Streetsblog Interview: Introducing Art Leahy


When entering Metro CEO Art Leahy’s office, you can’t help but notice that he’s a sports fan and a native Angeleno. His wall is decorated with USC football paraphernalia and his bookshelf has a couple of Los Angeles Dodgers bobbleheads and other memorabilia from Dodgertown. When staff that happened to graduate from UCLA are in the room, they get ribbed. I also took some flack that my choice in favored baseball teams was also lightly mocked.

And Leahy appreciates what it means to be an Angeleno. "In Los Angeles people have vision and a belief in exceptionalism. When I say that Los Angeles is the best city in the world and I want it to have the best transit agency people don’t bat an eye."

And what does the best transit system in America look like? Leahy professed no favorite project when I asked him if he had a favorite Measure R project, but did get excited and animated when we talked about bus routing. In Leahy’s view, Metro’s biggest challenge include making the buses run on time, and that buses that arrive and leave early are a bigger problem than those that run late.

"Our schedules are a contract with our customers. And if a bus leaves at 8:41 when it’s supposed to leave at 8:42 that’s breaking that contract. A bus that leaves a minute early is worse than one that leaves a minute late because someone is going to be waiting much longer than a minute for the next one and it can throw off the entire system. "

Leahy went on to explain that early leaving buses are going to be getting less and less people every time it stops while the other buses trailing are going to get more and more people. The increased boardings and alightings will leave the second bus running farther and farther behind schedule. All because one bus was early, the entire line can be thrown off for hours.

"Think about it this way. If a bus is one minute early on a five minute headway, and the bus behind is late for some reason, that second bus could have 40% more passengers than the one before it. Those passengers are going to think we need more buses, more service; but better service that runs on time would accomplish the same thing."

As a driver, Leahy himself wasn’t immune to running ahead of schedule, but he tried not to. He even has a copy of a citation he received for running early framed behind his desk. According to Leahy, 15% of Metro buses actually run ahead of schedule, a number he and his staff are working on lowering. While the passage of Measure R brings new opportunities to Metro, it also requires that staff work harder to, in Leahy’s words, "to be worthy of the public trust."

"We need to constantly be working. Constantly be thinking. The public trusted us, and we have to be constantly doing everything we can to be worthy of that."

The other major obstacle facing Metro, and every other transit agency, is funding.

"We’re looking at zero state subsidy next year. And that means a $250 million dollar defecit. We’re ok for the next 12 months, but after that we could be looking at making some changes."

7_16_09_leahy_blogdowntown.jpgLeahy, on the right, poses with a bunch of cartoon characters and Bart Simpson. Photo: Blogdowntown

 People seem fascinated with the "local boy makes good" angle of Leahy’s story. Leahy, the son of two transit drivers and himself a bus driver in Los Angeles who rose to become the head of the transit agency in the second largest city in the United States. However, according to Leahy, the choice to come back to run Metro wasn’t about coming back to where he started.

"It’s always great to come home, but I took the job because it’s impossible to turn down one of the few jobs in the world where you can make a difference on a grand scale," Leahy responded to the numerous articles that focus on his return to Los Angeles."

We also talked about Leahy’s tendency to walk to meetings when he has a chance.

"I’m not anti-car by any stretch, and I don’t want to tell you that I’d never take a car if I were running late…but my first day here I had a meeting with the Mayor and people seem shocked that I wanted to walk to City Hall. Three different times I was told there was a car available, but it’s just a couple blocks away. There is a time when it doesn’t make sense to drive."

As for his own transit and driving habits…

"I take transit here for the most part. It’s been three months now and I’ve driven in twice."

People that are familiar with Streetsblog interviews know that I always end by asking what, if anything, they would change about transportation in Los Angeles if they had a magic wand. Usually this question is one that gives people pause, but Leahy had a quick answer.

"I would want full federal funding for the Subway to the Sea and the Downtown Connector. Not only would we get those projects done as quickly as possible, but we’d also be able to do everything else that we want to do with the other money we’d save."

(editor’s note: If you have ever read one of my interviews before, you’ve probably noticed the format is a little different for this one.  Blame a lost tape recorder and my first time transcribing from short-hand.  We’ll be back to our usual format for the rest of this week’s interviews.)

  • Paul

    It seems like the guy really wants to improve service in the city. I commend him for that. The whole bus leaving early has been an issue for years. I have a rule of thumb that one should arrive to the bus stop 10min early to make sure they don’t miss the bus and I have had the mantra told to me as well by MTA people when I have called for customer service. I also echo his sentiment about the federal monies for the subway to the sea and the regional connector. It would be fabulous to get all the money we need for the subway and the regional connector from the feds and spend what we had put aside for those projects on other things. Ahh it’s fun to dream.

  • I appreciate his focus on making bus service more efficient. I have noticed from my off-peak hour rides that the schedule for the buses are not accounting for the lack of traffic and good flow. The drivers are forced to drive 20mph or slower in order to keep on schedule. It would seem that better route timing needs to be done so that schedules reflect the different traffic levels throughout the day and hopefully eliminating early arrivals.

  • Wow, this guy sounds like he might actually make the buses run on time – and no fascism required! Well, just a little bit (with the fare gates).

  • David Galvan

    In 3 months he’s only driven in twice?! Wow! That really is impressive!

    Sounds like a great guy! And if he can get the buses to be on time more power to him. I’d be happy if he could just get them to show up in the 5 minute window including and after the timetable time. Early buses that show up and leave early really are a problem. I remember getting to the 761 bus stop at Hilgard and Westholme 5 minutes before the scheduled time, and apparently the bus must have arrived and left early, and the next bus was somehow late, as I ended up waiting 35 minutes for the bus. Taught me then that I might as well not even look at the time tables, as long as I know the alleged frequency of the service, because they are rarely on time. Some routes are better than others, of course.

  • A related problem is drivers who “blow past stops”, sometimes due to laziness, others because they can’t figure out the wheelchair strap.

    One possible deterrent could be that any driver caught doing such pays for a *yearly* transit pass for the resultant disenfranchised riders. As it stands the MTA just laughs it off.

    I also believe that smart use of “ultra-express” buses, such as the 920 is entirely crucial in a town as sprawled as Los Angeles.

    At the right time of day, it can make a *huge* difference in time spent, not to mention the psychological boost of not crawling at a snail’s pace.

  • DJB

    Good point about sticking to schedules. This seems especially important where bus service is infrequent.

    E.g. missing a bus that runs every hour because it shows up early . . . that’s a soul-crushing experience.

    As far as the Purple Line extension goes I was looking at some census figures from the year 2000 which say that only 4.1% of people in Santa Monica (SM) went to work by transit (on the census website under “economic characteristics”) compared to 10.2% for the city of LA. Granted, much of the ridership would probably be coming into SM rather than going out since SM has more employment than job density . . .

    We’ll see if Expo Phase 2 can boost that transit ridership up at all. Hopefully. If not, it might make more sense to pursue a different route, like sending the subway through the Sepulveda Pass. Why send two lines to SM anyway?

  • Spokker

    Good riddance! The motherfucker was trying to build light rail here.

    Instead, we have a shiny new sign,, to remind county residents where to not travel beyond. You people stay behind this sign and everything will be cool.

    Orange County Republican

  • Leahy talks tough about bus drivers that leave early, but will he actually put teeth into it? Will MTA amends its labor contracts to allow drivers to be disciplined and fired for running early consistently? (New York City had a “three strikes” policy on running hot that resulted in firing a driver who ran hot more than three times within a year or so.) Will MTA use the ATMS to counsel, discipline, and fire drivers who leave their terminal early or hang around to finish a conversation with another driver, thus traveling in a pack? (At Santa Monica Pier, three or more 720s routinely leave within a 5 minute or less span, with a gap of 10-20 minutes, simply because they wanted to finish their smoke break).

    Instead, we have silly ideas like imposing timepoints on Rapid (a Leahy idea), because it is easier for supervisors to monitor drivers at a central location. True, but it destroys the whole purpose of Rapid when it hangs around for 5-10 minutes waiting for the clock to catch up. Zero tolerance on leaving sharp during the owl period, and for low frequency routes, is essential. For higher frequency routes, I agree with Wad who calls for them to be dispatched more like rail lines, on a frequency basis.

  • Spokker

    Oh God, no timepoints on the 720. That would be awful.

  • According to the running boards, timepoints on the 720 are Westwood Bl and Western Av eastbound and Alvarado St and La Brea Ave westbound. This is not the first timepoint on Rapid: 780 has had a timepoint at Vermont and Prospect for a few years now, due to the length of the route. But I have a fear that this will spread further.

  • Wad

    DJ_cycle wrote:

    I also believe that smart use of “ultra-express” buses, such as the 920 is entirely crucial in a town as sprawled as Los Angeles.

    Sprawl is not why Metro runs 920. It’s been cut back since it was created.

    There was another Rapid Rapid, 940, that was the fastest version of the 40/740 trunk. It didn’t even last a year.

  • DJB

    I think the point about sprawl making ultra-express transit necessary is a very good one. What is Metrolink? A sprawling regional rail system to connect a sprawling region.

    Manhattan is roughly 25km by 3km and has a ton of density and subway lines. That’s about the size of the blue line corridor between downtown LB and downtown LA. LA covers a lot of ground despite its high population density (as a regional average).

    Ironically, Huntingon’s Red Cars were instrumental in laying out that sprawling pattern decades before the private automobile made the sprawl even more intense.

  • Spokker

    Where does this guy live? It’s easy to take transit to work if you live near the subway. No effort on his part. But then again, by choosing to live near transit, you are not only making your life easier but not adding an additional car to the road.

    Ugh, I just can’t hate this guy! I tried to criticize him but I can’t.

  • DJB

    Haha, oops, on post #6 I meant more employment than RESIDENTIAL density.


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