‘This is an emergency’: Public transit riders talk sustainability, social issues

A Black man wearing a purple suit poses for a photo
Metro Transit Police Chief Ernest Morales III steps into his new role as head of the public transit law enforcement agency just as it grapples with how to respond to an increase in criminal complaints. He poses for a portrait inside the Kling Public Media Center in St. Paul on Tuesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Public transit has had a challenging last few years.

When riders slowed to a trickle during the COVID-19 pandemic, troubling behavior slipped in the door.  

Metro Transit in the Twin Cities has become a haven for those with nowhere else to go — people without homes, or with addictions or mental illness.

People are sleeping and living on transit. Floors are often littered with food containers, syringes and empty liquor bottles. Reported crimes were up 54% in 2022 from 2021, driven largely by an increase narcotic and weapons complaints and it’s not uncommon to see people openly using drugs on the light rail trains. 

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Most disturbingly, are the recent assaults. A transgender woman was attacked in February by three men at a light rail station in Minneapolis. In December, two people were shot and killed at a station in downtown St. Paul.  Bus drivers have reported being punched and threatened with a gun.   

The spiral of problems follows the huge drop in number of riders during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Nearly three years later, almost half the pre-pandemic riders have not returned.  

MPR New host Angela Davis talks with Metro Transit leaders about how we got here and how to rebuild the system.


  • Ernest Morales III is the new Metro Transit police chief. He spent most of his career with the New York City Police Department, including stints as a deputy inspector and as commanding officer in a transit division in the Bronx. Most recently, he served as first deputy police commissioner in Mount Vernon.  

  • Lesley Kandaras is interim general manager of Metro Transit.  

  • Yingling Fan is a professor of urban and regional planning with a key focus on transportation research at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Here are some highlights from the conversation.

‘I never felt threatened but I was concerned’

“My wife and I got on the train, the Blue Line specifically, and we rode from Target Field all the way down to the Mall of America. And I have to say, some of that ride was pleasant. But then there were other areas where it was very challenging  … I never felt threatened, but I was concerned. It felt uncomfortable. And perception is very important when you're commuting on the line where you expect comfort. And it's my job and the job of the Metro Transit Police Department to start instilling that feeling of safety on the lines.”  

— Metro Transit Police Chief Ernest Morales III 

‘The real public space of our society’

“The public transportation system is the real public space of our society and it’s become a magnet for some of the social problems that the COVID-19 pandemic revealed. Public transportation will be part of a solution as well. We have to maintain sanitation and safety in that public space, so that all members from our communities feel welcome. I often say that if you want to look at whether a city is inclusive and empathetic, you have to look at their public transportation system, because that's the area where people from different backgrounds are rubbing shoulders, where they encounter and they interact.”

— University of Minnesota Professor Yingling Fan

‘I was on the floor’

“This is my fifth year working for the system as a driver and I’ve been assaulted twice now. The recent one happened to me last August when I got assaulted by a group of teenagers … When I called Metro Transit these kids were smoking. They did not arrive in time, until I got assaulted. I was on the floor and the police had to recover me. … I stayed off the job almost four to five months. It's been a tough time for me because I am bearing the brunt of it. … It's not just the kids, the drug users or the abusers that we are troubled by. It’s also how the system is run and how they protect their drivers.”

— Roosevelt, a caller who drives a bus for Metro Transit out of the Brooklyn Park garage.

‘That’s not the problem we’re trying to solve here’

“Someone who's homeless, who is just sleeping on the train, that is not an offense. It may make some people uncomfortable, but that's not a problem that we're trying to solve here. We know that the trains are a magnet for people who need help. And we are identifying in the bill that there's a very clear difference between people who need help, and people who are on the trains to cause problems. 

— Rep. Brad Tabke (DFL-Shakopee)

‘How we build back that ridership’

“Right now at Metro Transit, we're about 200 operators short. It means we're not providing the level of service we want to be providing. We're at about 70 percent of the service level we had back in 2019. So when we talk about rebuilding ridership, it really requires us to rebuild service, because adding more trips, making it more convenient, more frequent, more reliable, is part of how we build back that ridership base.”

— Metro Transit Interim General Manager Lesley Kandaras

‘This is an emergency’

“My light rail station is Lake and Hiawatha, and I see this station on a regular basis. I'm just very disappointed. It's in disarray. It's very clear to me that people need help. We need to invest seriously in those problems like homelessness, and drug addiction and mental health. But I also am not really hearing from anyone at the Met Council or any of our legislators working on this issue, that this is an emergency. This is an urgent problem that needs serious rapid investment.”

— Jonah, a caller from Minneapolis

‘Commute has doubled’

”I ride the light rail and the bus lines. I also drive and I bike. And I have to say that I feel much safer when I'm on transit than either of the other alternatives. I feel like we get a lot of attention from media and from the legislature to lawlessness on transit. But we never talk about reckless driving and speeding, that I think statistically is actually a much greater threat to the people who are trying to move around the city. The biggest annoyance to me is the cutbacks in scheduling. My commute has, in many cases, doubled in time due to the cutbacks.”

— Will, a caller from Minneapolis

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.    

Subscribe to the MPR News with Angela Davis podcast on: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or RSS. 

four people in front of microphones in a studio
MPR News host Angela Davis (left), University of Minnesota professor of urban and regional planning Yingling Fan, Metro Transit police chief Ernest Morales III and Metro Transit interim general manager Lesley Kandaras talked about the future of public transit on MPR News on Tuesday.
Maja Beckstrom | MPR News