A Day in the Life of A Safety Ambassador on the Expo Line

James McDuffie, Metro safety ambassador, stands at his post at Flower and 23rd Sts. photo: sahra

“Ooh — careful!” I gestured to James McDuffie, a safety ambassador for the Expo Line, as a bicyclist came riding up quickly behind him on the sidewalk.

McDuffie shook his head as the 50-something year old gentleman passed between us without slowing down. Together, we watched him shoot out from one sidewalk, cross diagonally through the intersection (and train tracks) at Flower and 23rd Sts., and hop up onto the sidewalk on the other side.

“He comes through [here] every day,” said McDuffie.

And every day, the man rides the sidewalk along Flower St. and heads diagonally across the intersection without much regard for the light. McDuffie says he hasn’t been able to get the man to heed any of his requests to slow down or wait for the light.

“Even the Sheriff told him to wait once,” said McDuffie, apparently to no avail.

Bicyclists’ tendency to disobey traffic regulations are the biggest safety concern, says McDuffie. As safety ambassador, part of his job is to help educate the public about how to navigate the intersections where the Expo Line passes through. But because of their speed and positioning in the road, he can’t reach out to cyclists as easily as he can pedestrians. He had had to watch helplessly as a cyclist heading eastbound on 23rd St. turned southward onto Flower St. without looking and was hit by a car just a few days prior.

“There are a lot of close calls with bicyclists,” he said.

Not that pedestrians are particularly receptive to his requests to obey traffic regulations, even when it is in their best interests.

“Hey, sir! Don’t stand on the track!” McDuffie called out to a young man who had ignored the yellow and black “Wait Here” signs painted on the sidewalk and stepped out into the middle of the tracks.

Hearing McDuffie, the youth slowly backed his way to the sidewalk without looking at us. And then appeared confused when the light changed but the white “walk” sign didn’t appear.

“You can go now,” McDuffie suggested, encouraging him to push the pedestrian crossing button next time.

Beyond education, safety ambassadors must keep track of how people are using the intersection. The data he provides to Metro is used to improve safety signage and infrastructure at crossings.

He’s seen some of his suggestions materialize in the form of larger and more visible signage at crossings.

But other things remain unaddressed.

The intersection at Flower and 23rd Sts. where drivers routinely fail to stop behind the line. photo: sahra

The left turn lane on Flower St. (above) is painted with both a very easily visible line where cars should stop and the commands WAIT HERE and KEEP CLEAR.

“Nobody waits back there,” he said.

That seemed to be true. As I watched, nine out of every ten motorists failed to heed the warnings. To be fair, the infractions may have been unintentional; motorists may have seen them and then realized too late that they should have stopped behind the line. But the danger remained, regardless — there is no barrier between an oncoming train and a car that has pulled into the “KEEP CLEAR” zone.

McDuffie said that both he and LADOT had let Metro know this was an issue, but had yet to see it addressed. Meaning, essentially, it will be a while before drivers get accustomed to the change.

Barbara Burns, manager of Metro’s Transit Safety Education Programs, says it takes about 9 months to change people’s behavior. And that’s with the aid of the safety ambassadors. Now that the Expo Line is up and running, most of its ambassadors are due to be phased out.

James McDuffie’s term is coming to an end at the beginning of June. He didn’t seem to mind getting a little break — he has worked for Metro since 1976 and came out of retirement to help work the new rail lines. His only concern is for the students who will have to cross the tracks next year. There is a middle school located just one block from McDuffie’s crossing and when the new crop of students arrive in the fall, there won’t be a safety ambassador there to keep an eye on them.

Fence decorations along the Expo Line. photo: sahra
  • “Bicyclists’ tendency to disobey traffic regulations are the biggest safety concern” – hmmmm – what about those automobile thingies? They seem like a pretty big safety concern when the run over those disobedient cyclists and pedestrians, and run into those shiny rail cars. Hopefully a disobedient automobile safety ambassador is out there working hard, too.

  • and there’s this very innovative new technique for getting them motorists to stop safely behind that line – called a “ticket”!

  • wanderer

    It might be salutary if people on this blog listened to the voice of someone working in the field rather than belittling it.

  • It is exasperating that the pedestrian walk signal only appears if someone presses the button. If you reach the button one second too late, then you have to wait for the entire cycle before crossing. It should just be assumed that someone will want to walk.

  • Ubrayj02

    There is a huge knowledge gap between the average bike rider in LA and safe bike riding practice. We won’t bridge that gap by writing tickets alone, or by ignoring it. We need adult education for cyclists.

  • sahra

    Cyclists are so defensive! :) Most of us are upstanding citizens. But it is important to acknowledge that a sizeable number of us are not as interested in paying attention to traffic laws as they should be. Shadowing him, I had to agree–they were the biggest issue in that they by far were the most consistent violators of signage or lights. I’ve seen that when I’ve hung around observing other stops as well. He did talk about law enforcement being key to stopping the jaywalking, or other violations (be they by motorists or cyclists), and he tries to warn those he can about the potential for receiving tickets. But I would guess the staff shortages within law enforcement mean that stationing folks at Metro stops is an unlikely proposition.

  • Jonathan Weiss

    I think we need some education in high school as well.

  • Anonymous

    Adult education for cyclists? Like a booklet? Perhaps a test? Might as well give you something for passing the course…

  • Anonymous

    To be fair, the infractions may have been unintentional; motorists may have seen them and then realized too late that they should have stopped behind the line.”

    It’s intentional because they are supposed to scan ahead and look at the markings on the road. It clearly says, “WAIT HERE.” The line beyond says, “KEEP CLEAR.” These markings are all over the country, and they were given a license based on their ability to recognize them. They should be stopping at them whether there are train tracks or not. If they cannot stop at the line, their licenses should be revoked.

    Drivers should also not need to become accustomed to change. They are required to be able to safely drive in unfamiliar areas. If they are not able to do so, their licenses should be revoked. “I don’t know this area.” is not an excuse, ever. 

  • Anonymous

    But Mattymatt, how will the Road Engineers move more cars???

  • I do agree. There’s a happy medium between “little to no education” and “mandatory licenses.” West Hollywood has some banners up on street lights right now that remind cyclists not to salmon; that’s a good start. Ads on buses, posters & flyers in bike shops, classes in high schools, PSAs on TV and radio — these are all things that could be funded by grants and would help cyclists understand how to ride safely & compatibly with cars. I can’t believe how many of my fellow riders I see riding against traffic, or wearing headphones, or zooming around at night with no lights.

  • Eric B

    This is my biggest pet peeve.  Unless needed to trigger a light on demand (i.e. to cross a major street at a minor street), pedestrian beg buttons have got to go.

  • Yah – I am defensive… but I am going going to call out car-centric biases where I seem ’em. Saying that disobedient bicyclists are the “biggest safety concern” is still wrong. It’s a fallacy that you quote – because he said it – but I’d recommending not repeating this sort of fallacy unchallenged. It’s car-ist. It’s ignoring the bull in the china shop. It’s like looking out into a china shop with a bull rampaging through it and saying “shoplifting is the biggest problem in this China shop.”

    Disobedient bicycling is bad, but even when disobeying signage or light, a minor safety concern (mainly for the cyclist herself/himself)… but them disobedient drivers kill themselves and others – all the time. Cars are the “biggest safety concern.”

  • Dennis Hindman

    The safety concern that is trying to be addressed by the ambassador is the train hitting some human beings. It doesn’t matter whether the humans are encased in a motorized vehicle, walking or riding a bike. In most scenerios, they are likely to be injured if hit by the much larger mass train. So, if the safety ambassador sees more cyclists, than other means of transportation being in the train travel area when they shouldn’t be, then cyclists would be the biggest safety concern for the ambassador.

  • Dennis Hindman

    It’s been my experience that the concerns about BRT buses or trains hitting humans increases the safety of cyclists crossing through these areas where the trains and .BRT buses intersect the street. The street vehicles have a separate no-turn traffic signal  as an attempt to stop them from turning into the path of the train or bus. For the Orange Line path this no-turn traffic signal for motorized vehicles on the street is also activated by the pedestrian walk button, which makes crossing the street much safer for pedestrians and cyclists than you would typically find elsewhere in the city of Los Angeles.

  • safety concern that is trying to be addressed by the ambassador is the train hitting some human beings” – even this reflects a bias. I think that a pro-car bias ends up making Metro’s safety ambassador program ignore the biggest threat to safety.

  • Anonymous

    Metro operates the trains, not the cars. 

  • Dennis Hindman

    It would be very difficult for a foot patrol Metro ambassador to give safety advice to drivers that are in a glass enclosed vehicle that they cannot get close to without endangering themselves.. This should be the domain of a cities law enforcement that can chase them down on motorcycles or in cars.

    Not only have no turn traffic signals been installed to cut down on vehicles moving into the path of a oncoming train, but there are also 19 photo enforcement cameras installed along the Expo Line, as you can see on page 14 of this Metro document: 


    Enforcement cameras were also installed along the Blue line, the East LA Gold line and there are 14 intersections along the Orange Line that have them. Riding along the Orange Line bike path late one night I ran across a man that servicing the film cameras along the Orange Line, he mentioned that within a two year period of time, after cameras were installed at the Sepulveda Blvd bus crossing, the red light violations went from 20 per month down to 2.

    I do not see a bias in favor of drivers with these enforcement camera installations. Pedestrian and cyclist red light violators do not trigger the cameras to take a picture. Unfortunately, this can have dire consequences, as one bicyclist, who was wearing ear buds in both ears went through a red light and was struck by a Orange Line bus. I was told this by several Orange Line drivers and one driver told me the man died from his injuries.

    One driver told me that a woman wearing ear buds while riding a bike went through a red light and he was barely able to avoid hitting here by slamming on the brakes. He said that she never looked his way and as she rode along the bike path he slowed and blasted his horn at her. She seemed to be oblivious to what had happened.

    The Orange Line drivers tend to go rather slow through most of the intersections as they will sometimes have skateboarders, people walking or riding a bike cross the busway on a red light. Along with drivers that cross the busway on a red light.

  • Sahra

    I think it is rather unfair to charge the ambassador with having a “car-ist” perspective. His perspective was that of someone who stands at an intersection day in and day out, tallying up the violations (of all–not just cyclists) he sees in the interest of bettering the intersection’s safety infrastructure for all who use it. Instead, I think the question you are getting at is what is meant by “safety concern.” Cars and bikes pose different kinds of safety threats–that is very clear and I think few would dispute that. But that doesn’t mean that cyclists’ violation of traffic rules are not noteworthy, of concern, or of consequence for everyone on the road. That’s the only point that was being made…he was not taking an anti-cyclist stance nor was I.

  • I agree with Sahra on this one.  I didn’t read the article and think the guy had an anti-cyclist bias of any sort


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