By Frank Gruber, February 4, 2016
Last week the Los Angeles Times ran a story,
by Laura Nelson and Dan Weikel, about how transit ridership has
declined in Southern California at the same time that large investments
have been made in public transit, mostly in the rail system. The article
led with the fact that Metro’s boardings declined 10 percent between
2006 and 2015, notwithstanding billions of dollars of capital
expenditures, and that Metro had also experienced long-term declines in
ridership, going back to when L.A. transit ridership peaked in 1985.
Then the Times ran something of a counter piece, an op-ed by Ethan Elkind,
a researcher and writer on environmental law and policy. Elkind
explained some of the reasons for the recent decline in ridership,
argued that the long-term decline is not as bad as the article made it
seem because of the starting date the authors chose to compare to (more
on that below), and why the future should not be so bleak for transit in
the region, once the rail lines and extensions those billions are
paying for have opened.
Then, today, there were four letters in the Times responding to Elkind.
Transportation issues are complex, involving at the micro level
decisions that individuals make balancing myriad tiny factors and at the
macro level decisions that governments make balancing massive public
and private interests. To me, the Times story and the response
to it illustrate how people can ignore this complexity at the same time
that they fail to make obvious connections.
To begin with, the original article has contradictions. Its main
point is that recent investments haven’t had a positive impact on
ridership, but the article itself includes a chart that shows that since
1995 Metro ridership has increased from 362 million boardings per year
to 453 million, an increase of 25 percent. When did the Blue Line,
L.A.’s first new rail line, open? In 1990. When did the Red Line subway
open? 1993. Green Line? 1995. Gold Line? 2003. What do you know, but
there’s a correlation between when L.A. began investing in a modern rail
system and when ridership
began to increase.
The Times’ chart. © 2016 Los Angeles Times
What about the 10 percent decline since 2006? Well, the article
answers that question, but you have to dig. Nelson and Weikel recount
the history that after a settlement with the Bus Riders Union in the
1990s Metro added more than one million hours of bus service; as a
result, ridership soared, reaching 492 million boardings in 2006 (very
nearly the 1985 peak). Then what happened? Well, it’s right there in the
article: the Great Recession hit, ridership which had been rapidly
increasing leveled off, and then between 2009 and 2011 Metro reduced bus
service by 900,000 hours. Hardly a shock, but there will be a
correlation between reducing service and losing riders.
There are, of course, many factors that affect decisions that people
make about how to travel. In the 30 years since the 1985 peak in
ridership, many of the jobs that people once took transit to were moved
outside of the region’s inner, transit-served core to places like
Lancaster and the inland Empire (or, in the case of the garment
industry, to Asia). Immigrants, who, as the article points out, use
transit more frequently than non-immigrants, followed those jobs into
sprawl-ville. We also have fewer immigrants now than in 1985. Given
these trends, both demographic and geographic, it’s remarkable that
Metro has about the same ridership today that it had 30 years ago (and
don’t forget that 25% increase since 1995).
Reading the letters in today’s Times about the ridership
issue illustrates that no matter how complex a problem is you can always
try to reduce it to something you can express in a letter to the
The first letter is from Santa Monica’s own Bruce Feldman, who
presents himself as the classic Everyman, with “common sense,” in
contrast to “scholars like Ethan N. Elkind.” To Feldman, it’s clear:
Southern Californians “want real world steps that can be put into place
quickly.” He says that we should dramatically lower the cost of public
transportation, create more bus lanes and run buses every three to five
minutes to make transportation “even more convenient than cars.” “That’s
just common sense,” he says.
Hey, I agree. But does Feldman believe that anyone could accomplish those things quickly?
I mean, does he know, for instance, how many years it took to wrestle
the new bus lanes on Wilshire away from those Southern Californians of
his who drive cars? Does he known anything about the politics (and
federal financing) of fares? Does he know what buses cost?
Common sense is great, but does Feldman believe that he’s the first to think up this stuff?
Feldman concludes his letter with classic Amur’can
anti-intellectualism, saying that he’s “sure academics will have plenty
of theoretical reasons why I’m wrong.” I don’t think so! I
mean, I read a fair amount of academic literature in this field and I’ve
never read anything saying that lowering fares, increasing frequency,
and speeding up buses would not attract more riders. The problems are
not theoretical; they’re practical and political.
The second letter, wouldn’t you know it, comes from an academic, but
one who agrees with Feldman. (This only goes to show that if you’re
going to attack intellectuals be careful, because there’s going to be at
least one whose pointy-head points the way you want it to point.) The
letter, naturally, is from USC professor James E. Moore II, who has led a
personal crusade for many years against building rail in L.A. As Times
reporters often do, Nelson and Weikel quote Moore in their article,
this time to the effect that Metro has been driving ridership down by
spending on rail. (Maybe I mentioned this already, but since Metro began
opening new rail lines, ridership is up 25 percent.)
Moore’s point in today’s letter is that if you lower fares, you
increase ridership more effectively than by using the money to build
rail. Although everyone likes low transit fares, particularly for poor
people, around the world the cities that have the best and busiest
transit systems, including the best service for working-class and poor
people, are not cities where fares are cheap. And by the way, they
usually have lots of rail.
Time is money for everyone, especially for people without much money since they need every minute they have to make money.
If you treat your transportation system as an adjunct of the welfare
system, you’re not going to have a good transportation system serving
the people in the welfare system. (And nor will you have a system that
reduces traffic congestion by attracting the non-poor.)
Every few weeks during the academic year I take the Metro 534 bus
from downtown Santa Monica to Culver City, where I catch the Expo train
to meet my wife at USC (where she teaches). We do this so that we can
get some dinner and then hear a concert at Disney Hall or the Music
Center. Mind you, my wife has her car at USC and we drive back, but we
never regularly went to weeknight concerts before the Expo line opened,
because for me to get or USC or downtown L.A. on the freeway would be a
nightmare. I get on that 534 bus around 4:30 p.m. and it’s always
packed, usually standing room only, full of workers coming home from
jobs in Malibu and Pacific Palisades. We get on the freeway, and it
usually takes 50, 55 or even 60 minutes to get to the train in Culver,
where most of us passengers disembark.
When the train opens in Santa Monica in May, those passengers, our
transit-riding heroes, will be able to exit the bus and get on the train
here in Santa Monica, and a trip that now takes almost an hour to
Culver City will take 15 minutes, saving them up to 45 minutes in each
And the ride will be smooth.
Thanks for reading.