Safe Transit is a Right, Not a Privilege

Joel Epstein
5 min readMay 21, 2022

By: Joel Epstein

“$7 lattes and I got a job.” — Dalton School graduate with a job on Wall Street

“Fifty dollar sneakers and I got no job. Tell me how to do it when times is hard.” — Mars Blackmon in Spike Lee’s classic, She’s Gotta Have It

The subway should be safe enough for all of the pieces on this Easter bonnet.

A recent article by Justin Ray in the Los Angeles Times entitled, “Riding public transit in Los Angeles can be scary. Here are some things I’ve seen​,” details ​the shameful decline during the past two years in the safety of LA Metro’s trains and buses. Similar pieces have and will continue to be written about the safety of New York’s trains and buses though in my experience the two situations are hardly analogous. LA’s trains can at times seem dystopian. New York’s, not so much at most hours.

I am a New Yorker but I lived in LA from 2003 to 2017. I love the capital of the West Coast in spite of its many challenges. I am also a lifelong transit rider and advocate and I worked ​long and hard for passage of Measure M​, the no sunset transportation sales tax that is helping LA County build out its transit system​. Metro’s former CEO hired me to write the Measure M report. The report details how Angelenos came together in a rare show of civic unity to provide funding in perpetuity for construction and maintenance (state of good repair) of a true transit system for Los Angeles.

LA’s Wilshire Blvd subway “toward the sea” is coming.

Advocating for transit in LA I ​often ​felt as though I were tilting at windmills, even among so-called fellow advocates. I will never forget (​before completion of the ​Expo Line from downtown LA to Santa Monica) discussing ​Metro’s​ service with ​a​ prominent advocate who didn’t know the bus fare or which Metro bus to take downtown from Santa Monica where he lived and worked.

Thank you y gracias for riding, for wearing a mask and for paying the fare.

He learned, and eventually relocated the Santa Monica-based advocacy group he headed to DTLA.

In my writing on transit in LA I argue that one of the problems is the County agency’s, and civic leaders’, misguided thinking that it is building and running a system for the transit dependent. That misperception is historically baked into the system and prevails today among many Metro board members who have rarely even been on Metro’s buses and trains. Indeed, transit in LA and elsewhere is for the transit dependent but to function effectively it has to serve the entire region and be viewed as a public amenity for everyone. ​Transit​ has to serve so called “discretionary riders” as well as a city’s poor and transit dependent. Until LA Metro and checked out civic leaders take that world view and act accordingly, LA Metro will suffer the dismal ridership and safety issues it currently faces. If LA’s middle class and elites actually rode the system and relied on it, as does most everyone in New York, Angelenos would never accept unsafe conditions on the buses and trains. Widespread ridership would give LA Metro the strong base of support it is losing daily with stories like Mr. Ray’s and statistics about how dangerous the trains and buses are to ride.

There are of course other issues facing LA Metro, New York’s MTA and the nation’s other transit systems including the homeless crisis, the resilient pandemic and law enforcement’s failure to do its job, providing safe conditions on the trains and buses. Still, in my experience, LA Metro’s failure stems from that misguided belief that its buses and trains are only for the poor and transit dependent. Many other cities around the world with large populations of transit dependent riders provide safe transit.

To its credit, the MTA has always recognized that our trains and buses are for everyone. Speaking recently at the Crain’s New York Business Power Breakfast, MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber began his remarks asking, “Okay, good morning, everybody. How was mass transit this morning? Okay? Got you here? On time? On time, that’s our motto…”

Given the sorry state of LA’s transit system, I can’t imagine LA Metro’s equally capable CEO Stephanie Wiggins opening with a similar quip at a Los Angeles Business Journal power breakfast.

Crowded buses and trains mean safe transit.

That is unacceptable. Just as discretionary transit riders jumping turnstiles and using the emergency exit to beat the fare with $7 lattes in their hands shouldn’t be the norm.

“We have countless images of people in designer clothes, carrying $7 lattes, waltzing through emergency gates at Wall Street or on the Upper East Side… Obviously it hits us in the farebox, but equally important, I would argue, fare evasion tears at our social fabric.” — MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber

Subway reading on the subway.

Kudos to Lieber with whom I don’t always agree on costly transit agency spending for taking on fare evasion. Maybe we should keep Rikers open, if only to incarcerate the latte toting fare beaters.

Please keep riding and paying the fare, and stay safe.

Yours in transit,


Joel Epstein is a New Yorker and an advocate for public transit, livable cities and public space.

#NewYork #LosAngeles #MTA #LAMetro #MeasureM #transit #safetransit #JannoLieber #StephanieWiggins #homeless #covid #pandemic #RikersIsland