When Quality of Life Initiatives Make Places Worse

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Respect. Kindness. Inclusivity. (Courtesy Metro Transit)


Metro Transit has stepped up a previously ill-defined “anti-harassment” initiative to promote “respect, kindness and inclusion among our riders.” This has manifested in station announcements, signage, and scrolling messages on buses that a lot of people probably find innocuous, or even welcome.

However, the way it has chosen to go about this campaign is itself hostile, implictly threatening, and disrespectful. It’s also retrogressive, and it particularly chafes in Minneapolis, where the City has recently signaled its will to move away from similar tactics and policies because of the harm they do to minority communities.

What specifically is Metro Transit doing wrong? They’re announcing, on lighted signs and in amplified announcements that the Metro Transit Code of Conduct is subject to police enforcement. That is, it’s gone from a campaign of social encouragement, to a command with the explicit (repeated) threat of force under color of law.

Look, first of all, even if it’s true that Metro Transit police will enforce the code of conduct, announcing it repeatedly is unpleasant and makes the transit system feel like a dystopian police state. I don’t understand how anyone thought this would create a positive welcoming atmosphere. I hate having my own transit authority constantly remind me that I’m there at the pleasure of the police.

But the problem is deeper. The Code of Conduct is too vague and not susceptible to equitable enforcement. Here’s something that the code of conduct says: “Use only G-rated words Using profanity or derogatory statements is not tolerated on buses or trains.” Neat idea! Wildly overbroad and probably illegal to enforce.

No derogatory statements? G-rated words??? Absurd. How many bus riders could this screw? Okay, now think about which ones will get targeted for enforcement, and which ones will escape police scrutiny. Yet Metro Transit believes, and is willing to announce, that the police can enforce this?

Their urging riders to treat one another with “respect, kindness, and inclusivity” is also vague and unenforceable. Yet police aren’t known for their recognition of nuance when it comes to exercising what they view as their authority to act.

Empowering the police to enforce a vague and overbroad Code of Conduct is inviting them to exercise considerable discretion and, effectively, to abuse the power of the state. Inevitably, discretionary enforcement and abuses land hardest and most frequently on minority populations, as Minneapolis has realized.

Here are some of the things said when Minneapolis repealed its “livability” laws about spitting and lurking:

Mayor Hodges: “These two ordinances are antiquated, unnecessary, and unfairly affect people of color in our community. It’s about time we got them off the books.”

Blong Yang: “It seems to be criminalizing certain types of thought in Minneapolis. Not actual crimes.”

Cam Gordon: “This isn’t a police problem. This isn’t an attorney problem. This isn’t a court problem. … This our problem. We need to own it. We need to look at the role we play in it. And we need to see how we can change it.”

You get the picture. It is basically guaranteed that police enforcement of the Metro Transit Code of Conduct is a return to the sort of “livability crimes” that result in selective enforcement and police harassment of minorities that Minneapolis is moving away from. That’s why it is so jarring to me to have this antiquated idea of police-enforced livability bused back in by Metro Transit administrators. They apparently haven’t heard about the disproportionate impact that police enforcement of vague, feel-good policies winds up having on minority communities.

I fully support the idea of promoting and encouraging the values of respect, kindness, and inclusivity, on transit, and elsewhere. But the threats of police involvement are over the top, and frankly seem intended to intimidate significant portions of our community that have legitimate reasons for antipathy toward police. Intimidation and the prospect of broad, unequally applied police discretion are neither inclusive nor respectful.

Minneapolis has rejected this kind of invitation to abuse of police discretion, unequal enforcement, and disproportionate impact. We should tell Metro Transit that their decision to explicitly bring this practice back to Minneapolis isn’t welcome.

Christa M

About Christa M

Attorney. I do law stuff, ride bikes, and paint murals. Member of Hourcar & Nice Ride, and customer of Freewheel Bike and The Hub Bike Co-op.

18 thoughts on “When Quality of Life Initiatives Make Places Worse

  1. J

    Christa, I’d say this criticism begs the question of how kindness, respect, and inclusivity can be achieved without the type of enforcement attempts you are objecting to here.

    Are there any case studies or examples of cities that have achieved these quality of life gains in a way that you would consider fair and just?

    1. Christa MChrista Moseng Post author

      I have to turn that around on you. Can it be established that police enforcement has ever enhanced kindness, respect, and inclusivity?

      Adding (and, again, repeatedly making announcements about) police enforcement to this sort of social programming is the white woman calling the cops on people at a barbeque, except it is an entire government agency—using considerable public resources—acting like that.


      The burden is on Metro Transit to show not just that police can effectively compel people to be more respecful, but that it is a desirable outcome for the outcome to be compelled by the use of (inequitably applied) government force.

      1. J

        Yes, because without the enforcement of law we have no recourse against harassment, assault, and discrimination.

        Without the enforcement of law, criminals have nothing in their way if they choose to harass, assault, or discriminate.

        I don’t think any of us would want to live in a city that didn’t rely on law enforcement.

        That being said, I get your gripe about how the constant reminder feels like a dystopian police state and how the G-rated language provision opens the door to unfair application of force.

        But given the lack of basic decency many transit riders have complained about, I welcome a message that communicates expectations and consequences to riders.

  2. Tom BasgenTom Basgen

    This is a post is good as hell!*

    (Commenter was arrested for use of the word “Hell”)

  3. Julia

    Thanks for highlighting this–even without knowing there was an enforcement component (?!?!?) I’ve found the campaign really weird, and actively loathe the car-oriented “drive change” slogan that they’re using.

    Our busses and trains are where I go when I want to feel included, respected, and be reminded of the kindness of others. On days when I’m struggling with grief and fear from climate breakdown, I take a bus because being in my community is restorative and grounding.

    I’ve had the occasional problem on the train, often on game days or drinking nights–it’s almost always entitled people who don’t usually take transit and don’t respect those of us who rely on it. But this campaign doesn’t seem to be aimed at explaining to them that drinking on the train and spilling their beer is rude and racial slurs aren’t appropriate and that makes me wary. It feels like another one of those things that MetroTransit does to woo white suburban choice riders ignoring the needs of of BIPOC/transit-dependent riders in Mpls.

    Who are they targeting and why? Why hasn’t there been outreach to regular riders to find out what we’d like? Frankly, we KNOW that transit is a space that’s disproportionately used by neighbors in crisis or on the cusp–I’ve waited with and listened to a teen in crisis until her correct bus came, I’ve loaned my phone to other riders letting a co-parent know they were still on their way, I’ve played peek-a-boo with kids when their parents clearly needed a moment. And I’ve taken the bus to the hospital to be with my grandfather as he died, and in other hard moments in my own life. On transit, by and large, we look after one another. I’ve watched how others intercede when others are struggling and deescalate situations or offer comfort, and THAT’S what I want to learn from MetroTransit.

    This whole campaign seems useless at best. I don’t want police to patrol our community spaces in case someone’s got a case of the swears as they struggle to hold themselves together on a rough day–I want to be part of the community that throws them a bit of glue and acceptance and non-punitive boundaries and space to stare out a window and get through the day.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      My guess is that smoking on the train is a big instigator for this policy. To be fair, that is happening a lot and it’s very upsetting to many people.

  4. Bill Siegel

    Had to read this a couple of times before I really caught what you were trying to say. I agree, trying to police vague codes of conduct are likely to be discriminatory.

    But let’s not kid ourselves either, there are real problems on the Green Line. Maybe the announcements should be more specific: “No smoking, drug using, or drinking, no F bombs, no knife fights or you will be arrested.”?

    I could be wrong, but my guess is that the vast majority of Green Line riders don’t want to be babysat by a cop or conductor on every car, but even more we just want to be left alone while we’re trying to get wherever it is we’re going. And that’s the problem. That tiny little percentage of riders that are making it miserable for everyone else.

    I ride the train everyday and I don’t have answer on how to fix it but at this point I’m open to trying whatever.

    1. Christa MChrista Moseng Post author

      You could just delink the two: (1) promote respect, kindness and inclusivity, and (2) use police in the limited circumstances where it is appropriate (i.e., a distinct and clearly defined subset of code of conduct violations) and without the repeated threats.

      The whole exercise of connecting the two, and effectively making “we have given the police discretion to decide if you can use transit” the core of the message, is where this campaign crosses a line.

  5. Brian

    The issue with LRT and urban buses is that those who have a choice in their mode of transportation are choosing other modes due to the conditions on urban transit. However, some of the profanity is just how some people interact with other in daily life.

    Sure, Metro Transit could hire conductors or similar, but could they actually throw people off transit or issue fines for violating rules? I suspect many of the smokers would not stop if the conductors couldn’t actually do anything to the smokers.

      1. Brian

        Transit isn’t highly subsidized? Farebox recovery is what, 30%? (Writing this while on a bus.)

  6. Jack

    Whenever I hear that message about “treating others with respect, kindness and inclusivity,” I feel like I’m a character in the novel 1984. I actually laughed out loud the first time I heard it. It is too ridiculous.

  7. Alina

    I don’t understand why they included things like “bad language” in the list of rules enforceable by police officers. The only issues I have on the transit is people smoking on trains and men harassing me and other women. There are never any police around to help when this happens. I An anti-harassment campaign promoting other passengers to protect the more vulnerable would be much more welcome and effective.

  8. Cole Hiniker

    I’m not sure if this is related to the bad language, but playing loud music on a cell phone with vulgar language is annoying. I don’t know how you enforce that without some kind of actionable threat, even though it isn’t illegal.

    Personally, I think all of what is stated in this post is true but the problem is more in what law enforcement does when they are enforcing code of conduct, not necessarily whether it is part of the announcement or not. Law enforcement can show up to nuisance events with the intent to listen and help as opposed to being defensive and aggressive.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Playing any audible music is annoying and, I think, against the rules. I’ve witness bus drivers enforce it with a few words and conductor on the train could probably do the same.

      Really, it doesn’t need to be a cop.

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