minutes, a clean place to sit, more fellow passengers — isn't always determined by Metro, but by the municipality where the bus itself is traveling. Shade drives most bus shelter discourse, but a well-lit shelter is essential for safety, and these beacons of security vary widely by city. In the city of LA, it's going to be a very dark ride: only one-quarter of stops currently have shelters and at least 25,890 streetlights are out, with the current response time to repair a light estimated to be about a year.

A very dark bus stop on an empty street with a bus shelter providing the only light. Two streetlights are dark as well
What it's like to wait for a bus at night in LA. Note how many streetlights are out on the right side of the street

If Bass truly wanted to make bus-riding safer, she might actually be more effective in her role as LA mayor: expediting the city's new bus shelter program, increasing the size of the Bureau of Street Lighting's staff and targeting fixes along transit corridors, speeding the construction of bus lanes so rapid buses are actually rapid. And of course, she could declare a citywide traffic safety emergency; statistically, the most dangerous part of your transit journey is crossing LA's deadly streets. Instead, Bass introduced a motion Thursday directing Metro's law enforcement officers to be "physically present" on buses, and called for an increase in patrols, effective the previous day: "Yesterday, as chair of the board of Metro, I directed an immediate surge of law enforcement personnel on Metro buses, on rail cars, and in stations to address the spike."

While Metro declined to answer specifics about deployment, many people I asked about this at the city and county seemed to agree that Bass cannot, in her capacity as Metro board chair, "order" or "direct" Metro law enforcement, which is contracted through three departments, one of which she commands (the Los Angeles Police Department) and two that she doesn’t (the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, the Long Beach Police Department). Metro had already dedicated more in-house transit security bus-riding teams to lines that have seen assaults, but an additional "surge" of officers may not be a done deal until Bass's motion is voted on at the Metro meeting on May 23. Regardless, Metro board vice chair and LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn told KCRW that riders should expect a "20 percent increase" in uniformed law enforcement across the system.

This is notable for bus riders as we know it's extremely rare to see police officers riding on buses. And whether or not recent bus incidents can be defined as a "spike" — CEO Stephanie Wiggins noted last week that March data showed "5.22 crimes against persons per 1 million boardings, which is a 40.1 percent improvement year over year" — it is unclear if the three contracted departments would have stopped them based on the way they patrol the system.

After a December 2022 audit showed that a majority of sheriff's deputies assigned to the system sat in their patrol cars instead of riding transit, Metro's former chief of public safety Gina Osborn was told by LASD that "they weren’t going to have a bus company tell them how to deploy their resources." Osborn ended up compiling 15 pages of documented "performance deficiencies" by contracted law enforcement. In one particularly troubling incident, Osborn told KNX, a man had been slumped over on a Metro station platform for five hours when a Metro ambassador performed a wellness check and discovered he had died. "During that five-hour period," Osborn said, "five LAPD officers were on and off that platform yet never checked on or approached that individual." Osborn presented her report to Metro leadership in March. Then, she says, she was fired. As Osborn said last week: "As taxpaying citizens, I would be very concerned that over $200 million is going to these law enforcement agencies and they aren't where they're supposed to be when they're supposed to be there."

Even without a surge, Metro is already set to pay more for its existing law enforcement contracts in the next fiscal year. "We are looking at a 10 percent increase in the cost of Metro's law enforcement contracts next year without any increase in presence. This is unacceptable," said Metro board member and Chair of the LA County Board of Supervisors Lindsey Horvath, who introduced a different motion that will be voted on this week. In addition to requiring all three law enforcement agencies to share strategies for improving coverage and response times after these high-profile incidents, Horvath is calling for a "cost analysis of all public safety entities that patrol the system to inform what visible presence is not only necessary, but most effective to make our system safer for everyone."

Transit advocates at the ACT-LA coalition have already done this math. Using data from a 2023 Metro report, Metro's annual personnel budget includes 645 contracted law enforcement officers at a cost of $172.9 million, and 437 ambassadors at a cost of $33 million. (Metro also has separate homeless outreach and mental health outreach teams; none of these other roles, including ambassadors, have replaced law enforcement officers, contrary to popular belief.) According to ACT-LA's analysis, Metro's ambassadors have saved at least 135 lives since the program launched in October 2022. Nearly two-thirds of riders surveyed say ambassadors make them feel safer. And this has all been achieved at a per-employee cost that's less than a third of what Metro spends on police.

These numbers are even more impressive when you see how limited the scope of the ambassador program is. Metro's average daily ambassador deployment (236) is still less than Metro's average daily contracted officer deployment (263). Ambassadors are only scheduled to work from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. And so far, ambassadors have been mostly assigned to the rail system; a March report notes that ambassadors are currently only deployed on three bus lines: 210, 40, and 720. The ACT-LA coalition is calling for a major expansion of this program, a surge of ambassadors, if you will, doubling or tripling the number of ambassadors to ride more buses and save more lives at a fraction of the cost. "Metro's strong yet nascent care-based strategies need the board's investment in this year's budget in order to flourish and become an ecosystem of transportation safety," says Alfonso Directo Jr., ACT-LA's advocacy director.

At the beginning of last week, Bass was chatting with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about "how we can continue to partner and build out a 21st century transportation system" ahead of the Olympics; meaning, LA still really needs those federal transit dollars. But a "surge" of law enforcement with no accountability, no metrics, and, most troublingly, no end date is a waste of Metro's money that could be spent speeding up those legacy projects that make everyone more safe. Meetings are finally starting this week for the long-delayed Vermont bus rapid transit corridor where Metro is set to deliver everything riders need to feel safer in a shiny new rail-quality streetscape: brighter lighting, wider sidewalks, fewer cars, better service for LA's most transit-dependent communities, and most importantly, more people — all by 2028. These are the safety investments that bus riders deserve. 🔥

🚨 What does a 20 percent increase of patrols even look like for bus riders, who are spread out across 117 routes? If you see evidence of a "law enforcement surge" on your buses and trains, let me know. You can tag me at @awalkerinla on social media, reply to this email, or text me at 323 207 5607‬ — this is my Google Voice number, which you can keep handy by saving in your contacts as Torched Tips

🚌 Here's where you can watch tomorrow's board meeting. If Bass's motion passes, we should be demanding the same standards of bus visibility from our board members. I said earlier this month I want to see Metro board members riding transit; now I have a new request: I want to see our Metro board members riding buses

📵 Here's another interesting part of Bass's motion: "Ensure that cellular service is enabled and working at all underground Metro rail stations, on the platforms, and during transit throughout the rail system." The new regional connector ones don't have service, and it's pretty annoying to be in the Bunker Hill station without it since you're so far below ground. Are there other ones?

💰 There are also fare-collection conversations happening at Metro meetings this week, and I'm curious how these discussions dovetail with ongoing union demands. It's also relevant going forward because I assume the same safety barrier and fare-collection systems will need to be installed on all the buses we'll need to procure for 2028

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