The Los Angeles Times‘ front page Wednesday declared, provocatively, that despite the billions of dollars invested into Southern California mass-transit, fewer people are using the system than were in the 1980s.
The piece touched off a firestorm of conjecture asking why this might be the case, and whether or not we should continue collectively pouring billions into a transit system people seem to be leaving. This is not a new issue. L.A. Weekly covered the issue briefly last October, with similar conclusions as the L.A. Times piece yesterday.
But the Times’ piece did spur advocates of Los Angeles’ transit ecosystem to rise to the defense of public transit, explain why there might be a decline and point out faults with the Times’ reporting.
What the Times Missed
Ethan Elkind, a faculty member at UCLA Law School and author of the seminal transit history of Los Angeles Railtown, argues that the Times’ reporting amounts to climate-change deniers who pick an artificially warm year in the 1990s as evidence of the phenomena’s absence. By picking a year in the mid-80s as a high-water mark, the Times headline could alternatively have read “Metro Ridership up nearly 30% in past 20 years.”
Elkind continues, arguing that the Times; claim that “billions have been spent” misses the point:
In addition, the article is a bit unfair to Metro in citing the billions of dollars that have been invested in rail during this period of declining ridership. Sure, since 2006 the region has been spending a lot of money on rail, but those investments have not yet resulted in actual, open rail lines. Since that year, only the East Side Gold Line and half of the Expo Line (to Culver City) have opened.
Projects funded by these “billions” that have not opened yet include the Expo Line extension to Santa Monica, the Gold Line extension to Azuza, the Purple Line extension to Westwood, the Downtown L.A. Regional Connector (connecting the Expo/Blue Lines to the Gold Line), and the Crenshaw Line which bridges the gap between the Expo Line and LAX.
Steve Hymon, editor of Metro’s blog entitled The Source, made the case that decreased transit ridership is an indication that, more so than ever before, we need to be investing in a robust transportation system that isn’t car-centered.
Hymon takes serious issue with a quote from the Times’ piece from James Moore, a USC professor who was quoted as saying “it’s the dream of every bus rider to own a car. And as soon as they can afford one, that’s the first purchase they’ll make.”
For Hymon, and undoubtedly several others, this signals nostalgia for a bygone era when cars ruled supreme. Cars still lord over Los Angeles, but saying everyone on the bus dreams of purchasing a car and parking on the 10 Freeway for an hour-and-a-half each day is, shall we say, unwise.
Hymon hammers his point home, underscoring how dangerous Moore’s claim is. “You think traffic stinks now?” he writes. “How do you think traffic would be with even a small fraction of Metro’s 453 million boardings behind the wheel of a car on your local freeway/arterial/residential street? 😩”
The dream of Angelenos has nothing to do with cars or buses, bikes or trains. Angelenos, just like people in other cities, dream of being able to get from point A to point B with minimal inconvenience. Whether this is in a buses with their own dedicated lanes, or in computer controlled cars smart enough to make traffic a thing of the past, we aren’t picky. Pledging allegiance to cars or transit as superior naively ignores that the future will depend on both.
So why the recent decrease?
L.A.’s transit history is complicated and contradictory. Ridership peaked in the mid-1980s when the then-Rapid Transit District Agency operated a network exclusively composed of buses. A decade of price increases and service cuts caused a decline in ridership until 1996, when the Bus Riders Union successfully litigated Metro in a civil rights lawsuit. A federal court decreed the agency halt fare increases and dramatically increase bus service.
As the Times points out, transit ridership following the court decision increased until it began falling again in the mid-2010s. This new decline can at once be explained by Metro’s recent fare increases, service cuts to several heavily-used bus lines, an improving economy, cheaper gasoline, and ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.
Yet these explanations fall short of describing any substantive trend away from transit ridership. Each one on its own undoubtedly has some effect on the overall numbers, but to make a significant dent in 500 million annual boardings demands a better explanation. The decline is somewhat of a paradox since Los Angeles’ interior is increasingly better connected by transit than ever before.
Could gentrification be to blame?
One condition that the Times didn’t particularly pay attention to is the demographics of most transit riders themselves. There is no data readily available on this issue, but it might be worth investigating how rising rent prices affect transportation habits.
The average household income of a typical L.A. bus rider is less than $17,000 annually, according to a 2014 survey by Metro. People who live in households making less than $17,000 annually don’t take Uber. They ride transit because it is the only option they can afford. Given that income inequality is increasing in Los Angeles, it’s not likely that the working class suddenly became affluent and can now afford to drive instead of taking the bus.
Could gentrification be the culprit? Over the past few decades, working class families have been getting priced out of neighborhoods like Silver Lake, Hollywood, Venice, Palms, East Hollywood, University Park, North Hollywood and Highland Park. Taking public transportation to work within Los Angeles proper might be doable from these neighborhoods, and owning a car seems like a luxury. But as this class get priced out to far-flung parts of the city, like Pacoima, or suburbs like Cudahy, public transportation becomes increasingly impractical. A worker not only won’t want to sit on a bus for four hours a day, it might be impossible if they need to get to a second or third job to pay the bills. The car, while previously an expensive luxury, has become a necessity in this case.
The pace of gentrification shows no signs of stopping. Los Angeles needs more housing and most of the housing being built is hardly accessible to the demographics who ride transit; much of this housing actually often displaces them.
More research is needed on this issue. Without serious attention to who actually rides transit—and for what reason—the city’s push for building dense housing and making public transportation service more regular may not solve L.A.’s impending gridlock.