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One year ago today, I was harassed and improperly detained by MTS enforcement officers. The numbers show my experience wasn’t unique – and they drive home the degree to which things must change.
Black riders make up only 12 to 14 percent of total San Diego Metropolitan Transit System ridership yet they received 32 percent of quality-of-life citations – more than double our share of the population (and no other ethnic group comes close to this disparity).
The data from MTS is consistent with what we’ve seen in transit agencies across the country – from large cities such as Los Angeles and New York City – to smaller cities like Portland. It confirms the reality that many of us have personally experienced – the unfair and disparate treatment of Black transit riders.
Exactly one year ago today, on Aug. 6, 2019, I was harassed and improperly detained by MTS enforcement officers. I boarded the Blue Line trolley at the Civic Center Station, heading to my kids’ cheer and football practice in National City, when the officers entered to begin checking fares. When I showed my pass, it didn’t scan (turns out I forgot to tap my Compass card when I boarded). I explained to the officer that I had an annual pass that I got through my work at the city of San Diego, but he made me get off the trolley until I showed him the digital receipt. I found the receipt on my phone and tried to get back on the trolley, but he stopped me and demanded my photo ID. I showed him my driver’s license, and when I tried to get back on the trolley before it pulled away, the officer stopped me again. He called in three other security officers to surround and detain me at the 5th Avenue Station for 15 minutes while he ran a background check on me. Unbeknownst to them, I worked for Council President Georgette Gómez, who was then the chair of the MTS board, and while I was being detained, I was texting then MTS CEO Paul Jablonski. I chose not to tell the officers about my connections to MTS leadership because I wanted to see firsthand how they treat their riders. But I did inform the CEO what was happening and my feelings of anger and disgust. He apologized and asked for the officers’ names and badge numbers, which I provided immediately after I was released.
Unfortunately, this incident isn’t an uncommon experience by Black transit riders, and our personal accounts of this disparate treatment are substantiated by the data.
This needs to change.
At its June meeting, the MTS Board of Directors – led by MTS Public Security Committee Chair Monica Montgomery – approved a new fare enforcement diversion program that reduces fines for fare-evasion citations, extends the period to pay citations, and allows community service in lieu of payment.
Although these are solid first steps, a second unpaid citation still becomes a misdemeanor and more is needed to address disparate treatment of Black riders and ensure a welcoming, safe, and fair transit system for all transit riders.
We need to rethink the role of security personnel on transit and our approach to addressing fare evasion. Instead of spending so much public resources on armed security and enforcement personnel, we should spend those resources on personnel who are ambassadors, who can keep passengers and drivers safe while providing a welcoming environment.
While it’s important that our transit system is as financially stable as possible, no one should have to face criminal penalties for the inability to pay. If drivers don’t have to face criminal penalties for failing to pay parking tickets, why should transit riders face criminal penalties for failing to pay trolley tickets?
We should spend more resources on anti-bias training and work with the county and other agencies to provide social services and support, particularly for those riders who are homeless or have mental health issues.
We need to look at the root causes of why riders evade fares – including homelessness, affordability and lack of economic opportunity.
And we need to look at innovative new solutions that address these issues, such as the proposed Youth Opportunity Pass program that offers no-cost transit for youth that community-based organizations like Mid-City CAN have championed.
Making these changes will take time and won’t be easy or cheap – but they will help transform our transit system into a welcoming, accessible and safe environment for all riders.
Marcus Bush is a commissioner with the Housing Advisory Committee in National City, candidate for City Council in National City and former policy adviser to San Diego City Council President Georgette Gómez.