Metro Blue Line Light Rail Transit Mall Of America

Transit Is in Trouble: Can We Expect Anyone to Come Help?

I wish I weren’t writing this. But even more than that, I wish that folks could ride the Blue or Green Line light rail trains with confidence. Without fear of being pushed down the stairs at the Lake Street Midtown Station. Without being exposed to secondhand smoke — often from substances so novel that the study of exposure risk probably doesn’t exist. I am here to tell you: Things on transit, particularly the Metro Transit system of rapid buses and light rail, are not great right now.

I’ll give you all the reasons to tune me out: I’m a young white man. I am not regularly harassed by police (nor by the antisocial or ill-intentioned folks who’ve established themselves on light rail). I come from a comfortable, mostly stable family and so I would have things to fall back on if I gave up on transit or got stabbed on the train. You can question or impugn my background. You can argue that my identity lacks credibility to opine about crime. But I am confident writing this story because I have credibility where it counts:

  • I am car-free.
  • I get around using transit.
  • I commute from downtown Minneapolis to St. Paul on the Green Line.

Meanwhile, the folks making the decisions — or advocating for extreme policy positions — ride infrequently, if at all. A lot of us don’t feel safe on transit these days.

Let me start with two bits of critical context:

  1. It’s not the end of the world, but it is serious. A lot of discussion of public safety defaults to narrative extremes. Many decrying transit’s dangers exaggerate the risks and ignore the benefits. Fears are stoked. And fear undermines understanding and motivates anger. (On the flip-side, twitterati types love to condescendingly throw statistics at folks as if that’s a comfort to people who’ve had guns pointed at them.) The light rail has good days and bad days. But the bad days stick with you longer. A good day means you get where you’re going. A medium day may remind you of the tremendous human toll of addiction and untreated mental illness. A bad day means an interaction makes you all too aware of human depravity, selfishness and violence. The brutal assault at Lake Street Midtown confirms many people’s fears — but if the Metro Transit system continues like this for much longer, it won’t be the last.
  2. I have been practicing what y’all have been preaching. I have tried an approximation of “community care” that abolish-the-police types have advocated. I have tried it in venues outside transit, and I have tried it on transit. I have asked folks “(Sir), please don’t smoke on the train.” And sometimes it works. Sometimes folks extinguish whatever it is they’re smoking and leave the car. (A caveat: Often, they just go to the next car on the light rail, so using my privilege and confidence is probably just making my ride better at the expense of folks with less privilege and confidence.) I’m trying. Or at least, I have tried. 

But when it doesn’t work, yikes! I have been threatened, cornered, hassled and had my phone thrown across a light rail car. Once, I called the police. Call me a busybody, vilify me for trying to control other folks’ actions, but it’s not unreasonable to ask people not to smoke on a train where folks with disabilities (like asthma) and children ride. People can’t gaslight me into thinking otherwise. I have put myself in harm’s way to try peer-to-peer community care.

The Green Line near the State Capitol in St. Paul (photo: Metro Transit )

Now let’s talk about some of the solutions being circulated.

The Ambassador Program

Thankfully, I have not heard anyone seriously argue that the status quo on light rail is acceptable. The object of faith among many, especially those sympathetic to police abolition, is the establishment of an unarmed Transit Ambassador program. I believe that faith is too credulous. Not for ideological reasons: Nationally, promising results indicate that having official presence at stations and on trains can improve the safety and comfort of public transit.

The problem is that there’s no way the program will be adequately staffed. It will be an ongoing challenge to find people to do that job and do it effectively. What qualifications are we expecting of ambassadors? What supplies are we providing them? What backup can they expect from an understaffed Metro Transit police department? Asking difficult transit riders to meet the bare minimum of behavior in public spaces is both challenging and unpleasant. The uniform may make some difference, but I’ve seen slashed seats on the D Line and a man clipping his toenails on the A Line. If riders are willing to disregard their fellow passengers so brazenly, would a polite request from an ambassador inspire better behavior? I’m skeptical.

The Metro Transit bus operator shortage is a compounding problem. Would ambassador wages be competitive with operator wages? Can Metro Transit afford enough ambassadors to make a difference? There’s evidence that the increasing difficulties faced by transit riders are fueling a rise in retirements among bus operators and a negative pull on retention. Bus operators often do an admirable job dealing with difficult passengers, at risk to their well-being, but they are not the cops. And when Metro Transit asked its employees how to deal with safety on transit in the development of its Safety and Security Action Plan, 62 percent said hiring and retaining police officers is a priority — the top result among items surveyed. Ignoring or glossing over the feedback of transit workers does not bode well for retaining staff or implementing new programs.

It would be great if the ambassador program is an overnight success. But we have to be realistic about the labor shortage at Metro Transit, in public service and in Minnesota at large. It’s not reasonable to expect an ambassador program to staff up to effectiveness in the short term. Years, not months, will be required. Can the system maintain its already lukewarm public support for years of foul behavior and habit-breaking experiences? Can our core cities afford public transit bedlam that long? Can our communities? How many more bodies will fall in that time?

I would love nothing more than the program to succeed. But we need to be realistic about headwinds it faces and the reality of the job we’re asking ambassadors to take on. Will they have the courage, training and will to intervene with drug- or illness-addled adults who behave erratically or violently? Is this a good or safe job we’re creating and foisting on what will almost certainly be working-class folks? Would you do the job? Would you want your kid or your parent to do that job?

Turnstiles and Environmental Design

Turnstiles have been brought up frequently in the past decade as a solution to fare collection and other transit behavior woes. Of course, turnstiles can be jumped over. If folks are uninhibited enough to smoke Fentanyl on the train, I don’t think we should count on gates to stop them, especially at the considerable expense of installing gates on a system exposed to the Minnesota elements and often squeezed into the right of way. A hardcore crackdown on fare evasion as a proxy for cracking down on the worst behaviors would be like using traffic checkpoints to stop Twin Cities auto thefts: possibly effective, but politically toxic and rife with opportunities for unintended consequences.

Bus Rapid Transit: Would a crackdown on fare evasion on BRT and light-rail trains make a difference? (photo: Metro Transit)

Another school of thought is the eyes on the street philosophy, which says that visibility in public places makes them safer, that people control their behavior when they’re aware of how visible they are. This philosophy will be embraced in the coming overhaul of the Lake Street Midtown Station. But visibility alone is not sufficient for public safety. People are lighting up on trains right in front of other people, at all times of the day or night. The trans woman brutally assaulted at Lake Street Midtown was attacked at 9 in the morning on a weekday. A decent number of eyes are on the trains currently and that is not dissuading the people causing the problems on transit. It should be apparent we need more than eyes at this point.

Listen to the Workforce

Folks could parody my position as “More Police.” That wouldn’t be entirely unfair, and I wouldn’t fight it. I think Metro Transit police ought to be fully staffed so that operators, riders and Metro Transit employees can count on someone responding promptly to an emergency call. But staffing a police department with people possessing the grace, patience and thick skin needed to do the job is not going to happen quickly.

For alternative strategies, we must listen to the folks who interact most with the system, especially front-line transit personnel, including operators, transit police and facilities staff. They should have a line to the folks implementing safety changes and should be given resources to experiment with staffing and operations strategies. It sounds as though Metro Transit may be turning a corner in its staffing struggles, and Metro Transit should consider using the expanding workforce to make inefficient but safety-promoting changes, such as swapping trains in and out of service more frequently, allowing stray needles to be gathered safely and encouraging the folks hanging out on the train to have to find somewhere else to smoke and socialize.

This process will likely not be gentle. While gentleness is a great guiding principle, we need to own what needs to be done here: intervention. If folks refuse to leave at the end of the line, they may need to be guided out. If they refuse to follow basic etiquette like not smoking, they may need to be banned from the system (as per existing Metro Transit policy). And if they don’t abide by a system ban, such as the young men who assaulted the woman at the Lake Street station, people may have to be removed from transit vehicles and stations against their will.

Efficacy Is More Important than Ideology

Minnesota state government is under unified Democratic control. Progressives have a lot of leeway to enact policy. Many of them take it as a matter of faith that progressive crime prevention policies are always right, regardless of the results. I won’t mock that faith. But riding transit and talking to other transit riders about their experiences, I know that most people want to see results. Folks riding transit are unwilling to be policy guinea pigs.

Results matter. Seeing progress — or, at minimum, change — matters. If folks want to maintain their elected power or informal influence, the people they serve need to see that they’re not sacrificing efficacy for the sake of ideology. Transit riders cannot wait on upstream social programs to end crime and other antisocial behaviors. Places with more robust social safety nets still have mechanisms for enforcing laws. Enforcement may be a dirty word, but at least it’s not a euphemism. We can add layers and layers of euphemisms upon reality, but it won’t solve the problems that everyday transit riders face.

The platform of Government Plaza station on the Metro Blue Line
The METRO Blue Line in downtown Minneapolis (photo: Metro Transit)

I’m prepared for this article to elicit controversy. It sits at intersections of race and policing, two open wounds in our cities, state and country. I don’t raise these opinions in certain rooms, because I am deeply enmeshed in the progressive ecosystem of belief, and have adapted to those spaces for much of my life.

But what I hear discussed in those spaces is increasingly disconnected with what’s happening when I ride the train. Ideology is for people who sit in comfortable rooms. I sit on the plastic light rail seats, watching as the burn marks multiply from errant lighters and heated foil. I’m interested in efficacy.

Progress isn’t inevitable. Efforts toward transit safety are not a sure thing, and we shouldn’t pretend like they are. We need to be prepared to see this through. I encourage others to add their voices — because right now we need solutions, not visions or dreams.

Photo at top courtesy of Metro Transit

Max Singer

About Max Singer

Max Singer is Minneapolis born, raised, and returned. He's had a lot of odd jobs and wacky experiences for being Gen-Z. Max gets around- at times by foot, bicycle, light rail, bus, car, boat, delivery van, train, and sometimes, escalator.