Putting the Brookings Report Into Context

Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/mmewuji/219732072/##Fire Monkey Fish/Flickr##

Last week, the Brookings Institute, one of Washington’s oldest think tanks released, Transit Access and Zero Vehicle Households, a report that looked at transit access for the country’s most dependent populations and ranked each major American metropolitan area on how well they provided bus service to this population.

Los Angeles ranked second in terms of providing access to car free households.  99.1% of car-free Angelenos live in a neighborhood with some access to transit, a higher percentage than New York, San Francisco or any American city east of Honolulu.

This announcement led to some pretty heady headlines such as Los Angeles Tops List of Cities For Carless Residents in LAist, Los Angeles Public Transit Access Top Among Major Metropolitan Areas, Besting Even New York in the Huffington Post, and Car-loving L.A. may actually be a public-transit paradise in the Los Angeles Times.

Sounds great, the only problem is that the Brookings Report doesn’t actually say any of those things.  There’s a reason Saturday’s Bus Riders Union event wasn’t a victory party.  What the report does say is that L.A.’s transit system has service in a lot of different residential communities, more than every major city outside Hawaii.  Here are other important notes from the study.

  • In the greater Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana car-free residents only have access to 34% of the jobs within a ninety minute transit ride.  In other words, the bus may come, but it doesn’t provide access to the major job centers in a quick and reasonable way.  That’s good for being ranked fifty third amongst the top 100 metro areas, settled snugly between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, both in Pennsylvania.
  • The study looks at only number of routes, not service levels, when deciding whether a community is served by transit.  In other words, someone living within walking distance of Union Station and someone living near a Big Blue Bus stop that comes once an hour would both be considered “served” by transit in their community in this report.
  • The report is based on data from 2008.  While that’s not long enough ago to call the entire report into question, L.A. Metro has seen some pretty severe service cuts since 2008.  The Bus Riders Union estimates that 12% of the bus service hours have been cut in the past couple of years.  That has to impact the number of communities that are served by transit.
  • One major conclusion of the report is that transit agencies need to do a better job providing service to the emerging job centers in America’s exhurbs (think the Westside or Valley), suburbs, or wherever jobs are concentrated.  Given L.A.’s rather poor ranking in providing that service, it’s clear that there’s still a lot of work to do in the City of Angels.

None of this is to say that the report doesn’t have value.  It does.  That there are 700,000 car-free families without access to transit is a disaster, and Brookings rightly calls America out for that lack.  But by looking at selected data to paint an overly cheery picture of Los Angeles’ transit circumstances doesn’t do anyone any favors, and could indeed to quite the opposite.

  • Although I won’t go as far out into Metro propaganda as The Source did, the BRU doesn’t recognize that LA has comparably good coverage for transit, primarily because of its street grid system. Try running bus routes in Atlanta or even the outer reaches of New York and you can see what I mean. In LA County, over 90% of population has a bus route within a half mile radius, and that is almost the case in the surrounding counties (Riverside and Ventura tend to lag because of the windy streets).

     Now The Source talking about “24% of households with vehicles get to work in less than 90 minutes” is garbage, since the average commute time is 28.3 minutes (American Community Survey, 2005-2009). The universe of jobs for someone with only access to transit is going to be smaller, but because of a grid based roadway system, and grid based transit, this increases accessibility. Other Western and Midwestern cities on the grid, like Las Vegas, Tucson, Salt Lake City, and San Jose do well, while the Eastern and Southern cities with a) dendritic street systems like Atlanta, Greenville, Virginia Beach, do poorly, as well as b) metro areas with no large transit provider or abilities for cities to opt out (i.e. all Texas cities, since they have to opt in to transit and charge the appropriate sales tax on a city basis). 

    MTA has been careful to not remove coverage area since about 2006, when the big service cuts in the suburbs occurred. They have removed span, frequency, and days of service on many lines since 2008, but the big push to run peak hour only on the suburban lines happened around 2006 or 2007. The BRU’s freeway flyer experiment has failed when you look at lines like the 426 and 577X. I would argue to run more suburban services through contracting to private providers, which allows for lower viability required to keep a service, but the BRU also defends the labor unions and opposes contracting out to smaller operators or using smaller buses on outlying routes. For example, Foothill Transit runs a lot more service to its community, much of it underutilized. A bus getting 20 passengers per hour is about average for Foothill but on the short list for cancellation on MTA.

  • Although I won’t go as far out into Metro propaganda as The Source did, the BRU doesn’t recognize that LA has comparably good coverage for transit, primarily because of its street grid system. Try running bus routes in Atlanta or even the outer reaches of New York and you can see what I mean. In LA County, over 90% of population has a bus route within a half mile radius, and that is almost the case in the surrounding counties (Riverside and Ventura tend to lag because of the windy streets).

     Now The Source talking about “24% of households with vehicles get to work in less than 90 minutes” is garbage, since the average commute time is 28.3 minutes (American Community Survey, 2005-2009). The universe of jobs for someone with only access to transit is going to be smaller, but because of a grid based roadway system, and grid based transit, this increases accessibility. Other Western and Midwestern cities on the grid, like Las Vegas, Tucson, Salt Lake City, and San Jose do well, while the Eastern and Southern cities with a) dendritic street systems like Atlanta, Greenville, Virginia Beach, do poorly, as well as b) metro areas with no large transit provider or abilities for cities to opt out (i.e. all Texas cities, since they have to opt in to transit and charge the appropriate sales tax on a city basis). 

    MTA has been careful to not remove coverage area since about 2006, when the big service cuts in the suburbs occurred. They have removed span, frequency, and days of service on many lines since 2008, but the big push to run peak hour only on the suburban lines happened around 2006 or 2007. The BRU’s freeway flyer experiment has failed when you look at lines like the 426 and 577X. I would argue to run more suburban services through contracting to private providers, which allows for lower viability required to keep a service, but the BRU also defends the labor unions and opposes contracting out to smaller operators or using smaller buses on outlying routes. For example, Foothill Transit runs a lot more service to its community, much of it underutilized. A bus getting 20 passengers per hour is about average for Foothill but on the short list for cancellation on MTA.

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