Putting the Brookings Report Into Context

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.