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