Safer Metro Transit may be less comfortable

Photo by Henry Pan

Would you feel safe riding public transit knowing you may have to wait out in the cold at night or ride in a more crowded-than-usual light rail vehicle? Metro Transit wants to know what more they can do to ease your troubled mind.

In Metro Transit’s bid to make its system safe, the agency is moving ahead with removing transit shelters, hiring more police officers, security guards, and transit ambassadors, and may reduce the hours when transit centers are open, along with reducing the number of train cars on a Green or Blue Line.

This comes after the Metropolitan Council, the governor-appointed regional body that runs Metro Transit, decided to review Metro Transit Police and transit safety days after George Floyd was murdered by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. 

The agency partnered with the Citizens League, which conducted surveys and focus groups among transit riders, workers and youth. They found female riders tended to be harassed, riders doing drugs onboard made others feel unsafe, and riders wanted more agency people present to keep them safe. 

“I believe it is necessary to have police,” said Met Councilmember Reva Chamblis, who chaired a Met Council committee to reform Metro Transit Police. “There has not been equity with how policing has been done, and there are some gaps and perceptions about public safety, as well as how it should be implemented.” 

The working group compiled a report to address transit safety, which they submitted to Metro Transit. At the Met Council’s Committee of the Whole meeting on June 1 they presented how they will implement their recommendations. 

One of their action plans involves hiring more police, which may be challenging given how unpopular policing has become. Law enforcement programs at community colleges such as Minneapolis Community and Technical College are closing and merging their programs because of declining enrollment. 

“We love our police department. We want more of them,” said Director of Customer Relations Pam Steffen at the meeting, paraphrasing what she heard from Metro Transit workers. “Not many people might want to be police officers anymore, so it’s tough out there.”

They plan to hire so-called transit ambassadors, as well as contract with a company for security guards armed with chemical sprays and handcuffs who will patrol the Franklin Ave. and Lake St. Blue Line stations starting in September for four months. 

Metro Transit also plans to run two-car trains at certain times during the day, creating an appearance that trains look full to attract riders who otherwise would not feel safe doing so. “Our ridership on Blue and Green Lines is coming back, but it’s not nearly what it was before,” said Steffen, adding that reducing the number of trains on the road gives mechanics a chance to catch up on maintenance work. 

After successfully reducing the Brooklyn Center Transit Center waiting area open hours from 4 am and 10 pm to 7 am and 7 pm, they plan to explore the same with the Uptown Transit Center and Chicago-Lake Transit Center. “With the time span that it was open, there was a lot of time for people to hang out and have fun and really do some significant damage to the work that we did,” said Steffen in justifying the reduced hours.

They will also make changes to some of the transit shelters at places where they are more likely to be used for nefarious activities. For example, they began replacing custom-etched glass with clear glass because of COVID-related supply chain issues. They also plan to remove benches and perhaps make shelters smaller.

As part of the plan, Metro Transit will temporarily remove shelters at West Broadway and Lyndale closest to Merwyn Liquors, because people do not feel safe waiting there. “Transit customers are not in that shelter using it,” said Metro Transit Chief of Staff Lesley Kandaras. “In fact, we’ve heard from them that they actually go half a block down or six blocks away just to catch that bus to make their connection.” 

Also, the westbound shelter for Routes 14 and 30 will be moved closer to Aldrich Ave., while the southbound shelter for Route 22 will be completely removed. 

Metro Transit may also further cut back evening service at the suggestion of some of their workers, particularly given they continue to not have enough drivers and police personnel. Metro Transit hasn’t operated 24-hour service since the pandemic began, particularly on the 5, which will be further scaled back over the next two years when the D Line opens in December. 

All of this may do more to harm than help ridership, said MN350’s Adrianna Jereb. “People aren’t safe waiting outside in extreme heat or extreme cold for a bus that’s late or only comes every half hour…or waiting alone in the dark,” said Jereb. “Of course this is a climate issue too; how can we expect people to ditch cars and take the bus if the bus isn’t safe and reliable?”

To measure how successful the agency is in making the system safe, they plan to report to the Metropolitan Council on a quarterly basis. “We certainly want to get to a place that this body feels comfortable saying that…this public safety on transit works,” said Kandaras. 

Metro Transit plans to present their safety and policing plan to the full Met Council for preliminary approval on June 22, after which the agency plans to make ongoing changes based on feedback from riders, staff and, in Metro Transit’s words, “other stakeholders.” 

Requests for proposals for security services at the Franklin and Lake St. Blue Line stations may be obtained by contacting Elaine Oglivie at Proposals are due June 14.