The Subway Is For Transportation
Which means you have to arrest people who smoke fentanyl there
We’ve discussed in this newsletter before that the key to enjoying Los Angeles, whether as a visitor or a resident, is to not need to travel too far, especially at rush hour. Rush-hour traffic is awful in LA, but it’s also awful in Chicago, and you don’t notice it so much when you visit Chicago because you do not try to drive all the way across the city at rush hour.
So when I visit LA, I make sure to choose a hotel that’s reasonably close to most of the things I’ll need to do. I also sometimes do something that not a lot of other visitors do: I take the Metro. If I stay at a hotel in Hollywood and need to commute to Ken White’s downtown office to tape Serious Trouble, the Metro Red Line can save a lot of time (and money) compared to sitting in traffic in an Uber on the 101.
But there is a problem: The LA Metro has become a horrifying place.
The LA Times reports:
Drug use is rampant in the Metro system. Since January, 22 people have died on Metro buses and trains, mostly from suspected overdoses — more people than all of 2022. Serious crimes — such as robbery, rape and aggravated assault — soared 24% last year compared with the previous.
“Horror.” That’s how one train operator recently described the scenes he sees daily. He declined to use his name because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Earlier that day, as he drove the Red Line subway, he saw a man masturbating in his seat and several people whom he refers to as “sleepers,” people who get high and nod off on the train.
“We don’t even see any businesspeople anymore. We don’t see anybody going to Universal. It’s just people who have no other choice [than] to ride the system, homeless people and drug users.”
When I take the LA Metro, it’s usually rush hour. And indeed, the thought I’ve had on the last few trips has been, “where are all the commuters?” Of course, they’re in their cars, because sitting in traffic on the 101 is preferable to traveling quickly underground in a train that is part-homeless shelter, part-injection site.It seems like the only people left on the train are people who have nowhere else to go.
The editor of Very Serious, Sara Fay, lives in Los Angeles, and has a lot more LA transit experience than I do. And she confirms that things have gotten way worse on LA’s trains:
Before 2020, if you asked me why “no one in LA takes the train,” my answer was: [in an annoyed tone] “Plenty of people take the train, and it’s more useful and nicer than you think, and you should try it.” Now, with the shift I’ve seen over the last three years, it’s: [wide-eyed] “almost no one in LA is using the train for what the train is meant for.”
Before COVID, I took Metro pretty frequently, at least for an Angeleno with a car: at least one day per week during the morning and afternoon commute, and as often as possible (or as often as it made sense) I opted to take it when going out at night. One year, I commuted from northeast LA to Santa Monica, five days a week, on three trains and one bus, both ways. Up until 2020, I actually enjoyed taking Metro. It felt good to use something I supported as a voter and taxpayer, and I strongly believe that using and knowing the public transit system is an important part of living in any city. And it was a pretty decent system — not without challenges, but based on the ridership, it seemed to me that Metro was working for everyone. There were people going to work and school, people going out, tourists and students; there were families, and there were some disturbances (drug use, fights, people in distress, etc) but those were outliers.
As the LA Times story describes, what was a relatively rare occurrence on the trains is now widespread: open drug use, people laying on the train floor or the seats or the platforms asleep or unresponsive. Every level of distress is represented. I feel like I’ve seen a lot on public transit here and in other cities around the world, but I recently white-knuckled my way from Downtown LA to Hollywood and I had to take a few deep breaths when I got off the Red Line at Hollywood and Highland. If you’ve been in Hollywood, you know this area is basically a seedier version of Times Square — not ordinarily relaxing — but it felt Edenic compared to the train that took me there.
I won’t travel alone on Metro anymore, and even if I’m not alone, I’m a lot more likely today to make the calculation: Okay, it’ll only be $3.50 round trip for each of us to get where we need to go but we’ll have to deal with who-knows-what on the way there and back ….or we can just park in the neighborhood and walk, or pay $10+ to park where we’re going.
I still do end up on Metro. There is a noticeable presence of “community representatives” and police officers on the trains, but I can’t be sure if they’re more noticeable now because they’re more numerous or simply because there are so few other people on the trains. Either way: the vibe is disorder, distress and illegal activity plus hall monitors. It’s upsetting. We have funded — separately — major initiatives to expand our transit networkand major initiatives to provide supportive services for homeless Angelenos, and yet I seriously wonder if we have confused the two.
I would note, the situation is not like this in New York. Our subway system has problems, and the level of disorder on it has noticeably worsened since 2020, but the trains are still full of normal people, going to work and school and restaurants and museums. The subway is much faster and more convenient for so many trips compared to driving here, and that keeps a critical mass of people on the trains that helps them keep feeling safe and orderly. Unlike in LA, my anecdotal sense is also that conditions on the subway here are improving in recent months rather than continuing to deteriorate. When I need to go to Brooklyn, the fastest way is to take the train, and I don’t hesitate to take it.
But in some cities where transit is an option rather than a necessity for people who can afford to drive, systems have been allowed to descend into a chaotic and disgusting situation similar to what we’re seeing in LA. See, for example, this horrifying dispatch about Denver’s bus route 15 from the Washington Post last June.
There’s been a fair amount of head-in-sand reaction to this problem. Yonah Freemark, a transit expert at the Urban Institute, says this is a real head-scratcher:
LA County Supervisor and Metro board member Hilda Solis wants a program involving “public art” and “cultural programming” to improve conditions at MacArthur Park/Westlake station, identified by the LA Times as likely the most troubled station on the system’s Red Line. Let me tell you, I got off at this station by accident last year, and the problems that exist both in the station and in the above-ground area near it won’t be fixed with a public art installation.
The LA Times ran an op-ed this week from Ethan Elkind, a climate expert at UC Berkeley, who says the solution to Metro’s “half-empty, crime-ridden” trains is zoning reform to allow more apartment buildings near stations. I support those zoning reforms, but they won’t do anything on their own to address crime and disorder — if you want people living in those new buildings to actually ride the trains, you need to arrest people committing crimes in trains and on stations. All Elkind has to say about crime and homelessness is that building more housing units would help alleviate the homelessness problem — again, true in the long run, but not a solution to the acute issue facing Metro (and not a solution on any timescale to the problem of people smoking fentanyl on trains).
People on the left have simply grown uncomfortable talking about the idea that crime — even less-serious crime — imposes significant social costs and requires policing and sometimes incarceration to address it. It’s more fun to talk about zoning. But this isn’t a problem that will be fixed with zoning.
What’s needed on the subways is enforcement of rules: We need to go back to arresting people for illegal activity on transit, including fare-beating and for public drug use. If you’re using the subway as a place to sleep instead of as transportation, you’re trespassing. The subway is some of the most expensive and useful public infrastructure we have, and moving problems of homelessness and drug use and other disorder elsewhere, even into the streets, is not simply passing the buck — it’s moving the buck to a place where it imposes a lower social cost. So indeed, contra Freemark, throwing people in jail or into the street is the step that’s needed here.
I realize that sounds cold, but letting homeless people and addicts take over the subway does not address problems of homelessness or addiction. It would be great if LA could move everyone without a home into permanent supportive housing, but the city has been unable to translate billions of dollars of taxpayer funds into an effective solution to the problem of homelessness. The immediate options facing LA are that it can have a terrible homelessness and addiction problem and a subway that people are willing to ride, or it can have a terrible homelessness and addiction problem and a subway that people are unwilling to ride. So far, the city is choosing the latter.
I also think this exposes a key contradiction that leftists need to resolve. Do they care about the provision of high-quality public services? Or is their primary objective to ensure that the coercive force of the state is never used to enforce rules? A lot of people on the left (Freemark included!) seem to think it’s important to foster dense, energy-efficient cities where people take transit and otherwise mingle in shared space. But if you let the transit system go to shit because you don’t think it’s fair to arrest people for smoking fentanyl on it, then people with means won’t ride it, and people with no option but to use the subway will be subjected to disorder and crime and the risk of violence, and will try to figure out how they, too, can escape the system.
Rich people will find private order, even if they have to purchase it, which is easiest to do in the suburbs or in a car. If you want a public order that benefits everyone, including people who can’t afford to buy their way out of it, you will need the police to enforce it.
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P.S. I said there would be a Mayonnaise Clinic over the weekend, but Sara and I started writing this post instead. So: one more call for questions or advice requests. It’s almost spring — do you have questions for me about planning trips, or cooking seasonally, or starting to host parties again? Do you want to know what I think about the apparently imminent (according to him) arrest and charging of the former president by the Manhattan DA? Do you want to know what I think of the T? Write to us at email@example.com.
A good friend of mine moved back to LA during the pandemic. He lived and worked near Red Line stations and thought he might commute by Metro. His company would even pay for his Metro pass. “I took it for a week, and then gave up,” he says. “I bought a car at the height of the car shortage and paid MSRP rather than take the Red Line.”
As Sara notes, there is a particular absurdity related to capital spending. We spend lavishly to expand our transit systems, including in Los Angeles, where a multi-billion dollar extension of the Purple Line subway is under construction under Wilshire Boulevard. When that imminently opens, will it be gross? Will people going to Beverly Hills and Century City and Westwood be willing to ride it? And if not, what was the point of spending all this money?
“From the look on her face, I thought she was going to make me move home,” Sara says, about a time last year when she boarded the wrong train and had to transfer at this station with her mother.
Your piece is spot-on, Josh...I moved to LA from NYC almost 40 years ago and have grown to love LA for all the reasons you have stated in previous posts. Now in my senior years I work part-time for a tour company based in New York, and I do hiking and walking tours here...I use the Metro to get to my meeting points Downtown and in Hollywood. During the lockdown years LA suspended fares on busses and trains, and the trains, especially the Red Line, became, literally, a mobile homeless shelter...even now there is almost no fare enforcement, police presence is haphazard, and the city is now posting "Ambassadors," unarmed metro employees, mostly young people, who say "Thank you for riding Metro!" with cheery faces as you move through stations...that does nothing to ameliorate the conditions on the train...the sleeping, drugged-out people, the verbal fights, the smoking, eating and throwing food on the seats and on the floor, on and on...On my tours most of my American guests Uber around the city, but my foreign guests often take the public transportation system, because that is what they are used to doing when traveling through Europe and Asia...many of them have told me how disgusted and appalled they were at the nightmare they encounter on the LA Metro System...for a great city like LA it's a major embarrassment and the choice you laid out at the conclusion of your piece is exactly right...would that any of our local politicians would have the courage to confront that reality.
The rise of the, "The expectation that disorder and crime should be controlled by law enforcement is fascism and if you expect that then clearly you're suburbanite with no experience in REAL city living" line of thought, best exemplified by erstwhile San Francisco DA candidate John Hamasaki's recent Twitter spree on the subject, is what's behind these issues. It's what led to the decline of America's cities in the 60s and 70s and the subsequent flight of residents to the suburbs and it's what's leading to the same thing now. The tolerance of intolerance leads in one direction only.