What Factors Are Causing Metro’s Declining Ridership? What Next?

The Los Angeles Times graph of Metro ridership over the past 30 years

The Los Angeles Times graph of Metro ridership over the past 30 years

In my circles, there has been a lot of discussion swirling around Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times article, Billions spent, but fewer people are using public transportation in Southern California, by Laura Nelson and Dan Weikel.

The Times’ authors cast a disparaging light on recent downturns in ridership: “Despite a $9-billion investment in new light rail and subway lines, Metro now has fewer boardings than it did three decades ago, when buses were the county’s only transit option.” The article further asserts a number of causes for declining ridership including “a changing job market, falling gas prices, fare increases, declining immigration and the growing popularity of other transportation options, including bicycling and ride-hailing companies” and also immigration patterns and new drivers licenses for the undocumented.

The internet has already responded to the Times:

  • Steve Hymon at Metro’s The Source, responds citing national trends and touting transit’s promising future, though Hymon ultimately concludes that Metro can do better.
  • KCRW’s Which Way L.A.? hosted a discussion with Loren Kaye, Denny Zane, and Brian Taylor. Taylor blames a lack of agreement on policy goals that results in a “distorted” system that favors cheap car travel.
  • Railtown author Ethan Elkind notes that the Times graphic misleadingly emphasizes Metro’s 1985 peak ridership.
  • Jarrett Walker criticizes the Times for identifying an “accelerating” trend out of what is actually “very noisy” but largely flat ridership data. Walker emphasizes that the current one-year decline in ridership is not a “trend” yet; labeling it one is presumptuous.
  • Matt Tinoco at LAist echoes Elkind and Hymon and questions the role of changing demographics, including gentrification in L.A.’s core.
  • Eric Jaffe at CityLab points to new research that disputes the article’s claim, made by transit critic James E Moore that, “It’s the dream of every bus rider to own a car.”

At yesterday’s Metro board meeting, CEO Phil Washington asserted that transit ridership is cyclical and that L.A.’s decline is in line with national trends. He also stated that he would be responding via a planned Times guest editorial.

There are a lot of keystrokes already stricken on this, but, nonetheless, I’d like to weigh in with some ideas and some questions, and to further hear from SBLA readers on what you think. Like the Times list, I don’t think that there is one smoking gun cause, but plenty of interacting and overlapping factors that influence ridership.

Decades of government capital spending favor cars. Graph via Frontier Group

Decades of government capital spending favor cars. Graph via Frontier Group

Overall Investment – Transit vs. Cars

My first thought upon reading the article was to blame declining ridership on a disparity of investment between transit infrastructure and car infrastructure. The U.S., California, and Los Angeles continue a long pattern of spending huge budgets to support driving, and not so much for transit. Governmental regulations, including parking requirements, also require massive private investment to serve cars, with little to no provisions for transit. Collectively, we pay people to drive, and so people drive a lot.

I am skeptical that even Measure R’s significant transit investments will move L.A. County toward a greater transit share because Measure R also provides billions of dollars for highway and road expansion.

Yonah Freemark touches on these disparities in his study showing that light rail investment did not increase transit mode share. Freemark concludes:

But spending on new lines is not enough. Increases in transit use are only possible when the low costs of driving and parking are addressed, and when government and private partners work together to develop more densely near transit stations. None of the cities that built new light rail lines in the 1980s understood this reality sufficiently. Each region also built free highways during the period … These conflicting policies had as much to do with light rail’s mediocre outcomes as the trains themselves — if not more.

Compared to steep bus ridership declines in neighboring Orange County, Metro’s success in keeping ridership declines minimal can be seen as a success story. Metro was able to stave off more severe service cuts and greater fare increases due to Measure R. This brings to mind the futility in the Red Queen’s statement to Alice in Wonderland: “Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Metro is expanding rail transit (and highways) as fast as it can, but its bus service remains largely unchanged, and therefore declines as public subsidies prioritize other modes.

Too Soon To Judge Measure R

The Times article does review earlier events, but the article names and critiques Measure R (2008) and a future R2.1 which is expected to go before voters in November, 2016. It is possible to be critical of Metro’s priorities, but probably not Measure R itself. At least not yet. There is a long lag time for massive capital projects, so the rail that Measure R is building is just not done yet. The first Measure R-funded rail line will open in March, and the second opens in May.

Metro has been operating under earlier sales tax measures – Prop C (1990) and Prop A (1980). There is a longer-term case to be made that when Metro focuses on rail building (since the mid-1980s) that other modes suffer, more on this below.

Buses Matter – Fares and Service

The unacknowledged elephant in the room is Metro bus service. The Times notes correctly that 75 percent of Metro’s ridership is on the bus. Overall transit ridership has been largely flat since Metro began building rail in the 1980s, despite three successful tax measures. The Bus Riders Union and others have shown that huge capital projects tend to divert Metro resources away from their core bus service. The Times acknowledges this in this quote from Brian Taylor:

“There’s been lots of focus by transit agencies on shiny new things, sometimes at the expense of bus routes which serve the primary constituencies of transit agencies: low-wage workers,” said Brian Taylor, the director of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies. “Lots of resources are being put into a few high-profile lines that often carry a smaller number of riders compared to bus routes.”

Since at least 2008, when Measure R passed, the push to expand Metro rail has meant bus service has been flat, slightly declining through twice-yearly “service adjustments” and declining slightly in proportion to population growth. Especially since 2008, Metro’s top priority has been an accelerated rail construction schedule. This has, as I say, sucked the air out of the room. Bus service has declined slightly since 2008 (with no new rail mileage yet), resulting in a corresponding slight decline in ridership.

If Metro is not going to expand its bus service (I wish it would, but that will take political will), then it will need to run bus service as efficiently and effectively as possible. Public transit expert Jarrett Walker stresses the importance of running a frequent service network, which will “serve more people without more money.” This is exactly what Metro is planning to do this June, with its Strategic Bus Network Plan. There are a lot of details still to be finalized, but that should be a small positive step forward for bus ridership.

Another huge bus ridership factor is fares. Metro’s peak ridership periods correspond to periods of low fares. The last year of declines is in part attributable to September 2014 fare increases.

If Metro’s goal is solely to expand ridership (and it isn’t) then Metro needs to go back to basics and pay as much attention to its core bus service as it does to its “shiny new” rail service. It is not possible to lower fares and greatly increase service, but if the agency is prudent fiscally, it can and should incrementally grow its bus service, keep fares as low as possible, and reap increased ridership.

Gas Prices

Metro’s budget analysis showed very little correlation with gas prices. Other analysis finds a greater correlation. With gas prices currently in unusually strong decline, this previously weak factor is likely helping pull ridership downward, too.

The Future of Metro Ridership

In the longer term, Metro ridership is fairly flat; for about a year and half, it has declined. Ridership is influenced by a host of factors. Some of these are outside Metro’s control, including gas prices and national transportation funding. Some of these are controlled by Metro, including fares and service.

To improve ridership, leadership needs to come from the top: Metro’s board of directors and its CEO. Phil Washington makes a very promising statement in the Times article, telling the reporters,

Metro’s goal is to convert 20% to 25% of the county’s population into regular transit riders.

Unfortunately, according to Census data (specifically, American Community Survey data), L.A. County transit commute share hovers just above 7 percent. Metro should be setting mode share goals (what percent of transit riders do we want?), reporting on them, and tailoring investments to realize goals. This is difficult to change abruptly, with lots of road funding embedded in Measure R, but the agency does have discretionary funds, and can and should shape the next sales tax measure with Washington’s stated goal in mind.

What do you think, readers? What’s causing Metro’s ridership decline and what should Metro be doing to increase ridership?