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.

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