Can Ambassadors Make the Subway Safer Just by Being There?

The LA Transit Agency is deploying 300 Transit Ambassadors across its system, the largest such program in the country.
Photo: Courtesy of LA Metro

As far as I can tell, the job of a Subway Transit Ambassador is supposed to fall somewhere between a TGI Fridays host and sesame street character. Minutes after I arrived in the plaza at Expo/Crenshaw station, a colorful glass box surrounded by palm trees marking the northernmost stop of the brand new light rail line, one of the ambassadors in a neon shirt told me approached with a cheerful, off-the-cuff question. “First time on line K? ” she asked. I wasn’t the only passenger to catch the attention of the ambassadors: it was the first week of the pilot project designed to “create positive and compassionate interactions” on Metro thanks to a team of service personnel trained to answer questions , give directions, charge transit cards and generally act friendly. Some passengers filtered right past the Ambassadors, while others stopped to ask about bus transfers or if the K line was even open to begin with. In the hustle and bustle of the morning commute, the mere presence of a handful of upbeat (but not boring) people, some wearing colorful buttons with the letter names of Metro’s seven lines, was a subtle enhancement to the mood. That’s more or less the point.

The Ambassador Program was first proposed by Metro’s Public Safety Advisory Board in the summer of 2020, in the months following the police killing of George Floyd and as uprisings against violence racist police erupted across the country. At the time, Metro’s police contracts — about $800 million a year — were under review, and the committee saw an opportunity to change the agency’s approach by rescinding deals with the forces. of order in favor of an unarmed service and intervention model. (Proponents also thought it would go a long way to fight against racial profiling transit: half of all metro citations are issued to black riders, even though only 18% of riders are black.) What materialized two years later is closer to a program of customer service to complete law enforcement contracts that have been left very much intact. The job description is more like a triage of transit employees: in addition to helping with directions and basic troubleshooting for commuters, Ambassadors are expected to determine when a situation should be referred to cleaning crews, social workers or the cops. But even if the program isn’t exactly what anti-jail activists were hoping for, it’s still an important step in the right direction, says Scarlett De Leon, one of Metro’s public safety committee members and Campaigns Director for Alliance for Community Transit. Ambassadors may be the human embodiment of Metro’s customer experience department, but they’re very good and they provide a welcoming, unarmed presence. “If this is successful, we can deploy more alternatives,” says De Leon. Equipped with shoulder bags filled with line maps and public art guides (and a radio to call in reinforcements if they need it), Ambassadors are an experiment on what it means – and what it is necessary – for the transit to feel sure.

According to Metro 2022 customer experience surveyMetro riders — who are overwhelmingly people of color, low-income, and disproportionately disabled or homeless — are fairly united in what they say they expect from the agency: reliable service, clean platforms and vehicles and a sense of safety as they move from point A to point B. (Overall, crime in Metro is still below pre-pandemic levels, although reports violent crime is up from 2021.) The Ambassador program is designed with these concerns in mind – to reduce what researchers call “victimization,” where passengers feel unsafe due to public transport conditions, which is much more than the crime. Vandalism and dilapidation — broken elevators, smashed rail passes, dirty stations — can contribute to a sense of victimhood, and Ambassadors are trained to report such cleaning or maintenance issues using a 311-style app. personalized by Metro. On the always immaculate K line I saw crews moving quickly to remove litter on the platform, although it is unclear whether the same requests will be resolved as quickly elsewhere on the busier parts of the system.

Ambassadors are hired by two entrepreneurs who recruit through existing community groups, resulting in a diverse, multilingual workforce with lived transit experience. They are trained in-house by Metro, with half of their 80-hour course spent in the field, on the B line from Metro’s headquarters at Union Station. The program focuses on three key areas (which are also printed on the gray jackets worn by Ambassadors on chilly mornings): support, connection, rapport. In addition to crisis intervention techniques like trauma-informed response and de-escalation strategies, the county provided new training on how to intervene in hate crimes, and Metro’s own civil rights department hosted a Disability Awareness session to help passengers access the ADA. problems. They can, as they did for me, approach a half-lost person and help them understand where they are going. They can notify you of the arrival of the next bus by consulting a real-time arrivals touch screen. They can even connect you with accommodation, meals or services (since 2018, Metro has salaried social workers to help raise awareness among the homeless).

Ambassadors are being dispatched to stations based on ridership and operator feedback and will soon begin using certain bus routes.
Photo: Courtesy of LA Metro

But beyond all that, it is sometimes the simple fact of the presence of an ambassador that counts: “Researchers have discovered that poorly guarded or empty areas on the train and the platform contributed to not feeling in safety on the train at night,” says Madeline Brozen, associate director of the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. Transit Ambassadors add people to bus and train routes during off-peak hours when there are fewer passengers and travel may feel more desolate, she says, even though the Ambassadors’ working hours are currently 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. pm on weekends – don’t cover Metro’s most desolate hours yet. It’s still an improvement. “The public realm needs more people who care about others,” Brozen says.

There are limits to what an ambassador can do: anything from enforcing the code of conduct or handing out citations falls to Metro’s black-uniformed security. Outside an Ambassador’s jurisdiction: Breaking up a fight, waking someone sleeping on the platform, checking a TAP card to make sure the ticket is paid for, or telling someone to quit smoking in a train. If Ambassadors believe someone is committing a crime, they are encouraged to call 911. “Metro Ambassadors assist our passengers as they navigate the system,” says Jennifer Vides, Director of Experience Metro customer, “while increasing our eyes and ears. to report any cleanliness or maintenance issues, as well as any suspicious or unruly behavior to ensure a quicker response.

Metro’s program is too new to offer much impact data, but a similar program on the San Francisco Bay Area BART – a much smaller system than Los Angeles’ – had ten ambassadors on its trains during two years. The thinking behind the program is similar to LA, although BART ambassadors work in concert with the security team; as BART Police Chief Ed Alvarez said earlier this year, ambassadors are fighting crime by “responding to calls that release my sworn officers for other emergencies.” The Numbers may reflect this reality: compared to 2020, violent crimes on BART decreased by 36% in 2021, and thefts of electronic objects also decreased year-over-year, from 47 events in November 2020 to 12 in December 2021. The presence of additional people is not necessarily a deterrent for all types of crimes; as Next city reporteduser surveys showed that drug use complaints increased from 18% in 2019 to 25.5% in 2022. But there is one promising data point: in the first six months of the program, ambassadors of BART called the police 66 times, which is less than 1% of the approximately 14,000 interactions they had with passengers.

After my visit to Line K, I spent a few days commuting on Line B, watching the latest cohort of Ambassadors do their jobs at one of the country’s busiest stations. The neon-shirted ambassadors were harder to spot than the black-uniformed security guards in busy subway stations, but they were there — easy to spot by their friendly smiles activated among the faces of decidedly less enthusiastic commuters. According to Vides, in the first two weeks of the program’s existence, ambassadors saved three lives at these stations, including administering CPR before first responders arrived. But just like on the K-line, the ambassadors I spoke to said their most frequent interactions were giving instructions and generally helping people navigate their way through the system. At the very least, that’s what riders deserve.

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