Digital Ads For Big Blue Bus Put On Hold, & Thoughts On Budget Predicament

Big Blue Buses On Broadway
Santa Monica’s transit service, the Big Blue Bus, has been in a bind for a while now due to declining revenue from the state throwing off its budget. Many transit agencies have been dealing with similar shortfalls and forced to make tough choices. Unfortunately In many cases that has resulted in trimming routes or dropping service frequency at the very moment that demand for transit service is growing.

Service cuts have not been drastic in Santa Monica compared to what some agencies have gone through, but service is being consolidated bit by bit with each round of adjustments. Slight enhancements of the most popular lines are coming at the expense of a number of cutbacks elsewhere. This is evidenced in the latest round of proposed changes to sync up with the Expo Line. With the unreliability of certain lines, to imagine them getting any worse I’d be even more inclined to skip the hassle and ride a bike. Especially since the Big Blue Bus does not offer real time arrival estimates as Metro now does through NextBus.

Increasing ad revenue is one way to bring in more revenue without raising fares, but the latest ad proposal, involving digital screens on the side of the bus, has been put off as shortcomings with the real net revenue become more clear. Maintenance issues in the city’s already trying digital bus ads resulted in a net return that is not nearly as high as it was initially claimed to be.

Ever since the digital ad concept was first proposed, I felt it was terrible idea regardless of whether it could bring in needed money for the transit service. Primarily because I think we have a big enough problem with distracted driving as it is without sticking glowing banners directly into the roadway environment. As someone who regularly rides a bike around town, I do not want the driver next to me put in a trance by some glowing cleavage or other nonsense pulling up on their left. The stationary digital billboards in the city of Los Angeles are bad enough blight as it is; do we really want these things cruising around too?

Which leads me to the other gripe I have about the whole thing. Santa Monica, quite unlike it’s neighboring city of Los Angeles, has attempted to hold back the tide of ad creep. Santa Monica has drawn lines in the sand around acceptable signage that excludes any large advertising billboards on public or private property visible to the public. The few big billboards that you see still see around were grandfathered in, but as properties redevelop Santa Monica could one day be completely rid of them. So if Santa Monica is a city and community that prides itself on moderating signage, it didn’t make sense to me why were green lighting digital bus ads, and pushing for changes in state laws to do it.

While I hope we never see such ads rolling down the street, we’re still left with an operating budget dilemma. When the city council voted for the current fare structure–with a very modest increase in base fare to $1.00 from the prior $0.75–it was essentially assured BBB would be kept starved of needed revenue. The rate increase simply wasn’t enough to fully make up for declining state funding and increased fueling and operating expenses.

Ironically one of the stories I dug up about earlier budget discussions pointed at declining car sales effecting the sales tax portion of the revenue. A problem that seems to be afflicting a lot of transit services in America is that we have revenue streams where significant portions are pinned to the health of car industry sales, and the consumption of gasoline by drivers. This creates a dilemma where revenue can tank and services cut at the time where bus service need is greatest. That is, when driving is in decline. American transit ridership is climbing up and up, reaching levels not seen in decades, while driving miles have flat-lined and on a per-capita basis are in freefall. We have to begin transitioning to funding models for transit that recognize this new reality.

Fare increases are a very politically contentious issue, but I think greater farebox recovery — the amount of operating funds that comes from fares paid by riders — has to be part of the solution. I know some of the debates earlier about the previous fare rise were drawn out over fears of how a high fare may effect the most especially transit dependent riders. However as it stands the Big Blue Bus fare is still lower than the LA Metro system for equivalent and in some cases better service, and much cheaper than many bus lines elsewhere in the country. If we expect bus service to always be a big money losing enterprise just to service the needy, it can become a self fulfilling prophecy as tight budgets prevent the kind of service frequency and route expansions that can attract customers accustomed to driving convenience.

Undervaluing the infrastructure for cars, by underpricing things like parking real-estate, also puts transit service into a disadvantageous position, because it demands undervaluing the bus service to remain competitive. As the city moves toward more appropriate market driven values for parking pricing, the buses will be under less pressure to scrape by on as little fare as possible to remain an attractive alternative.

As a transit user who can quite easily afford a little higher fare, but who would greatly appreciate higher levels of service, not lower, I want to be supporting better farebox recovery. I understand the concern for those who are transit dependent and on tight budgets, the bus is their lifeline. However there are a lot of creative ways to make cheaper transit service available to those who have few other options, like special discounted passes. Some of these things we already do, but perhaps could be explored further to strike a balance between better farebox recovery and maintaining accessibility to those who need it most.

If the Santa Monica City Council wants to have a transit service that works well for everyone, I believe the base fare ought to at least rise to match Metro, and that we should be looking at other alternatives to keeping the buses as accessible as possible. Additionally we should be looking at other potential revenue mechanisms, but ones that are not pinned to depending on more wasteful car driving, like state gas taxes, or overly excessive advertising gimmicks that are at odds with our community’s values. If we absolutely want to keep the fares a bargain compared to everywhere else, some other revenue source needs to be thought up soon or we’ll force Big Blue Bus into continually chipping away to dig up some pennies.

Another one of my takeaways from listening to speakers and conversations at CNU20, was that many city services (like parking and bus service) should have devised pricing mechanisms that trigger for things like basic inflation or significant changes in demand, so that not every rate change opens a big politically contentious debate. When the process is politicized for every adjustment, even minor ones, it gobbles time from other pressing issues. In this case the bus agency is also pressured to adapt prices as little as possible to avoid opening a can of worms.

In uncertain times as those we live in now, we need to be empowering our city services with the tools of adaptation and resilience. The formulas, road maps and expectations created in the pre-2008 world are not going to serve us well in the years ahead. So I suggest that, if we revisit the fare structure for Big Blue Bus, we attempt to agree to a process for pricing changes that includes at least a little flexibility. This would give riders a reasonable expectation about how prices may change over time and under what circumstances. And that would allow the Big Blue Bus to better plan long term operating budgets.

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