Safety must mean safety for everyone in our communities.

Testimony to TriMet board at public hearing on the future of Fareless Square

In response to: “Free transit rides may end,” Portland Tribune, December 7, 2007

[See also Oregonian coverage of the hearing, “TriMet hears thud on fare plan,” January 17, 2008, in which I am quoted!]

The Portland Tribune’s recent assertion that “free rides increase crime and bad behavior on transit systems” would be laughable if it weren’t so destructive. This is what is known as the misleading use of statistics.

Let’s be clear: Increased ridership increases the number of incidents of crime on transit, of course. If the trains ran empty of passengers, we could eliminate crime on the train entirely. But we would also lose the public benefit of running trains at all.

In newspaper coverage, Tri-Met leadership’s clearly articulated objective in cutting fareless hours is to get low-income people, homeless people, young people, “suspected gang members” — and, the presumable subtext is, especially young people of color — off the trains. But these are all members of our communities.

I ride Tri-Met’s buses and trains frequently, often after 7 p.m., and I have never found that the presence of homeless people in any way impedes my use of public transit. Certainly, no one should have to use the train as shelter, and that’s one reason to keep working to create affordable housing, living-wage jobs, and a stronger social safety net in our communities. But in the mean time, while people live through Portland winters on the streets, using the train as a shelter seems to me a perfectly reasonable choice. If I had to, I think that’s what I would do.

It is hard to see how raising fares downtown does anything to address the recent, distressing violence at the Gresham station. We should address that violence more directly by building safer communities and staffing our transit facilities with additional well-trained, well-paid union workers – not low-paid, high-turnover employees of the irresponsible, corner-cutting contractor Wackenhut. But for heaven’s sake, let’s not take the public out of public transit.

I can’t imagine that anyone thinks excluding gang members from trains will do anything but move gang violence into the streets and further marginalize already-marginalized young people. As our planet speeds towards ecological crisis and energy collapse, it is hard to imagine a more absurdly counterproductive public policy objective than getting young people to stop taking public transit. If we care about building a future Portland that is functioning and sustainable, we should support youth ridership and issue a free Tri-Met pass to everyone under age eighteen. Or indeed to everyone.

What will it take to make our trains and buses safer? In the immediate, probably more lights, more staff presence, and more riders, not fewer. If there’s one thing city-dwellers seem to agree on about safety, it is that isolation is dangerous and crowds are more secure – because, by and large, our fellow humans are not threats, but allies. In the longer term, making our public spaces safer probably means putting more of our public resources into making drug treatment and mental health care available to everyone who wants them, dealing with the root causes of desperation and extreme inequality, and building an economy that works for everyone.

As a starting point, let us agree that public transit is not an island that we vote each other off of. Public transit belongs to everyone. It is a public good. If not enough of us use it, it loses its value for everyone. So let us look for ways to make public transit work for all of our communities.

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About Al Bradbury

Labor journalist by day, singer-songwriter by night, Odonian at all hours.

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