Stalked, Cornered, Hit, Sexually Assaulted, Yelled At: These Are The Stories Of Women Riding LA Metro

A third of L.A. Metro female rail passengers and a quarter of female bus riders surveyed this past spring said they had been sexually harassed while using the public transit system in the past six months. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Women take Los Angeles County public transit more than men, but the experiences, needs, and safety concerns of women have been chronically overlooked. These findings were revealed and examined in a first-of-its-kind study by Metro called "Understanding How Women Travel," which found that females faced "outsized burdens and risks" navigating its transit network.

The study's effort to "understand the unique and diverse mobility needs of women," comes at a time when Metro is looking to address rider attrition and expand its system footprint. Researchers exposed a massive "blind spot" in the way Metro has been collecting rider data, said Madeline Brozen, deputy director for the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies.

Brozen was part of a team from UCLA that advised Metro staff on the study, which she said is a vital step for the agency to give women's needs on transit the attention they've historically lacked.

"If every other rider has a different need... and we're not addressing that, it's hard to understand how Metro can really make sure that they're meeting the needs of the riders today, much less trying to get new people onto the system," Brozen told LAist.

The study makes that especially clear regarding safety concerns — it was the top barrier to taking public transit women identified in the travel survey.

Metro spokesman Brian Haas told LAist that crime across the system was down last year, as law enforcement patrols on transit lines and stations increased. Haas acknowledged, however, that there is a difference between statistics and a sense of safety.

Brozen said the safety situation is "tricky" because not all of the threatening and problematic behaviors experienced by female riders are technically crimes. This complicates how and if law enforcement can respond. Additionally, "what we're hearing," she said, "is that it happens all the time. Probably 90% of the people that have experienced something are not reporting it."

(Ryan Fonseca/LAist)

LAW ENFORCEMENT, SECURITY AND HARASSMENT HOTLINES

There are currently five entities tasked with security on Metro's system, according to Haas. Three are law enforcement agencies: the Los Angeles Police Department, the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, and the Long Beach Police Department. They are contracted to patrol the system "within their jurisdictional boundaries," Haas explained.

Metro also employs its own security personnel, and has further contracted RMI Security to provide armed security guards at rail stations and at bus and rail yards, he said.

Metro security staff can detain someone on Metro property "if they have probable cause that a crime occurred," Haas said. The process functions as a so-called citizen's arrest, and a law enforcement agency would have to be called to make an official arrest.

Bus drivers and rail operators are also trained to confront harassment, but the training differs based on the mode of travel. Haas said train operators respond via the emergency intercom since they are not able to directly intervene, and can request police to respond at the next station. Bus drivers take an 8-hour training course focusing on "deterrence, de-escalation and immediately summoning police in the event of an emergency, which can include incidents of sexual harassment."

Metro advertises its "Off Limits" campaign on its system, including a number to call to "get support": 1-844-OFF-LIMITS.

(Courtesy Los Angeles Metro)

However, the "Off Limits" signs displayed throughout Metro's system could be easily misconstrued.

"Get support" could reasonably be interpreted as "get help now by calling this number." But that's not what it means. There is smaller text below explaining that the number is a counseling hotline. The number is not a resource for reporting sexual harassment or assault.

Haas said Metro is "working on a new campaign that will hopefully help make some of that a little clearer." On-board audio announcements on Metro trains do promote a number to reach Metro security directly, and harrassment, assaults and other crimes can be reported through the agency's TransitWatch app.

One suggestion Brozen gave: rolling out a bystander campaign to encourage riders to speak up and confront bad behavior and harassment on Metro's system. Haas said the agency is "in the early stages" of developing a program like that.

"We're hopeful that this will help spark improvements, not just here in L.A., but maybe in some of these other cities as well, because these issues are not unique to L.A." Haas told LAist.

YOUR METRO EXPERIENCES

Following the release of the report, Understanding How Women Travel, we asked you about your experiences riding Metro, and what you thought could be done to improve the situation. Many of your responses were similar.

More than 100 of you shared your stories with us. Below are more than two dozen accounts that we were given permission to share publicly. Here's what you had to say.

But first — put this number in your phone: 1-888-950-SAFE (7233). This goes directly to Metro Security. But, as you'll read below, that might not actually help you.

Some responses have been edited for clarity.

"I haven't taken the Metro in almost a decade. After I was assaulted for the third time on it, it became more important to me to get rides from friends. Groping, catcalls, assault, being followed. It was a weekly occurrence that something was bound to happen. I can't say the system is the problem, it's society. But better security would be great."

— HEATHER BANKS

"A month ago, I witnessed an Asian woman being sexually and racially harassed while riding the Gold Line to DTLA. She called the advertised number. Twenty-minute ride. Nobody showed up. Nobody did anything."

— LYDIA G.

"At night, I feel like the areas surrounding the Metro stations are always too dark and too deserted. They need to make service more frequent. Part of the reason we get home late at night is because our trips can be heavily delayed waiting for trains and buses. Metro employees should also be more visible. I wish they would invest in infrastructure around the stations so that it's not so dark and creepy at night. I feel like I could disappear one night coming home off the train."

— B. MARKUS

"I had two drunk men barricade me in my aisle until I let one kiss me. I said no and tried to move pass them but one leaned in for a quick peck on the cheek. After he got what he wanted, he said: 'That's all I wanted. You're so beautiful. Just wanted to share the love.'"

— MICHELLE BUKIRIN

"Bringing my stroller is always a stress, but if I'm walking everywhere, it's a necessity. I've even had the metro driver yell at me to get in a different door in the train, and she literally held up the train to yell at me to move. I had no idea there were designated spots, and the train was not full at all. I felt singled out, harassed, and embarrassed. Now I think about that every time I ride, and I worry I'll mess up."

— BRISTOL POSATKO

"I avoid public transportation entirely. I have been traumatized by my experiences riding as a woman due to sexual harassment, unwanted advances and threatening situations.

Eight years ago I was 19 and waiting for a bus after work at a busy intersection in Canoga Park. A man rode up on a bicycle and sexually assaulted me by putting his hands up my dress and doing what he wanted. No one helped, stopped him or even seemed to notice and he then fled.

Another time that same year, a man sitting next to me picked a racial fight with an unwilling man. He flashed a gun, and four or so men pushed him out of the doors of the bus at the next stop."

— GENESIS RENBERG

"I grew up taking the bus because my parents were too poor to afford a car. Twenty years later, we still can't afford a car and insurance, so we stick to the Metro.

A few months ago a man followed me off the bus stop and proceeded to harass me, telling me he had been watching me the entire ride because I was 'pretty.' I was very shaken up by that experience.

I've had men stare at me and try to sit next to me to talk to me when there were other seats available before, so I've started wearing oversized clothing, hoodies, no makeup and I've even given myself buzzcuts to avoid attention from men.

A few years ago I suspected this man was staring at me for the entire ride. I acted as if I was getting off by pulling the stop and he suddenly got up to get off too. As soon as we stepped out of the bus I quickly got back on through the door I exited out of and the driver closed the door. The man banged on the window and I felt instant relief. I went to explain to the driver why I had to get off and on and thankfully he understood.

Another time I was on the bus an older, drunk man was touching and laying down on a middle-aged woman coming back from work. She was yelling at the drivers (driver and another one him) for help but they did NOTHING. No one got up to help or pull the man off. I'm ashamed to say I was also too scared to do anything. I'm not very strong and all I could do was try to get the driver's attention. I made a report to Metro and they never got back to me. That's when I felt like Metro does not really care or make an effort to keep us safe.

And of course it's not just men. The increasing amount of mentally ill homeless people that stumble onto the bus are also sometimes dangerous. I've had a woman threaten to beat me with her shoe for no reason (she came onto the bus yelling and screaming), and another homeless woman yell at me and threaten me while mistaking me for someone else.

It would be great if ride operators cared a little more about the shady people that are on the bus. Maybe some kind of specialized training for them? An emergency button on ALL buses and rails would be fantastic. Especially buses."

— CAROLINA ORTIZ

"I was taking the Metro regularly to and from work. I no longer take the Metro because a man vulgarly solicited me for sex while I was waiting for the Metro to arrive. I called the police line using one of the speakers on the platform. The Santa Monica police arrived and said there was nothing they could do and allowed the man to get on the same train as me. When I got to my stop, there were no police and I felt unsafe exiting the train. I haven't taken the Metro to work since then."

— LAUREN DAVIS

"No one in Metro takes sexual assault or groping seriously. There's been a couple times I've been groped and yelled for help. All I got was shushes from other riders and Metro workers said they couldn't do anything. Apparently the security can't come down since it's the Sheriff's jurisdiction or some bullshit. One guy groped me and the Metro worker just watched as the groper sat next to another woman. If I wasn't in such a state of shock I would have pulled him out or warned the woman, but why bother, right? Women don't ride buses to be abused. I don't want a man to come to me and jerk off or tell me I turn them on. Make sure that Metro workers actually make an effort."

— SUSAN MONTENEGRO

"I am a student and can't afford a car right now. I get sexually harassed A LOT. I also get stared at which makes me very uncomfortable. When something does happen the people around me do not intervene and act as if nothing is happening. I would like to there to be real repercussions for sex offenders on Metro. The one time I reported they handed it over to the police who ended up saying there was nothing they could do/I didn't have enough evidence to file a report. I feel like Metro could at least fine him or ban him from their lines since he is a frequent flyer."

— SAMANTHA DECKER

"It's just not worth it. The trains are too empty [and] this emboldens the creepers. They stare at you, follow you, and otherwise talk to you or bother you. It's better to drive or take Uber. I grew up taking subways in Chicago. There are enough people on those trains so that you're not alone in a car with some creep."

— ELAINE WALKER

"I have been catcalled, I have been stalked, I have been physically threatened for just asking a man to move his bags so I could sit. I had a guy once sit next to me and harass me, and when I tried to ignore him (I was wearing headphones pretending to listen to music) he started calling me names and cursing at me. I am not allowed to take public transportation late at night anymore because my husband is afraid that someone might attack me again (I have been flashed and I have been thrown stuff by male homeless men on the bus and the train).

Bus drivers and train operators need to take it seriously when we call them on the intercom for an emergency. I once saw a big guy harassing two young ladies on the train and when I got off the train to tell the operator, he said: 'What do you want me to do, stop the train? He'll leave when he'll leave.'

In another instance when a guy was threatening passengers on the bus and clearly smelled like alcohol I went to the front of the bus and asked the driver to stop the bus and call LAPD. He ignored me. When I called 911 then he stopped the bus, and when the individual noticed this then he got off the bus, still I asked the driver if he knew the number for emergencies on public transportation and he continued to ignore me. They need to get better training on how to handle these types of situations instead of ignoring it and just looking out for themselves."

— MARIEL MARQUEZ

"[I've experienced] sexual harassment riding an extremely packed train. It's a man's excuse for accidentally grazing a woman's bottom. [We need] more security in the trains during rush hour mornings and evenings. Having them at the station isn't enough when the harassment is happening in the trains."

— ERICA URRUTIA

"I take [Metro] to work. I do Uber instead if it's late, or if I am coming from Long Beach at night. A homeless guy grabbed my butt really badly [recently] on the escalator. I used to do a lot of work in Long Beach, going home on the Blue Line at night was really, really bad — like people openly drinking and starting fights.

Where there are outdoor TAP card machines, there are also generally young men hanging around them panhandling, which feels threatening in the dark. Like how am I going to take money out as a short woman alone, and these guys are there begging for money.

Men also just want attention from women. I work as an assistant for a talent agency. If I'm scrolling through my phone it's for work. But men are always interrupting me, they just expect attention. When they ask for things or attention and I tell them to go away, they don't always listen. Like I called Metro's harassment line about a guy in Glendale who wouldn't stop bugging me when I was waiting for the bus about a month ago.

They use their size to intimidate you, it's not cool. There's also staring... but in my experience touching has been rare.

They need to have security present. A presence would let offenders know there might be consequences. There's no presence, especially at the times when it's dark out. When there is a security presence it's always during bright, sunny rush hour."

— BECKY S.

"Men are the issue. In an empty train they'll sit right next to me. They stare. They approach me. They do not respect personal boundaries. I'd like to see a car designated for women and children, or more Metro officers present. The only times I see them are when they're checking fares."

— HANNAH SOMERA

"I have had men expose themselves to me at a bus stop. I have been shouted at before. I have had a man in a car follow me as I walked down the street to the train. Better late night service [might help], more lights at train stations and bus stops, better communication with police — there's a balance between keeping women safe versus oppressing black/brown people that needs to be worked out. I don't feel comfortable calling the police in situations because I don't believe they will actually improve it."

— HEATHER JOHNSON

"Men hit on me. Both on the bus and at stops. Luckily I have never really felt unsafe, it's just a nuisance. If it gets really annoying, I have to weigh the options of just toughing it out, or getting off the bus and having to wait god knows how long for the next one. Men are taking advantage of the fact that women are basically trapped on the bus or train."

— JULIE S.

"I take (Metro) because the commute time can be more consistent than traffic to get to some places. I have stopped taking it because, overall, it takes too much time and makes an impact on my work time. Safety has been my main concern. I have been followed by a man from the Red Line 7th and Metro Station to the Gold Line Highland Park station. I, along with three other women, were also flashed by a man on the Gold Line station midday. I hope that the system improves so that ridership increases. I feel safer when there are more people on the train."

— LISA OKAMOTO

"When I lived downtown a decade ago, I took Metro buses and rail a lot. One evening, I was taking Metro Rail home from North Hollywood when I was blocked in my seat by a flamboyant character wearing a vintage suit. Ignoring him didn't help. I managed to get past him and made my way to the seats just behind the train engineer, thinking it was the safest place on the train. He opened the door at our next stop asked how I was doing, then asked for my phone number. In shock and frustrated, I exited the train and risked walking the rest of the way home in the dark. That was the last time I rode a Metro train alone."

— MICHELLE CHIN

"I have felt unsafe while taking or waiting for Metro although I've generally felt comfortable taking transit. I have had two incidents in which I felt extremely uncomfortable. The first incident was when this guy flashed me on the bus on Monday morning. I froze cause it was the first time I experienced it and I didn't want to cause a scene especially since the bus was in detour and everyone was already annoyed. I did call the Metro sexual harassment hotline that night to report it and they were very helpful and comforting. I still regret not telling the bus driver and standing up for myself but I was in shock.

The second incident was when I was waiting for the train home on birthday around 9 p.m. I was standing by an outlet and this guy came up really close to me and shouted 'Get out of the fucking way' in my face and he swung his bag at me. It was very scary. I'm not taking it too personally since I'm sure he was dealing with his own issues but it was more upsetting how no one around attempted to help or came up to me afterwards to see if I was OK. I didn't expect anyone to step in but it would've been nice if someone reached out after."

— TARA KWAN

"I use public transit to avoid traffic and to try and reduce my carbon emissions. I have had multiple experiences of feeling sexually harassed while riding Metro; men sitting too close when there was ample space, a man walking very close behind me in order to rub up against me from behind and a man exposing himself in a stairwell of a gold line station. I have also been catcalled multiple times while using or walking to public transit. I would like more Metro staff or security to be present at stations, especially when it is dark, both in the early morning and at night."

— BANAF RAHIMI

"I've been assaulted on both the Orange Line and Red Line. The first assault (Orange) the police were called. The entire episode was bungled from the beginning. (The Orange Line driver asked if i'd like to wait for the police at the same stop where the perpetrator just exited the bus.) That experience made me seriously distrust Metro keeping me safe. I only sporadically take the Orange Line — I drive and pay to park at North Hollywood. Also, not one person on that bus came to my defense. Not one. The second assault was on the subway — a young man took offense that I was standing too close to him and hit me in the hip as hard as he could with his elbow. Walked away with a good bruise on that one. He got a tongue lashing. Thank god we were close to North Hollywood when that happened and I exited the train."

— KAT DAVIS

"I love the idea of public transit more than the reality. I needed to take it to work for a few months in 2017 when a medical issue prevented me from driving. The bus got me where I needed to go but I stopped riding when I sat down on a bus seat that was completely soaked in Lysol. It just wasn't worth it. (I also didn't feel safe when I got off the train at Vermont & Santa Monica when it was dark out)."

— STEPHANIE DENNING

"I am lucky in that I have never been more than inconvenienced or uncomfortable by any situations I have been in. However, I have had instances of direct harassment and some unsettling experiences of being talked about — loudly — while sitting on the bus.

In one case, a man muttered to himself repeatedly that I was a 'stupid white bitch,' that he 'missed the old days when dumb women were afraid to be in his way,' and that I should 'watch out.' He then recited names of serial killers. None of this was directly said to me, but it was clearly directed at me. This was on a fairly full evening bus, where I was able to move, was surrounded by other, more sane people, and could get off in a place I knew well. As such, it was only a weird, annoying thing. Had this happened later in the evening or in an unfamiliar place, it would have been far more disturbing."

-- CYNTHIA PEARSON

NOTE: The final story in this piece comes from a city of Los Angeles employee, who, despite her unique access and insight, was unable to get the help she needed when she needed it. She has provided LAist with a detailed account of the experience that ended her almost nine years as a loyal Metro rider.

"I moved to L.A. in 2011. And I work in public service. At that time, I was working in the nonprofit sector. And I was not making a lot of money. And it's so expensive to own a car in Los Angeles. So I decided to take the train. I kind of felt like I didn't have any other choice at the time.

But I kind of fell in love with taking transit.

I mostly took the train, but also the bus here and there to get in between. And there definitely was always some level of struggle with taking transit [but] it was a point of pride for me, I think, too, to do this thing that it felt like none of my other friends were doing. I loved exploring and seeing my city through public transit. And I love saving money. And I loved knowing what it was doing for my city.

And that kept going for nine years. So 2011 up until about a few months ago... A few months ago, I had an incident on the train. And I just haven't been able to get back on since then.

And there have been a lot of incidents over the years. I mean, over nine years, I would say I had a major incident every year, sexual harassment or another form of harassment, that was bad enough to call the police or notify security.

If I reported every incident, every time I felt uncomfortable, every gesture, every stare, I would have been on the phone every other ride. There's this cumulative effect every year of getting more and more frustrated with taking transit and how having to worry about my safety when I was just trying to get from point A to point B.

But then, most of those incidents made me either upset or angry. But a few months ago, I had an incident that made me feel scared for the first time, like really scared for my life. And that changed everything for me. I'm still struggling with PTSD from that experience. I haven't been able to get on a train since then, or a bus.

I ended up buying a car, which I promised myself I would never do. And now I use my car to get around. For now, my transit chapter is totally closed. Until I feel like Metro is taking some real actions to make it safer for people in general — but especially for women — to take transit, I can't get back on the train.

It happened at [about] 7:30 in the morning, I was on my way to work. And I live in Palms near the Palms station on the Expo Line. And I was heading into downtown L.A. and it was just just like any other morning for me. Just, you know, I'm dressed in work clothes, I have my headphones in and working on my phone. I took the only open seat left on the car.

And you can just feel when someone is staring at you, right? And I'm hyper-aware of my surroundings when I get on the train car. So someone across from me was staring at me, but I pretended I didn't see him [and] I didn't know what was going on. He started making remarks about my body, which I could hear even over the music playing in my headphones.

He started asking me questions, he started getting frustrated that I wasn't answering his questions and that I was ignoring him. He asked me for my phone number. He asked me what I was doing later. And finally, I just got so frustrated. I took my headphones out and I looked at him and I said, 'Look, no offense, but I don't want to talk to you. I'm just trying to get to work.' And that made him really frustrated. He went from zero to 60.

He stood up and he started screaming so loud. Everyone on the train is looking at me looking at him trying to figure out what's going on. And he came over toward me and he boxed me into my seat. His hand was up on a pole on one side, and I couldn't get out.

He started swinging at me. And at this point, I'm kind of looking around, like 'is anybody going to come and help me?' This guy's blocking me and I can't move, I can't get out. I'm trying to calm him down. So I'm focusing on like just saying things like, 'Hey, man, just relax, everything's gonna be fine, just take a seat.' But realizing that that's not working, I pull out my phone. And I call the number that I had saved in my phone for Metro security. But it actually was the phone number for Metro's sexual harassment line.

But as soon as I pulled out my phone, he got more upset. He knew what I was trying to do. And he was screaming at me and telling me to put my phone away. So I ended up getting on the phone with Metro's anti-harassment line and they told me they can't help me.

They say 'we don't help with active incidents, you're going to need to hang up and call 911.' But by this point, I'm physically defending myself from this guy. He kind of lunges at me and it's not until at this time that someone finally gets up and comes over and says, 'Look, man, what are you doing?' Another person presses the emergency intercom and then we stopped the car at the Culver City station.

And someone came to intervene from Metro — which I found out later was a company that they contract out to — and he had no idea what to do.

I mean, he was asking me really intimate personal questions in front of everybody on the car. And keep in mind, the cars stopped, everybody's staring, everybody wants to get to work, everybody's wondering what's going on.

And I just said, 'Can we please just get this train moving again? Can we please just deal with this later?' And it's not until we got moving again and I moved cars that I called 911 reported the incident and I don't think they ever came to find the guy that started everything. I think he got off at some point. I have no idea. I still haven't really have no clue what LAPD did to respond to the incident.

He made contact with me, but he didn't hurt me. That was when someone came over and intervened, but I was very aware that he could have hurt me. And that he wanted to, I mean, you could see it in his eyes... he wanted to harm me. And it was because I turned him down, because I rejected him, because he was hitting on me.

What was most upsetting about the incident was how Metro handled it in the moment and how they didn't know what to do. And honestly that no one else on the car helped me until I was physically in danger. That was the hardest part. I don't think I've ever felt so alone in my entire life.

When you're involved in an incident, the 'right thing' to do is just to call 911, but not everyone knows that. When you are being harassed you really shouldn't have to be the one who is calling on the support of someone else to help you. One [reason] is that you're probably too upset to know what the right thing is to do. I remember when I pulled out my phone, my mind was racing so much I barely knew how to use a phone anymore.

I know the right person to call when I go through a situation like this. That's because I work for Councilman [Joe] Buscaino. He's a former LAPD officer, and he's also on the Public Safety Committee, and we control the LAPD contract that Metro has for LAPD security on the trains.

Because I'm in that position, and because I have that connection, after an incident, I know that I'll be able to speak with the authorities and be heard at least on my issue. I've even met with the head of security for L.A. Metro before.

But despite having that connection, I still don't feel like Metro is safe for me. I feel very fortunate that I'm able to get in front of the people who oversee security on public transit, it makes me feel heard, and makes me feel understood, and I see that they're trying to make it better for people, and especially women. But I can't help but think about all of the people who don't get to have the opportunity to sit in front of those people and tell their stories. And it makes me really sad for women in L.A.

I don't have a single female friend who dares take the train. They think it's the most horrifying and scary experience — and I don't blame them.

I don't blame Metro and I really do think that they're trying. I don't know that I think that they're doing their best. But part of it is not their fault — it's an issue of resources, they don't have the funds to put a police officer on every single train and on every single car of a train.

They have to get more creative and think of other solutions. And it is their job to figure that out."

— LAURA HILL

METRO RESPONDS

Metro spokesperson Brian Haas said the agency "is aware of that particular incident" with Laura Hill, and "will continue to work with her toward solutions to this challenge."

Haas added:

We believe that any incident involving sexual harassment on our system is one too many.

We conducted this unflinching study to better identify and quantify the challenges that women may face while riding Metro and to identify opportunities for improvements.

Stories like those that Metro and LAist have heard will help us better tackle these challenges going forward.

No transit system is immune to these challenges. But we at Metro are dedicated to tackling them head-on to make our system safer and more comfortable to all who use it.

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