Friday, July 24, 2015

Why don't more people in Beverly Grove ride the 14 bus?

Every day, when I board the 14 bus at Doheny, I take the seat, spread my legs out and lean back.

I've got lots of space..too much

Not until I get to Normandie do I feel a need to scootch over towards the window to make room.

That ridership should be so low on the 14 west of Koreatown, may surprise the conventional student of planning. Not only does the bus pass through West Hollywood and Beverly Grove-two of the densest neighborhoods in the Greater LA area (Don't take my word. Take the LA Times: but the route skirts regional retail and dining destinations such as the Grove, Farmer's Market and Beverly Center, connecting these with Downtown LA (on one end) and Downtown Beverly Hills (and the Wilshire Rapid Bus) on the other end.

Moreover, driving in the Beverly Grove neighborhood and other westerly neighborhoods serviced by the 14 is extremely difficult. The arterials and side streets in these neighborhoods are heavily congested for much of the day, owing to narrow streets (no east-west thoroughfares from the Hollywood Hills are wider than Avenue I), the lack of freeways (traffic heading west from the 101 gets diverted onto Melrose or Santa Monica) and the high-density of jobs and housing not only along the bus's route but in the area nearby. Draconian parking restrictions on side streets, particularly in the Beverly Grove area, make parking (that is not pricy) hard to come by.

The buses themselves are relatively clean and very efficient. What could be going wrong??

I think that one of the most difficult challenges for ridership on the 14 bus, as for bus ridership in the affluent "westside" of the city in general, is the perception that the bus is a mode of travel designed exclusively for people of a lower social strata.

Having grown up in this milieu, I myself never conceived of the bus as a viable form of transit until I went off to college.

Even though I was raised in the dense and congested neighborhoods of Miracle Mile, Pico-Robertson and Beverly Grove, neighborhoods where driving is difficult and bus service is frequent, my mother only spoke of the bus in occasional reference to the cleaning lady ("she was delayed because of her bus"). Remarks about the bus being "dirty" or "dangerous" could also be heard.

If Metro wants to get more Angelenos in Western and Central LA to ride its buses, it will need to make advertise them as much as it does walking or biking or rail. (and in a matter that is classy rather than cheesy)

Another issue with ridership may have to do with the direction I travel in. I have noticed that buses traveling in the opposite direction (i.e. west towards Beverly Hills in the morning and east towards downtown in the evening) tend to be more crowded.

This is ironic, considering that my commute follows the traditional commute pattern. But it makes sense in light of the fact that though Downtown may be a prominent jobs center, it is still one of many in Los Angeles.

The most prominent and significant jobs centers, indeed, extend to the west of Downtown along the Wilshire Corridor. In the Beverly Grove area, CBS Studios, the Grove and Beverly Center and the West Hollywood design districts are major hubs.

Despite the fact that commuting is as common (if not more so) away from the downtown as it is going to downtown, Los Angeles' Metro Bus system continues to be most directly centered around downtown.

The situation on the Beverly Bus reveals that Metro may be smartest tailoring bus frequency and service not based on the direction from downtown so much as the direction in which ridership flows. A system that is more polycentric, integrating the many job centers along the wilshire corridor and in the rest of the LA area with one another as tightly with downtown is needed more than anything.

And that means not cutting, for instance, the only direct north-south link between the Wilshire Corridor and Culver City.

Poorly-maintained sidewalks and free parking in most apartment complexes may also be issues as well. Nevertheless, I still see many people in my area walk to destinations nearby (or to get to their cars). In Beverly Grove and Fairfax, the sparse parking alloted by many duplexes already incentivizes residents to park their cars on the streeet.

In the case of the 14 bus (and the numerous routes like it), transit planners seeking to increase ridership need to go beyond the typical analyses of density, design and parking and examine the broader social and geographical structures.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Frequent service expansion: a victory for bus transit??

In a blog posting from last week, Jarret Walker drops the bomb on Metro's drafting of a new "Transit Service Policy," which seeks to streamline its operations by increasing the number of bus routes with frequent service while cutting off poorly performing routes.

In addition (to Walker's apparent delight), the new program will seek to raise the peak hour loading limit, allowing for fewer buses to serve more people.

Being as concerned as ever with the state of bus use in Los Angeles, I took a look at the maps Jarret had attached.

In the "core" of the city (i.e. the "Wilshire/Santa Monica Corridor"), where I live, almost all the transit service frequency will largely reflect the status quo, with frequent transit service being added on only one corridor San Vicente Blvd. (a much needed development, I should add).

Most of the "new" frequent service lines will be on corridors in more peripheral regions of the city such as along Laurel Canyon Blvd in the San Fernando Valley, Rosemead/Lakewood Blvd from Pasadena to around Lakewood (it was hard to tell from the map), Sepulveda/Pacific Coast Highway ( and Rosecrans Avenue from the South Bay to Norwalk.

It is understandable why the aforementioned arterials should obtain frequent service as they are major corridors that provide important links (e.g. Gateway Cities to Pasadena, Norwalk to the South Bay) and also serve large transit-dependent populations.

But it strikes me as surprising that the city, in seeking to eliminate gaps in high-frequency service, will continue to truncate the Santa Monica Rapid Bus  4 miles from Downtown Santa Monica (and at a corner that offers few amenities ).

The 704 runs along one of LA's densest transportation corridors (in both jobs and residency) and serves many of the city's busiest neighborhoods, including West Hollywood, Century City and Downtown. The connection to Santa Monica is key because it provides both tourists and locals a straight shot to the beach and job-seekers with access to a burgeoning jobs center (bolstered further by the recent growth of Silicon Beach). Moreover, terminating the line at Sepulveda Blvd (as Metro currently does) leaves passengers at a humdrum street corner marked by a few office buildings and an aged strip mall.

As Streetsblog's Alexander Friedman pointed out almost two years ago, the main destination for passengers on the route west of Century City is Santa Monica. By forcing passengers to transfer to a Big Blue Bus or wait for the more infrequent (every 40 mins on weekdays, every 20-25 minutes on weekends) buses continuing to the shoreline, Metro's cut not only made for more crowding on buses (BBB and Metro) coming from Santa Monica but encouraged those passengers who could to switch back to their cars.

This goes to show that "low demand" for a route may be as much a function of Metro providing poor service (e.g. low frequencies or dirty, crowded buses) as of some fixed, pre-existing demand.

This brings me to my second problem wiht the new service agenda, namely its inclusion of the 220 line along Robertson Blvd., from Beverly Hills south to Culver City, in the list of lines recommended to be cut.

With the Big Blue Bus also slated to cut its route along Robertson as part of its "Expo Integration Plan," Angelenos could be faced off the possibility of no (or very limited) bus service along Robertson Blvd.

At a time when the Expo Line is about to complete its course to Santa Monica, cutting off the only direct transit link between Beverly Hills (a major employment and entertainment hub)  and the light-rail line does not seem like a smart move. Culver City boasts its own significant share of jobs (e.g. Sony) and downtown Culver City has become a dining destination as well. Eliminating service on Robertson Blvd. (as if it's not limited enough) would compel those desiring to take transit in this direction go a mile or more out of their way to transfer the La Cienaga Bus and then transfer to the Expo Line to head another mile back (in the same direction) to Culver City.

I'm sure Metro (and possibly Walker) would justify the move by pointing to hard low ridership figures and noting the mostly low-density residential composition of the street south of Pico Blvd. Yet, though bordering the suburban single family-house mecca of Beverlywood on the western side, the tracts adjacent to Robertson Blvd. (from Pico to the freeway) are almost wholly multi-family units. To the east, lies a dense offshoot of Mid-City.

My past experiences riding the 14 bus on west Beverly Blvd suggest that the 220's low ridership (both its northern and southern ends) stems not from the neighborhood design but from negative attitudes towards the bus.

Middle-class Angelenos on the westside still tend to perceive buses as being dirty, dangerous and designed for people of a "different" social strata (and therefore "uncool").

Any person with a modicum of business sense knows that you do not sell a negatively-perceived product by making it more deficient.

By cutting services on arterials like Robertson Blvd.., Metro may save on costs in the short term but lose out on ridership in the long-run from the demographic that it needs to acquire.

By making the bus service even more unattractive to a skeptical middle class, Metro will encourage sustained growth in smog and congestion while perpetually limiting its share of revenues (given that the subway system will not reach a critical threshold in coverage outside of downtown any time soon).

Jarret Walker talks a good line when it comes to streamlining LA's bus system. But he and the folks at Metro should understand that Metro (which, along with other SoCal transit agencies, boasts a paltry 5.8 percent share of Commuter ridership in the LA area) needs growing rather than cutting.   

Low-performing lines that serve dense areas should be targeted for promotion and improvement (e.g. through better cleaning and use of plastic rather than fabric seating) not for scrapping.