CA: Michael Smolens: Sacramento, local governments seek to assure transit rider safety

Oct. 16, 2023
A key to successful transit systems is making them as safe and harassment-free as possible for riders.

A key to successful transit systems is making them as safe and harassment-free as possible for riders.

That may seem self-evident, but it's more of a necessity in retaining and attracting riders than other often-identified priorities: frequent and convenient routes, clean trolleys and buses, and reasonable fares that are easy to pay.

To that end, state and local officials have taken numerous steps to make the transit journey safer, both physically and psychologically.

Last month, the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System bolstered its security force, as other agencies have done across the state.

During the summer, the city of San Diego enacted a controversial ordinance targeting homeless encampments that included transit stations as a priority area of enforcement.

Under the new city law, it's generally illegal for unsheltered people to hunker down in public areas, unless there are no shelter beds available. But homeless people can be cleared out — or cited or arrested — regardless of shelter capacity within a two-block radius of specific locations: parks, canyons, schools, homeless shelters and transit stations.

This week, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he signed Senate Bill 434 by Sen. Dave Min, D-Irvine, to require the state's 10 largest transit agencies, which includes SDMTS, to survey riders about safety and verbal harassment.

A similar bill by Min last year was changed to instead direct the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University to create a uniform survey for transit districts to use.

"SB 434 requires each agency to collect comprehensive survey data to help extract the leading causes of street harassment as part of a larger strategy to revive ridership levels and incentivize more Californians to ride public transit," Min's office said in a statement.

The surveys would focus on groups believed to be particularly vulnerable to harassment in public places, including women of color, Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI), senior citizens and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Stop AAPI Hate sponsored the legislation after increased attacks on and harassment of people of Asian descent during the coronavirus pandemic.

In 2019, a statewide study by the UC San Diego Center on Gender Equity and Health said 77 percent of women surveyed experienced sexual harassment in a public space, including 29 percent on mass transit. Women who identified as lesbian or bisexual were more likely to face harassment than straight women.

Policing "street harassment" is not easy because of the sometimes fine line separating free speech and hate speech.

"The vast majority of street harassment involves conduct that is not criminal, such as verbal harassment, and takes place in person and in spaces open and accessible to the public, such as streets and sidewalks, businesses, public transit, and parks," according to an analysis of SB 434.

Min, a former law professor at UC Irvine, last year acknowledged the limits of trying to regulate speech.

"You can't stop people from speaking," he said, "but you can make people feel comfortable. . . . 99 percent of harassment can be ameliorated without touching on First Amendment concerns."

He said that can be accomplished with more — and more visible — security, better lighting and improved station design.

The bill requires Caltrans to provide funding for transit agencies to conduct the survey, according to Mark Olson, director of marketing and communications at SDMTS, which supported the legislation.

The San Diego agency plans to conduct the survey by the end of next year. The transit agencies have the option of adding their own questions to the Mineta survey.

Olson said if transit departments have collected such information in the last five years, they could be deemed to have met the requirement of the bill. He said SDMTS will compare its recent rider satisfaction survey with the questions developed by the Mineta Transportation Institute.

Regardless, Olson said MTS intends to conduct another rider survey next year that could be combined with the state survey.

The goal of the bill is to develop data to help assess what's needed to keep riders safe and free from harassment. But the legislation itself doesn't require follow-up action.

"The bill also notes that this does not create new or additional liability for transit operators for failing to respond to an incident of street harassment," Olson said in an email.

The San Diego transit agency was already poised to increase security based on the results of its ridership survey last year, according to Karen Kucher of The San Diego Union-Tribune.

In September, the SDMTS board agreed to add 34 code compliance inspectors to help patrol the system. That boosts the number of inspectors from 56 to 90.

The agency noted there are 200 private security officers deployed through its contracted private security firm, Inter-Con.

The San Diego survey was buttressed with focus groups involving people in the community and MTS employees. The expanded security staffing, costing about $4.2 million annually, also would enhance the transit system's homeless outreach efforts, according to an SDMTS release.

Large majorities of riders surveyed by the agency said they felt safe on board trolleys and buses (81 percent) and at stations and stops (80 percent). That doesn't mean their minds are entirely at ease.

The survey asked passengers what changes would make the biggest difference in riding trolleys and buses.

"The overwhelming top response was more security," according to SDMTS.

What they said

Rep. Mike Collins, R-Ga., on X.

"We should just have a lottery. If you lose, you have to be speaker."

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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