Some of the largest transit agencies in the country — Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Cleveland — have begun introducing “transit ambassadors” into its systems with the hopes of reducing crime and presenting a friendlier atmosphere for riders.
Advocates in Chicago have called on the CTA to launch its own pilot version of these ambassadors hoping that it will not only improve services but also help increase ridership back to pre-pandemic figures.
Are these transit ambassadors making a difference in other cities?
While the evidence of ambassador’s effectiveness are pretty scant considering many of the programs are still in their infancy; there is some data to suggest the program has made headway in accomplishing its goal.
Each system has its own variation of what these ambassadors are charged with doing and may even have a slight change in their name.
These ambassadors are often marketed in a way that makes them distinguishable on the transit system. On the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority system they sport a red vest while at the Sound Transit in the Seattle-Tacoma area they are known for their light blue jacket and yellow hat.
Some common traits among these ambassadors is the kind of training they undergo, such as training in de-escalation and narcan deployment. What’s also common seems to be how these programs came to be — with calls from the community.
The Bay Area Rapid Transit, which serves the San Francisco Peninsula, East Bay and South Bay, is often considered a pioneer for launching transit ambassadors. BART’s Deputy Chief Ja’Son Scott said it’s a model that is being replicated across the country.
“The feedback we have gotten is that people want to see more of it.” Scott said. “When we get emails or phone calls — and everything like that — they are telling us they want to see more of our people out there and they are happy for us moving in this direction.”
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BART’s transit ambassadors are unarmed civilian employees that ride BART trains and monitor what is happening around them. They interact with both employees and riders; help people with buying tickets or directions; and notify the proper authority if they encounter a medical emergency or dangerous activity.
“Last year alone, they did 8,500 train rides, 8,800 platform checks and their presence really helps free up our officers from activities that can freeze them up from addressing real emergencies,” Scott said. “We can’t be everywhere all the time but they work with us to help recognize any suspicious activity and contribute in a big way.”
Scott said this allows them to employ about 10 ambassadors to walk the system and it has proven to be a pipeline for those looking to join the BART police department.
There aren’t any readily available reports that examine whether these ambassadors have had a role in lowering violent crime on BART, but violent crime has fallen since its introduction.
According to data from BART’s police department, violent crime had increased in the three years before 2020 reaching 499 incidents by 2019.
In 2020 — the year ambassadors were introduced and the start of a global pandemic — violent crime dropped 29% to 352 reported incidents. In 2021, violent crime fell even further to 222 reported incidents or about 55% decrease from 2019 figures.
Violent crime did have an uptick in 2022 with about 350 reported incidents — a 58% increase from the year before but still down 30% from 2019.
Property crime on BART is also down 60% during that time from 3,444 in 2019 to about 1,382 in 2022.
This contrasts with CTA, a much larger transit system that has seen violent crimes increase to levels not experienced in over a decade, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
But CTA contends transit ambassadors will have little impact. The agency argues the role of ambassadors are already being fulfilled under several other job positions and is more interested in supporting those roles rather than creating something new.
Brian Steele, spokesman for CTA, said the BART transit ambassador program would be hard to replicate here in Chicago because they are employed by the system’s police department. CTA disbanded its police force in the early 1980s.
“It’s important to note that CTA already has multiple personnel who handle the duties of ‘transit ambassadors’ at other U.S. transit agencies,” Steele said. “Unlike many systems, CTA has Customer Service Assistants assigned to every rail station, providing a visible point of contact for customers.”
These customer service assistants, Steele said, regularly engage with customers in stations by answering questions, providing directions and assisting with fare purchases.
“Other CTA employees, including operators, janitors and maintenance personnel are also present to serve as additional eyes and ears,” Steele said. “Out contracted unarmed security guards also serve as additional eyes and ears, their primary focus is to ensure that customers are following CTA’s rules of conduct.”
Steele added those conducts included not eating or playing loud music.
Last April, the CTA entered a three-year contract worth $71 million with private security firm Monterrey Security Consultants — a firm with several ex-high ranking Chicago Police Department officers. This agreement followed several highly publicized incidents of violent crime on the transit system.
The CTA again outsourced its security detail in August when it inked an additional $30.9 million
In August with Action K-9 Security. The 18-month contract would bring in an additional 100 unarmed guards along with 50 canines.
CTA also is working to expand its outreach to riders in need and in late 2022 the agency signed an agreement with the City’s Department of Family and Support Services, Steele said. The CTA will use some of DFSS’s social services to focus on working with people experiencing homelessness or with mental-health issues.
“The concept of a “transit ambassador” is not a panacea; no one type of individual can address the variety of issues of a transit agency,” Steele said.
But safe transit advocates in Chicago argue the combined $100 million in hiring additional unarmed security forces could’ve been spent elsewhere.
“When I talk about transit ambassadors I use the analogy that they are very similar to parade marshals,” said Robert Schultz, campaign organizer with Active Transportation Alliance. “When you go to a parade there is police, there is private security and then there are parade marshals who march along marching bands and help pace the flow and clear any obstacles.”
Active Transportation Alliance advocates for safer and more efficient forms of public transportation in the Chicago area and has been lobbying the CTA to start a pilot ambassador program.
“It’s not just about crime, notifying the proper authority if a station needs a paint job, or if signs are missing, or an elevator is out,” Schultz said. “A customer doesn’t know who to send that stuff to.”
Schultz said the fact other cities have had success in launching a program should be reason enough to try something new instead of just throwing more security personnel at the problem.
“I just wish our leaders at the CTA, the mayor, aldermen and law enforcement would be more visionary and comprehensive in responding to this,” Schultz said. “I think we offered some good ideas and there are good models across the country now.”
A growing model
The introduction of transit ambassadors really gathered steam following the 2020 George Floyd protests which forced officials to have a conversation around how policing is funded. The push for tangible change took root in many transit agencies across the country.
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, which serves Philadelphia, launched its transit ambassador program in February 2022 which replaced its contracted security guards. The combined $20 million contract with three different firms brought 88 new “guides” to ride the system.
Last summer, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, better known as LA Metro, launched a $122.8 million pilot program to employ 300 transit ambassadors. Unlike BART, these ambassadors are also contracted with outside firms.
Sound Transit launched its version called “Fare Ambassadors” whose focus is “passenger education and customer service rather than enforcement.”
“This program was developed in response to community feedback that clearly showed a preference for a friendlier, non-threatening presence on trains,” said Rachelle Cunningham, spokeswoman for Sound Transit. “Fare Ambassadors act as the agency’s day-to-day front-line passenger-facing service team.”
It was first launched in September of 2021 as a pilot program and was implemented permanently in August 2022 through the Sound Transit Board. Sound Transit is estimated to spend $672 million in supporting this program for nearly 25 years.
Cunningham said the primary role is to execute fare compliance for Sound Transit, document any occurrences and issue appropriate warnings or violations for those skipping out on paying fares. They also play a critical role in educating riders.
The Greater Cleveland Transit Authority launched its ambassador program last September which followed a court ruling that its “proof of payment” system used on its lines were unconstitutional.
“We are really excited about the new program, a progressive policing and community engagement initiative that reduces the law enforcement’s footprint on GCRTA transit systems by integrating unarmed professionals to handle non-criminal issues,” said Robert Fleig, a spokesman for the agency.
The Clevelanders for Public Transit made a huge push to reduce funding for the GCRTA transit police by 50% and bring in ambassadors.
Chris Martin, chair of the organization, said they were glad GCRTA adopted their recommendation, but was “disappointed” that the agency diluted the mission of the program.
“GCRTA announced it would pilot a transit ambassador program, but the agency’s conception of ambassadors is markedly different from CPT’s. … We are disappointed that GCRTA Transit Ambassadors are police employees and not true civilians,” Martin said. “Specifically, we called for GCRTA transit ambassadors to be public employees, paid a living wage with benefits, and members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 268.”