Santa Cruz Metro buses
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Opinion from Community Voices

Metro’s harassment safeguards, Santa Cruz’s ‘creep problem’ and the need for outreach: A veteran bus driver’s view

Rhiannon Axton, who has been driving buses for Santa Cruz Metro since 2005, responds to a recent op-ed by a Lookout intern about harassment on her commute from Watsonville to Santa Cruz. Axton outlines the safeguards Metro has in place to protect riders, says she’s had plenty of experience with the county’s “creep problem” and laments missed opportunities.

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I read the entire article written by the 16-year-old, Izzy, who was harassed at the Santa Cruz Metro transit center. The article is obviously written by a young person without any guidance from a mentor at Lookout. The headline is completely misleading and inflammatory, given that she specifies it happened at the transit center with no one else around and no witnesses, and did not actually happen on a bus.

I have no doubt a creep came up to her and said gross things to her. It’s personally happened to me numerous times throughout my 17-year tenure as a Metro bus driver. I don’t want to minimize her experience, and I know how difficult the experience is to deal with, but Izzy needs to be taught “See something, say something” and that no one can help her if they don’t know she needs help. When the adults in her life were made aware of her experience, why didn’t anyone give her guidance on how to seek help when she needs it?

Metro has a lot of safeguards in place to protect passengers. Drivers and security guards have constant access to a radio system, which connects all the buses, supervisors, dispatch and security. If a call is made requesting assistance, everyone hears it. Metro has at least one supervisor on the road at all times as well as a mobile security guard who can respond to situations when they arise.

There are security guards on duty 24 hours per day at transit centers, and there are cameras on the buses and at transit centers. Drivers are trained to keep an eye on people who “look suspicious” and on young/all people who seem upset. They will intervene if it appears necessary or if someone (even a third-party witness) reports something. As a public transit agency in Santa Cruz, there are a lot of upset or agitated people who ride the bus on a regular basis, so a driver will not always take the initiative to offer assistance. Many people get more upset/agitated if the driver initiates an interaction, which can escalate into a worse situation. In most cases, it’s more calm and safer for everyone if the driver watches and waits for indication that intervention is needed.

A Santa Cruz Metro bus bound for Watsonville
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The teenage author said she boarded the bus upset and in tears, and in all honesty, teary/agitated/upset teenagers board the bus regularly and almost never want the bus driver to acknowledge it. It’s not abnormal for a driver to not engage with the teen regarding the underlying reason for the tears (usually attributed to school, friend drama or dating). I have no doubt that Izzy’s driver recognized her mental state as she boarded the bus, and then kept watch on her throughout her trip. If she were exhibiting obvious trauma response behavior, the driver would have immediately intervened.

If Izzy had said something to a security guard or to a driver, she would have been asked if she needed medical assistance and if she would like police to come (both of those would have been a radio call to dispatch). If she had reported it to a driver, the driver would have radio-called for security to try to make contact with the aggressor if he was still on the property. If she had reported it to the security guard, after trying to make contact with the aggressor, the guard would have waited with her at the Metro center until she could safely board the bus where she would be under the supervision of the bus driver. The guard would have communicated with dispatch regarding the situation, as well as with the driver of whichever bus she was going to ride. It’s literally never been more safe to ride a bus in Santa Cruz County than it is now.

The creep problem is actually a Santa Cruz County problem, not a Metro problem. Lookout had the chance to do a really in-depth article about how bad Santa Cruz has gotten with the creep/homeless/transient/addicted/etc. population, but instead allowed Izzy to trivialize her own experience and put the blame where it doesn’t belong. She villainized public transportation when her experience didn’t even happen inside a bus. Additionally, this article was a golden opportunity for Izzy to use her voice to encourage young people to ask for what they need, especially to feel safe while they are out in the world on their own.

I personally think more outreach needs to be done to help young people (and their parents) feel and be safer on the bus. It’s obvious that the community isn’t aware of all of the background safeguards Metro has in place and how easy it is to get help when help is needed. Decades ago, Metro would send buses and drivers to schools to introduce youth to the bus system, how to ride the bus, how to ask for help, where the bus goes, etc. That program went by the wayside due to lack of funding. Perhaps community leaders, media and Metro could collaborate on outreach and on a travel training program for young people in the community. Our children are our future and they deserve better.

Rhiannon Axton grew up in the Santa Cruz Mountains and started driving buses for Santa Cruz Metro in 2005. Throughout her career at Metro, she experienced harassment by creeps almost daily. She’s writing her own book about the experiences she’s had while being a bus driver for Santa Cruz Metro.