Fear of Riding In LA

A LITTLE COMMON SENSE-(Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series on Fear of Riding in LA.) It seems some, or maybe many, men and women are fearful of riding buses and trains. I find this quizzical and disturbing. I became a regular rider of Los Angeles mass transit in 1992, to do my part to reduce air pollution in the LA Region, the major environmental issue at the time. While I am always cautious, but I do not believe I am fearful. 

The next rung up the environmental harms ladder is climate change and global warming. Since these environmental issues have arrived on the scene, reducing my carbon footprint is of even greater importance to me. On a personal level, I do this because I refuse to believe in the car culture -- driving everywhere and always. 

What I worry about are the environmental consequences and disasters from air pollution that create high numbers of cases of COPD, asthma, lung disease and heart disease.  

Global warming is wreaking havoc with severe, widespread droughts and massive storms of greater intensity and frequency that cause greater damage. The ongoing disasters in Texas and Louisiana from Hurricane Harvey result from what has been called a 500- or 1,000-year flood. And this does not mean that there will be no more catastrophes of this magnitude for the next 500 to 1,000 years. Before climate change, insurance companies used past data to predict storm sizes; the 500- to 1,000-year floods were estimates predicting storm size, not frequency.  

Hurricane Irma is churning in the Atlantic Ocean with increasing intensity, another disaster due within a week. Besides property damage and the tragic upending of lives, farming will be disrupted, leading to food shortages. There will be an increase in disease when tropical disease-carrying insects march north to now warmer grounds. On one news report, a Texas local said that hurricanes used to come in quickly and then be over, but that was not the case with Global Warming Harvey. 

This is what causes me to be afraid…not riding transit in Los Angeles. When I first became a transit rider, I did have great hesitancy as a white man who would be riding with many non-whites. I will continue to be specific with skin colors and ethnicities which is not in any way a slight to others, but to tell about the wonderful mixing of colors and cultures on transit. 

Back in 1992, I would sit near the front of the bus, a usual choice for new riders who want to stay clear of the unknown and close to the driver and the front door. After a while, I noticed on my morning ride a group of Black men sitting in the back. They were very vocal and this put me at unease, even though they were only talking among themselves. I had no reason to be uneasy, but nevertheless, I was. However, I was not fearful.  

One day the bus was already full, with no seats in the front. I decided to face my unknown, and walked towards the back of the bus for a seat. The group of vocal Black men were there talking. Not trash talk, not insulting talk, just among themselves. After a while I started listening to them, and to my great chagrin and embarrassment I heard their conversation: they were on their way to the VA in Westwood and were discussing various types of vitamins, what they do, how much to take. The topper was a frank discussion on how much Vitamin C was in Rose Hip Tea. I felt stupid. 

I know from years of riding that not all loud conversations held by people of all colors are about vitamins, but I learned it is unreasonable to be fearful of them -- there will always be loud conversations on transit. Eventually, one learns to block them out. 

I made a smooth flow to transit riding in the Spring. But as Winter approached I became anxious about riding the bus in the rain. I had been used to driving to work in the rain, and now I was faced with the quandary of what to do. I decided to get back in my car and drive on rainy days. 

The first day of predicted rain petered out, and the rain was light. I had deceived myself, making a predicted rain event worse than it was, and I was frustrated as I drove. After riding buses, I was less and less drawn to driving in commuter traffic which wasn’t even the teeth grinding insanity of today’s gridlock. 

As rain was predicted the next day, I drove again, passing my bus stop and one across the street. It was not raining and there were people there waiting for buses, some of them Hispanic house cleaners and nannies. These women were on the sidewalks with umbrellas and rain gear and seemed unconcerned about the rain. This time I was not only chagrined, but as a man, I was shown up by these women taking the bus in the rain.  

After this experience, I learned to ride buses and trains in the rain with a big umbrella, goulashes, overcoat, plastic bags to cover my belongings. (Do not put wet items on the bus and trains seats.) 

I can understand having some trepidation about trying something new like riding a bus or train after years of thinking the only way to move around the city is by car. But fear?  

Some women could be fearful of sexual assault, although I have never witnessed a sexual assault on a bus or train. In no way do I demean the gravity of sexual assault against women; unfortunately, it can, and does, happen in many circumstances.  

In riding transit, I see that that many women are bolder than men; they seem to ride buses and trains in great numbers than men. So, men, what is the fear? Fear of the unknown? Understandable, but as men, shouldn’t we be facing this and taking it on? 

There have been a number of burglaries in my neighborhood. The advice from police is: “harden the target.” This means, keep windows and doors closed and locked, keep lights on, and so forth. It is a warning that should be applied to riding transit: harden your personal target.  

Do not blindly and stupidly walk up to a bus stop or train station. The transit rider must look around, take inventory of who else is there. Move away from those who bother you or strike up an unwanted conversation. Do not wear flash. Keep your eyes open, keep your options open. Move your seat or stop conversations that make you uncomfortable. 

I will admit that some neighborhoods have higher crime rates, and riding transit through those areas create a greater need for caution, but in those neglected neighborhoods all aspects of life require caution. 

Is transit riding free from crime? Absolutely not. Bad situations occur on buses and trains…but also in parking lots, on streets, while driving, in one’s home, and in stores. I was robbed with a gun to my head, but it did not happen riding transit. I know the threat of crime, but will not be cowered by fear. 

Is a transit rider more likely to be a victim of crime than those outside the bus or train in the neighborhoods they travel? I don’t believe so. This goes back to the issues of high unemployment and poverty in high-crime neighborhoods; these residents are more dependent on mass transit and they exhibit courage as they ride transit, a courageousness that seems missing from those in more stable, affluent neighborhoods.


(This is the first of a series on Fear of Riding in LA. Matthew Hetz is a Los Angeles native. He is a transit rider and advocate, a composer, music instructor, and member and president and executive director of the Culver City Symphony Orchestra.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.