Tom Rubin has been active in the Transportation scene for a long time, having worked in Metro, with the Bus Rider’s Union on its land mark lawsuit against Metro Fare Hikes, and now as a private consultant. For just as long he’s been arguing that bus, not rail, is the key to a successful urban transit system in the Greater Los Angeles Area.
Rubin took his presentation to tonight’s meeting of the Transit Coalition, an organization supporting many of the new and proposed rail lines across the city. At first I was worried I was going to listen to a lecture on how LA needs more highways, as his first couple of slides talked about LA area residents low VMT and limited highway network. However, he soon got to his main argument: Metro is wasting money by expanding its rail network at the cost of not expanding and improving bus service.
By looking at the raw numbers, Rubin showed that in the LA Region, the cost of subsidizing bus (per rider and per mile) is much lower than it is for light or heavy rail. He also showed that bus ridership grew the fastest in the 1980’s when Metro wasn’t spending any money on rail lines and had a 50 cent fare. As soon as Metro started shifting some resources towards rail the fares for bus rose and the total number of transit riders actually dropped for awhile. In 2006, Los Angeles still had fewer (although barely) transit users than it did in 1985.
Rubin also argued that the cost of rail is more expensive than is often presented. Because most rail riders are former bus riders, new rail lines aren’t creating new transit riders, they’re just moving pre-existing riders to more expensive (to the taxpayer, not the rider) services. If you look at the cost of subsidy for new riders, the numbers are pretty stark. The cost for a new bus rider is $1.40, and for rail its somewhere between $20 and $40 depending on which line is being discussed.
Of course, Rubin’s arguments are more complicated than I’m presenting here, but its worth thinking about as Metro continues to look at new rail routes. Can we actually move more passengers with a lower operating subsidy (not to mention lower capital costs) if Metro looks at adding a new fleet of buses on all new bus routes?