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Riding public transit in Los Angeles can be scary. Here are some things I’ve seen

People ride an L.A. Metro train
Times staffer Justin Ray has seen some stuff while riding public transit in Los Angeles. Above, passengers on a Metro Red Line train in November 2021.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, May 18. I’m Justin Ray.

I have a secret.

There’s something I try not to discuss when in casual conversation with other residents of Los Angeles, a city known for its lengthy commute times and conversations about roads so infamous that “Saturday Night Live” (among others) parodied them.

The truth is, I don’t own a car. Why? Because I don’t want one. I lived in New York City for seven years and, before that, Chicago for four. During that time, I got around with public transit, as do many other residents of those cities.

Sure, people who take the bus or the train are causing less emissions. But that’s not why I don’t have a car. My main reason is because I don’t want to deal with fines, parking, fender benders and the other nonsense that makes car ownership a chore. Paying astronomical rent, putting out a daily newsletter and dating men is hard enough as it is.

When I came to California, I discovered that public transit isn’t one of its strengths. Many of the state’s biggest cities have failed to make their train systems connect to the local airport. There’s also the ongoing drama around the California bullet train, which — despite all its hype and cost — has yet to be completed.

But I want to talk about another transit issue: bad behavior on trains.

I have been in the city for 3½ years and I have seen everything: people getting jumped; arguments among passengers; a guy getting his phone stolen out of his hands; people smoking cigarettes and meth; a couple on a bus in Hollywood rolling up a dollar bill and doing cocaine off of a book.

You name it, I’ve seen it.

I have experienced some wild circumstances. I remember riding a bus in Los Feliz and looking down at some item on the seat next to me. It turned out to be a pretty hefty blunt. Although I had a good laugh about it, not all of my experiences have been funny.

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I have been called the F-slur while waiting for a train in East Hollywood. While riding a bus in Pasadena, a man stood over me staring while crinkling up a plastic bottle and sweating profusely. Passengers stared at me, unsure of how to help me. I ended up running off the bus when it reached a stop. A woman soon after approached me to ask if I was OK.

I have sympathy for the person who did not intervene in the moment, because I am still traumatized by a situation where I also failed to act. I witnessed a transgender woman who was minding her own business get verbally harassed by a man. I sat for three seconds after the incident, wondering what to do. Before I came up with a plan, a young Latinx man who had more courage than I did confronted the guy who had caused the ruckus.

When gas prices began to rise earlier this year, The Times explained how safety concerns make transit a hard sell. I don’t blame anyone who avoids transit. The truth is, I don’t feel safe. I have paid a fare, and left a train station to take an Uber because I saw the crowd I would be riding with and decided to eat the cost.

Just last week, The Times reported that violent crimes had jumped 81% for the first two months of this year on the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s bus and rail system. That information was provided in a story about a 70-year-old Metro rail passenger who was set on fire.

Los Angeles is not alone. The New York Times reported that Americans are “confronting transit crime rates that have risen over pre-pandemic levels in New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.” Just last month, a gunman set off a smoke grenade and fired a barrage of bullets in a rush-hour subway train in Brooklyn, injuring 10 riders.

The NYT article brings up a paradox about ridership and safety; one of the best ways for people to feel safe on public transit is for more people to take it and thereby increase accountability. But people do not ride, because it doesn’t feel safe.

Most of my rides have been uneventful, but my advice is: Should you take public transit, you must be vigilant. You never know if you will encounter a brute or a blunt.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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L.A. STORIES

A brush fire burned uphill near Griffith Observatory on Tuesday in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. Smoke and flames were visible from surrounding neighborhoods. The fire broke out near the Boy Scout Trail in Griffith Park, just south of the observatory. Los Angeles Times

Finding a place to rent in Los Angeles has become a competitive sport. “Everyone is just battling for the same places,” said Anna Maciaszek, who moved to Los Angeles in January and was living in short-term rentals as she looked for a permanent apartment. The Times has identified a few reasons why finding a place to live in the city is harder right now. Los Angeles Times

A young man stands inside the open front door of an apartment.
Nick Garcia recently moved to Los Angeles from Arizona.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Suspect’s life was collapsing before Laguna Woods church shooting. Months before police say he opened fire inside Geneva Presbyterian Church, killing a parishioner and wounding five others in what authorities have called a politically motivated attack, David Wenwei Chou’s life in Las Vegas was unraveling. Los Angeles Times

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

A California law that required companies primarily based in the state to have women on their corporate boards has been ruled unconstitutional by a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge. In a 23-page ruling, Judge Maureen Duffy-Lewis found the state could not prove that the “use of a gender-based classification was necessary to boost California’s economy, improve opportunities for women in the workplace, and protect California taxpayers, public employees, pensions and retirees.” Los Angeles Times

ICE rushed to release a sick woman, avoiding responsibility for her death. She isn’t alone. The circumstances surrounding Medina Leon’s release and death were discovered among more than 16,000 pages of documents disclosed as part of an ongoing lawsuit brought by The Times against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, seeking records of abuse at immigration detention centers. Los Angeles Times

CRIME, COURTS AND POLICING

Northern California man is the killer in a Kansas City cold case, police say. Timothy Stephenson was arrested earlier this year in California and extradited to Missouri’s Benton County, where nearly a quarter of a century ago the decomposing body of 26-year-old Randy Oliphant was discovered. Stephenson, 48, has been charged with second-degree murder. According to the probable cause statement filed by the Missouri Highway Patrol, in 2014 Stephenson told his now ex-husband that he had killed Oliphant. Sacramento Bee

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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

A team of environmental health scientists have identified more than 40 DDT-related compounds that have been circulating through the marine ecosystem and accumulating in California condors. The team found that DDT-related chemicals were seven times more abundant in coastal condors than condors that fed farther inland. Los Angeles Times

A California condor soars over the coast
With a 9 1/2-foot wingspan, the California condor is the largest scavenging bird in the nation and a majestic icon of coastal California.
(San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance)

Actors, bandits, priests and one English bulldog: the names behind L.A. beaches. Will Rogers, Leo Carrillo and Dan Blocker were actors. Nicholas Beach is named for a robber. Point Dume’s namesake is a priest. Hear all the other stories behind L.A. beach names. Los Angeles Times

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

“He was my high school journalism teacher. Then I investigated his relationships with teenage girls.” A beloved teacher at Rosemead High for over two decades, was referred to as the “Golden Boy.” A reporter, who is a former student of the teacher, found through an investigation that he repeatedly groomed female students for sex. “Why didn’t I ask more questions when I was a student? And even if I had, would the teenage version of me have known what to do with the answers?” Matt Drange writes. Insider

Dos Rios Ranch, California’s first new state park in 13 years, is just outside of the Bay Area. “Nestled between the Tuolumne and San Joaquin rivers, Dos Rios Ranch in Modesto will be California’s first state park in 13 years – the longest the state has gone without introducing a new park since the department was founded in 1927,” writes Amanda Bartlett. SF Gate

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CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: Overcast 76 San Diego: Overcast 67 San Francisco: Overcast 70 San Jose: Overcast 84 Fresno: Overcast 95 Sacramento: Sunny 96

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory is from Marge Holley:

In the 1960s, my brother and sister often sent for tickets to shows. Then they would jump into his Volkswagen bus, get on the freeway and go to Hollywood. One time we all went to “Let’s Make a Deal.” I wore a wedding dress and granny boots. My sister wore a colander decorated with kitchen utensils on her head. My brother wore a mumu, a wig, and flip-flops. We got to sit on the trading floor but were not picked to deal. Still, it was a pretty exciting day.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.


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