It's the End of the Line for Graffiti in San Diego : Clean Trolleys Mirror War by U. S. Transit Systems Against Urban Scrawl

Times Staff Writer

Langley Powell is obsessed with graffiti. It is his enemy. He wants to see it eradicated forever, wiped from the part of the world he rules as general manager of the San Diego Trolley.

If there is a quicker way to remove it, a better method of covering it, a more impregnable surface that can be applied to shelter walls and trolley cars, Powell will try it. At stake is the public image and ridership of a transit line that he claims is one of the cleanest in the country.

"The main reason that we don't have graffiti here in San Diego is that we have made graffiti a high priority," Powell said. "When graffiti is noticed, it is our policy to remove it immediately."

"We realize that one of the elements that is very important to the people who are doing graffiti is that they want to have their signature known to the greatest number of people for the longest possible time," said Peter Tereschuck, vice president and director of transportation for the trolley system. "We feel that we can act as a deterrent to that."

A single scrawl on a trolley seat will bring a trolley system maintenance worker to meet the car at the nearest stop. If the graffito cannot be removed, the seat is replaced or the car is pulled out of service. Powell claims that the graffito or the car is removed within an hour after a mark is found.

Although that may seem a tad fastidious, it is part of an anti-graffiti strategy now being implemented across the nation by subway, bus and trolley system operators dismayed at seeing the reputations of efficient systems marred by scrawled street-gang symbols and artists' calling cards.

"Graffiti breeds graffiti," said Albert Engelken, deputy executive director of the American Public Transit Assn., a trade group that represents 95% of the public transit systems in North America. The phrase has become something of a slogan among public transit officials, who use it as their explanation why the key to a clean transit system is keeping that first mark off their cars and shelters.

Although there has been no systematic research on the subject, graffiti is widely assumed to reduce ridership.

Graffiti "is an annoyance and it's something that drives people away," Engelken said. "You get the perception that if there's graffiti on that train, then the rest of the train is dirty. . . . And if the car looks like that, how is their engine? Is it safe?"

"It's a sense of personal safety, a sense of control," said Beverly Silverberg, public affairs director of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, who has spoken about graffiti at transit trade conferences. "If the graffiti problem is out of control, then I think people subconsciously link the vandalism to a sense of no one being in charge. And if no one's in charge, then I'm not safe. It's always an issue of personal safety."

Which is why huge transit systems like Chicago's employ the same tactics Powell does in running his 30-car, 20-mile trolley. The Chicago Transit Authority pulls graffiti-stained cars from service immediately and continually scrubs subway stations. Graffiti removal costs the system $1 million of its $629.7-million budget each year, said Don Yarbush, news media coordinator.

The Washington system has gone further. Although its subway system has been clean, buses have been graffiti artists' targets. In addition to a cleanup campaign, subway officials now send representatives into schools to persuade youths not to mark up or vandalize buses. Graffiti artists caught by police are fined and must attend lectures about their crime.

Even New York, where graffiti was once so thick that it was difficult to read the transit maps posted on subway car walls, has gone on a huge campaign to purchase new cars and clean up marred ones.

Spokeman Bob Previdi said that two-thirds of the New York City Transit Authority's 6,200-car fleet is now graffiti-free and is being kept that way. The upgrades are considered part of the reason that daily ridership has increased from 3.2 million in 1983 to 3.7 million today, Previdi said. In a recent editorial, the New York Times congratulated the system for its improvements.

With just 23,000 daily riders and 23 stops, Powell's system is a bit easier to keep tidy. But he knows that he presides over an operation that is considered a showpiece in a city image-conscious enough to call itself "America's Finest." Clean cars attract riders, whose fares pay more than 90% of the system's costs, Powell said.

"If we did not attack certain problems immediately, that would immediately impact our fare box recovery rate (of more than 90%)," Powell said.

Attacking graffiti has included Teflon-coating the trolley cars, an expensive proposition that failed to work. The Teflon was washed off by detergent, said Charles Coval, supervisor of facilities. Now cars are waxed by hand every two months, in part by forced labor from people convicted of trying to ride the trolley without paying fares.

Broken windows, ripped seats and peltings from eggs and rocks are the most frequent kinds of vandalism to the system, which spends nearly $47,000 a year on graffiti eradication and repairs to equipment damaged by vandalism, Coval said.

Trolley stops present a greater problem. Cleaners scour them every morning with a special graffiti-removing formula, painters continuously repaint them, and maintenance workers are constantly installing new glass partitions in shelters.

Problem areas are treated with a formula that makes it easier to clean graffiti from concrete. Some spots must be sandblasted. In the future, right-of-way retaining walls will be built with recessed areas for plants to grow in to discourage graffiti.

Sometimes, the system must compromise. Acknowledging the odds against keeping them clean, the Metropolitan Transit Development Board in 1985 hired graffiti artists to paint murals in a water channel near the Euclid Avenue station, on a retaining wall near 32nd Street and on an overpass near Interstate 15.

Riders say they notice the trolley's cleanliness. "Here, they sweep (the cars) out and mop them up. You never find trash sitting there," said Scott Sobczak, who remembers the comparatively poor condition of subways in his native Chicago. "Here, it seems people are afraid of the fact that if they do get caught, something will happen."

Clean cars keep riders from dirtying them, said Carolyn Kidd, a home health aide who rides the East Line downtown from her Paradise Hills home each morning.

"If (people) are walking down the street and you see it's perfectly clean, they'll think twice about throwing some litter on it," she said. "Same thing with the trolley."

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