Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Thoughts on the Los Angeles Times' recent article on declining transit ridership

*Apologies for the delay. I was writing an article on great places to imbibe in West Hollywood for The Culture Trip last week, which should be available on that site within the next few days.

*Eleven days ago, Los Angeles Times ran an eye-grabbing headline on how transit ridership has declined in Los Angeles over the past few years, despite the "billions" spent on the system's expansion.

To me, the decline in metro ridership is far from being "news." I saw the grim statistics last June, when I analyzed Metro ridership figures over the past two years as part of a project at my internship.

The LA Weekly, following closely on my heels, caught on in October.

Not only is the Times late to the story but its piece rehashes the narrative of the Bus Riders Union and libertarian transit skeptics, that all that goddamn light-rail construction is bleeding Metro's bus system.

Early on, the article quotes long-time transit skeptic, highway fanatic and USC engineering professor James Moore.

"It's a bit perverse," said USC engineering professor James E. Moore II, who has been a critic of rail transit. "You're spending all this money and you're driving ridership down. If you're investing heavily in transit, you'd hope ridership would increase."
Further down, after briefly discussing Metro's long-term plans, the Staff writers double down on rail on behalf of buses.
Although buses account for about 75% of Metro's ridership, rail operations and construction receive more money than buses do from Measure R, the county's most recent half-cent sales tax to fund transportation projects.
Yada Yada yada. So 1990s.

At least at the very end of the article, the writers seek out the opinion of an actual former Metro rider, who had something different to say.
Suzan Mikiel moved from New York five years ago to Los Feliz, which has a Red Line subway stop. She took transit for four years as she auditioned for acting roles and worked temporary jobs as a caterer, a photographer and a writer's assistant.
Transit offered a chance to relax, people-watch or take photos during the day, she said. But at night, trying to get home was sometimes "horrible, if not impossible."
Mikiel occasionally found herself stranded in unfamiliar neighborhoods late at night. On less-traveled routes, connecting to another bus could take an hour. Finally, after being robbed near the Culver City Expo Line station, she bought a car.
"Driving has really opened up my experiences in L.A.," Mikiel said. "I love my car. I'm keeping it."


For Mikiel, like most actual transit users, the issue at stake is not bus vs. train (we use both you know) but safety and frequency.

Declining transit ridership does not demand a rollback of funds for Metro's rail expansion, so much as that these funds be spent more effectively,

This includes prioritizing expansion based on ridership and street design rather than on politics, and upzoning around new rail lines for requisite density of population of jobs.

Improving bus frequency is also important: LA's new Mobility Plan includes almost 300 miles of "transit-enhanced" streets, featuring bus lanes (both peak and all-day) and signaling changes intend to improve speed along major bus routes. Those who see bus lanes as an easy fix, though, should beware that they are subject to the same NIMBY obstructivism as rail.

Finally, improving the security and comfort on metro's system is important. As one commenter, in this streetsblog article noted, there is no permanent police presence at any of metro's stations or bus nodes, creating for an eerie feel at evening off-peak hours. Many bus stops, moreover, are either poorly located (the eastbound stop at La Cienaga and Beverly is in front of a strip parking lot), neglected in upkeep (e.g. the one I transfer to at Santa Monica and Vermont) or both. The Mobility Plan's Transit-enhanced network aims to improve the quality and comfort of bus stops, should it succeed.

Regardless, the answer to declining ridership is not for Los Angeles to shy away from transit but to better address transit's shortcomings, so that the vast majority will no longer have to fight their way through traffic and spew emissions in order to travel a meaningful distance from their homes. 

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