Thomas Rubin Tells Transit Coalition: LA Needs More Buses…Not Trains

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?
  • Roman

    The advantage of something like rail, though, is that you now have a new thoroughfare, and rail does take up less physical space than setting up a separate busway (like we’ve done in Pittsburgh). That means not getting in the insane traffic patterns at rush hour times, and enables you to provide a better service. It’s also true that the cost of rail is mostly up-front, and less so over time. Complete automation with rail is much easier to do than with busses.

    I am a libertarian generally, but the value of something like public transportation needs to be evaluated not based on the raw monetary numbers, but total value as a public good. I expect most public transportation systems to be money losers, but the value in getting people off the highways (and all the other related charges) should more than compensate for the loss.

    That said, it may be the case that busses are easier to sell because of the smaller up front capital costs. So I don’t know about the LA situation in particular, but it sounds like the trains, done properly are a very good long term strategy, that might not make sense in a literal financial comparison.

  • Anonymous

    The Center for Transportation Excellence has factual information to refute the Reason Foundation members dog and pony show.
    Their first argument is always buses, buses and more buses. Because with their short life span of 12 years, they churn the economy, more opportunity for profit – they rarely get into part 2 of their “plan” for transit, which is to contract out the operation of all bus service to the lowest private bidder. That’s what most cities had pre-1950’s, it didn’t work then, and it won’t work now. Those systems either went broke and/or had to be taken over by governments in order to force standard fares and coordinated scheduling. Mr. Rubin’s beloved SCRTD took over 16 such transit properties for those reasons. And with the cost of buses (articulated) at about $900,000 each, rail cars are looking more cost effective all the time. And what’s more energy efficient, electricity for rail cars that can carry hundreds each, or combustion engines powering buses that carry 60 people? Lastly, buses are physically exhausting to ride, jostling passengers around and psychologically do not have the same appeal as rail. If given the choice between a short bus ride or a longer rail ride, people will chose rail. Personally, I don’t care that much about the vehicle, but anything that has to compete for lane space with cars in dense urban area traffic is dumb. Additional separate lanes or rights of way are necessary for transit to be a first choice for more users.

  • Justin

    I think that Roman and I share a brain. I was just going to say almost exactly the same thing that he did. The advantage of light rail, and while I would take that, and NEVER take a bus (I have been on less than 5 public buses since I rode the bus to school) is that a bus is ALWAYS more inconvenient than a car. A bus gets stuck in the same traffic that a car does, plus you get to wait at the bus stop, wait to change buses, and then likely walk a tail on each end of the bus ride. While many of those same issues occur with light rail, light rail allows you to bypass traffic, rather than sit in it, giving it some major convenience advantages.

    If we are building transit for just the poor then cost per rider should be the main factor. If we are trying to get people to change their habits from driving their car to taking public transit, convenience is going to have to come much more to the forefront.

  • Dan

    Thom Rubins is espousing typical BRU nonsense.

    While every majjor metropolis needs a comprehensive and reliable bus system, and Los Angeles’ system needs to continue to improve, adding a whole new fleet of 40 foot buses to our already clogged streets by itself will not keep Southern California economically and environmentally sustainable.

    Bus-only lanes, while helpful aren’t enough in themselves, because they could not travel as fast, carry anywhere as many people or as efficiently as rail, and assuming you could institute and sustain them against the political onslaught from small businesses and single-occupancy motorists with an inflated sense of entitlement angry about having paved road on which they may not drive, rapid buses would still need to weave in and out of the non-bus lanes to pass slower local buses.

    Added buses may have a lower upfront cost, but their long-term gains are negligible.

    The truth is Los Angeles needs to invest as heavily in its public transportation RAIL infrastructure over the next five decades with the same zeal, scale and scope it has invested in freeways and roads over the last five decades.

    And, even if rail is subsidized more than bus and more than road, the other public goods which cannot be quantified so easily need to be taken into consideration too. Time, energy, quality of life are just as important. It’s only a waste in Rubin’s opinion, because they don’t fit what he values. Other people who measure these things differently may and do have a different opinion.

    Also, I find his premise ridiculous. In the 1980’s there were not rail options for people to take instead of buses. If bus ridership increased then, that is irrelevant to the discussion now that there are increasing options.

    His comment that rail merely shuffles existing transit riders precludes the fact that as the rail network becomes more of a network, it exponentially increases the transit options of those who might use it.

    Fortunately, his bus-only transit viewpoint no longer has the resonance it once did, and the BRU and it’s supporters continue to decline in both influence and relevance.

  • Chris

    Are we going to have our additional buses stuck in gridlock not going anywhere? Comparing the running time on major bus routes (2,4, 20, 33, etc) between 1985 and 2005 suggests a good reason why ridership dropped – it takes a lot longer to go anywhere.

    Metro used to have an extensive network of express bus routes that used freeways. Now, with the exception of buses on the El Monte or Harbor Transitways, they are all gone or given to other providers to run. Why? Nobody rides them. Commuter Express buses are considered a success if they are half full.

    In some areas, buses run more frequently than they did in 1985. The valley, for example, has significantly increased service on many of its routes, perhaps in part due to the freeing up of bus service hours the Red Line allowed.

    I agree that more buses are needed that connect with rail stations. While the Red and Blue lines mostly have stations with good bus connections, many Green and Gold line stations have horrible or even non-existent bus connections. That may well be one reason that they have lower ridership than the other two.

    Nobody wants to spend more than twenty minutes on a bus. The only solution is to develop enough of a rail network that means every person is a 20 minute bus ride or less away from a rail station.

  • Steven Higashide

    Though I won’t comment on the credibility of the Reason Foundation or on what Metro’s transportation priorities should be, it’s not true that bus services need be less convenient than taking a car. Los Angeles has taken some innovative tools from the bus rapid transit toolbox, including signal priority on its Metro Rapid lines and a dedicated busway on the Orange Line.

  • Matthew

    Even with the design of the orange line, a light rail running in the same corridor would almost certainly be faster, and would absolutely be higher capacity.

    While the Rapid buses are nice when the traffic is decent, if the traffic is bad, they get just as stuck as anything else. Last week on Monday I took the 780 Rapid from Venice/Fairfax to Los Feliz/Crystal Springs Dr (south end of Griffith Park). The traffic from Vermont/Sunset to Los Feliz/Crystal Springs, which is only one stop, was so bad it would’ve been faster to walk that distance. Signal priority and other factors made absolutely no difference in that case. Some form of rail would’ve absolutely been faster.

    I agree with the others in that continued rail expansion is the only way that transit ridership will be able to make significant inroads into the general population.


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