When Molly Jamison rides the light rail Green Line to get to her job at Goodwill in St. Paul’s Hamline-Midway neighborhood, she says she takes “extra safety precautions.”
When asked if she feels safe riding the light rail, she said she does only because: “I carry a pocket knife with me whenever I take the light rail,” Jamison said. “If I didn’t have my knife, I wouldn’t feel safe; I’ve seen some scary things on the light rail.”
The scariest incident she witnessed was a stabbing. “Nobody did anything,” Jamison recalled. “I stayed in my seat and kept my head down because I was scared.”
A more common occurrence, Jamison said, is seeing people abusing drugs and alcohol, which makes her feel “uneasy.”
Jamison said if she had a car, she would “never take the light rail again.”
Crime on Metro Transit trains and buses reached its peak in the late spring/early summer of 2022, fluctuating until winter of 2023, when the numbers surpassed the 2022 peak.
As of this past month, the overall total of Group A violent/nonviolent crime on the Metro Transit system, ranging from simple assault to drug violations to robbery, including at light rail and bus stops was 961 for 2023. In the first four months of 2022, the overall total was at 595.
Similarly sized metro areas, like Portland and Denver have seen decreasing crime on their light rail and bus systems, with the exception of narcotics use.
This raises an important question on Twin Cities transit riders’ minds: What is going on with the Twin Cities Metro Transit system?
One answer to this could be how low ridership numbers have been. Since the pandemic, Twin Cities light rail trains and buses have struggled to pull people back in.
In 2019, Twin Cities ridership was at 77,927,642 people. In 2022, ridership was roughly half that — 38,794,249 people — according to Metro Transit.
Yingling Fan, a professor at the University of Minnesota who specializes in urban and regional planning, said there is a connection between crime on transportation systems and ridership: The more riders there are, the safer people will feel.
“There is no silver bullet solution; it has to be multidimensional,” Fan said. “[Metro Transit] needs to think about how to attract riders back, need to solve their workforce issue, address their shortage of bus drivers, and need to have both police and non-police oversight to make people feel safe.”
She added the short-term solution to increasing ridership is focusing on safety and security while riding Metro transportation while a potential longer term solution is focusing on expanding on the services Metro Transit offers.
In a conversation with a reporter at the West Bank light rail station, Jack, who wouldn’t give his last name for fear of his safety, recalled being assaulted and robbed by two men a couple of months ago at the Franklin Avenue light rail station. The men took his wallet, his watch, and his shoes, he said.
Since the assault, Jack has been hesitant to ride light rail.
“I’m always looking over my shoulders,” Jack said. “I’m not sure who attacked me, and I’m always scared they’ll come back to finish me off.”
Another larger issue facing Metro Transit is drug violations. Metro Transit reported 74 drug violations in March 2023, the highest number recorded since September 2020.
The chart below shows the trends for four examples of crime: drug violations, vandalism, simple assault and robbery:
Daylon Prochaska, the transit justice organizer for MN 350, said the group is advocating for a transit ambassador program that would connect people with resources for housing, health care, and/or mental health services in attempts to alleviate some of the social issues occurring on the Metro Transit system. This program would have an emphasis on having social systems on the light rail and buses instead of increased policing, Prochaska said.
He said many Metro Transit riders have vocalized problems with smoking, people in crisis, and homelessness.
“These are symptoms of a greater problem,” Prochaska said. “Any type of real solution for our transit system has to come from real solutions for these people.”
He added that the Metro Transit system has become a place for the unhoused population and people in crisis in the Twin Cities to seek shelter, because many homeless shelters around the Cities are inaccessible to them and many encampments have recently been cleared.
“Simple kindnesses” towards those who take refuge on trains and buses goes a long way, Prochaksa said. Along with this, he encourages people to speak out to their legislators and Metro Transit officials to enact a greater change.
“We all have something to contribute in terms of fighting the struggle over how we understand and carry out our transportation,” Prochaska said.
For transit riders like Jack, the crime rates “could not go down fast enough.”
“I shouldn’t have to live in fear when I take public transportation; I wish it wasn’t like this,” he said.
Madison Roth is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment with MinnPost in spring 2023.