Opinion: Metro NextGen Bus Overhaul Is a Stop-Gap with Many Trade-Offs and Adverse Impacts

Metro chart showing how NextGen could benefit the Venice Blvd bus, by eliminating Rapid, and speeding up local
Metro chart showing how NextGen could benefit the Venice Blvd bus, by eliminating Rapid, and speeding up local

Crisis is the word being used to describe the decline in public transit ridership since mid-decade.

The situation is especially precipitous for Los Angeles Metro with a drop of nearly 20 percent since 2013. A 2018 UCLA study attributed the principal reason as being an increase in car ownership among low-income populations that historically relied on transit.

The expectation regarding the drop in Metro rail ridership is that the coming expansion of the regional rail network via connectivity and increased coverage will make existing lines more appealing and they will therefore experience an increase in patrons.

To address the drop in Metro bus ridership, the agency has undertaken, over the past two years, a review of bus service. The review has included extensive public outreach and in-house analysis resulting in a proposed route restructuring and plan to invest in infrastructure improvements. The plan is known as NextGen Bus Study. A PowerPoint presentation from the January 23 Metro Board meeting gives a useful summary of it.

Public workshops for input began February 1 and will continue through early April. Stakeholders can also provide comments online, via the virtual workshop.

Highly-respected transit service consultant Jarett Walker on his Human Transit blog perfectly captures the concern I have about plans formulated in circumstances such as this:

Emergency [or crisis] is a frightening word. It says: “Do everything differently now, or else,” but people who just try to “do something” often do the wrong thing. Our challenge as a profession is to figure out how all these ringing alarms should affect how we do our jobs, and how we talk about them.

When Metro states that bus service “has not had a major overhaul in 25 years,” that statement, while perhaps accurate, glosses over a history of repeated stillborn efforts which do not bode well for NextGen implementation.

Beginning in the early 1990s, Metro undertook a program of transit restructuring studies for six regions. A 2000 status report noted the extent to which these interacted with rail opening interface plans and the consent decree pilot program. As the process unfolded, the extent to which recommendations were implemented diminished until by 2003, the Southeast study was merely received and filed (item 7), akin to being put on a shelf to gather dust.

In this period, another service concept was tested in the hopes of producing cost savings: the mobility allowance. The concept was “during periods of low demand, alternative, flexible destination service would be more viable from a cost and mobility standpoint than existing fixed-route service.” City NightLine, route 646, the principal test of this idea, was begun in 1996. It was a shuttle that ran midnight to 4:30 a.m. along Avalon Boulevard, south of the Carson Galleria mall to San Pedro. If you had a destination within the service area, the bus deviated to drop you off. Also the operator had a cell phone and would deviate within the service area to pick up callers. Once an hour it connected at the Galleria with line 45’s owl service for those who wished to travel further north. Unfortunately, a 1999 report showed that with a subsidy per boarding of $10.11, it was not producing the hoped-for operational savings. The 646 was discontinued in 2003.

The next restructuring program was called “Metro Connections,” begun in 2004. By 2006, elaborate concepts had been set. Beyond speeding up and simplifying service, it proposed implementing cross-county “super” very-limited-stop arterial/freeway bus routes to connect to key activity centers. While it provided the framework for service changes in 2007 and 2009, the super bus concept never hit the streets and the overall program did a slow fade out.

2015 saw a panel of transit experts convened by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) make recommendations, including “more frequent service on a more sparse network, with wider stop spacing” – eerily similar to NextGen. That audit led to the development of the “Strategic Bus Network Plan,” reviewed by a Blue Ribbon Committee and slated to be implemented in 2016 only to meet the same fate as past efforts – a quiet slow fade to black.

It’s a new day! Third time’s a charm! Darkest before the dawn! Once more unto the breach! The clichés just flow in anticipation of this latest effort. Okay, I will attempt to rein in my cynicism.

NextGen bus redesign scenarios - via Metro presentation
NextGen bus redesign scenarios – via Metro presentation

NextGen consists of three alternatives:

  • a “Reconnect” scenario of service changes, local/rapid consolidation and closure of approximately 1/3 of bus stops
  • a “Transit First” scenario of infrastructure investments such as improved stop features and bus only lanes
  • a “Future Funding” scenario, if additional funds become available through efforts such as de-congestion pricing

The timeline now shows public hearings on the service changes to be held mid-2020, with the first capital program for improvements to come before the Board at the same time. If, after the hearings, the board approves the service changes, then implementation would be during three consecutive service adjustments (December 2020, June 2021, and December 2021). The service adjustment, or “shake-up,” is Metro’s semi-annual process by which operators bid on driving slots awarded based on seniority per the SMART (the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers) union collective bargaining agreement with the agency; service changes are generally implemented as part of the shake-up.

Listening to the public comments on NextGen made at the January 16 Operations, Safety and Customer Experience Committee meeting (beginning at 14:30) and January 23 Board meeting (beginning at 1:17:00), I am struck that very little was said about the service changes. Support and concern regarding the Transit First scenario was the key focus of stakeholder comments.

At the Board meeting, Move L.A. presented a letter signed by 22 organizations urging the Board commit to Transit First and its “…proposed 20 percent or more increase in funding for bus operations, maintenance, and infrastructure for at least 5 years.”

Mariana Huerta Jones of the Alliance for Community Transit-Los Angeles, in her comments (limited to only 60 seconds) at the Board meeting, also emphasized the importance of infrastructure improvements. I reached out to her after the meeting and she expanded on the asks that ACT-LA has:

  • prioritization of capital improvements, including signal priority and expanding bus fleet to speed up travel times and frequency
  • prioritization of service equity in low-income areas like the Northeast San Fernando Valley and southeast county where transit coverage is spotty and often infrequent
  • Metro engagement with cities on funding and infrastructure improvements, including dedicated bus lanes, bus shelters, and benches at stops
  • building of support for Future Funding scenario

Jones also shared with me the disappointment of ACT-LA that the Future Funding scenario is not included in the public workshop process, as they feel it deserves to be discussed via public engagement – not be a mere paragraph in a Board report.

Los Angeles City Councilmember and Metro Boardmember Mike Bonin, responding to the numerous comments urging that Transit First implementation be expedited, made an amendment to the NextGen item. It directed Metro to “Add a report back from [Office of Management and Budget] by April 2020 regarding funding options for the capital portion of the NextGen Transit First scenario.”

Stakeholders supporting NextGen include Better Buses for L.A. Work Group, Aging, Disability and Transportation Network, South Los Angeles Transit Empowerment Zone, NRDC, FastlinkDTLA, L.A. Forward, and Streets for All.

In a recent Human Transit post, the aforementioned Jarrett Walker critiqued NextGen. Walker is generally supportive, although he complains, “I wish there had been a report that makes the argument for the plan and explains the thought process that led to its design.” In his view, it is a serious flaw that outreach to anyone other than riders is not being undertaken. “Getting these plans across the line requires selling a big picture to the biggest possible audience, especially given that some angry riders will be yelling.”

To get a wider perspective, I reached out to the Transportation Research Board (TRB) for help in finding an academic familiar with the efforts of various agencies to respond to the “crisis” to provide a sense of how Metro measures compared to what others are doing. TRB put me in contact with Dr. Kari Edison Watkins, P.E., Frederick Law Olmsted Associate Professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She kindly responded to my query regarding NextGen:

It’s a great start. I would say it is comparable to what many cities are doing, if they are trying anything innovative at all. I like that they are looking toward bus only lanes as well.  We tell some stories in our recent [Transit Cooperative Research Program] report about agencies that have been successful with similar techniques.

So what do I think of NextGen? After some serious contemplation, honestly I see it as a stop-gap.

If for no other reason that if/when the extensive regional network of bus-only lanes proposed in transit first is implemented it will require the creation of new express routes akin to the Rapids to enjoy the full benefits of such facilities. Bus operators must anticipate the possibility of having to stop whenever approaching a bus stop. Only with stops separated by at least a mile can buses operate fast enough in bus lanes to justify the lanes’ existence.

I very much like the proposal for off-street layover terminals at the ends of routes, especially to facilitate the charging infrastructure needed once we transition to an all Zero Emissions Bus fleet. This reminds me of the hubs concept proposed by Fixing Angelenos Stuck in Traffic.

Fixing Angelenos Stuck in Traffic Mobility Hub concept rendering - via FAST
Fixing Angelenos Stuck in Traffic Mobility Hub concept rendering – via FAST

Reducing the number of bus stops by approximately 1/3 on local routes – to speed up service – could have dire impacts on access to service by key populations that depend on transit, the elderly, and disabled. Lillibeth E. Navarro, Executive Director and Founder of Communities Actively Living Independent & Free shares my concerns:

Regarding NextGen and any other future proposals, I hope the proponents make sure that the access requirements originally provided for in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, are safeguarded and preserved.  If changes are contemplated, they better be to enhance the access for people with disabilities and not to inadvertently lessen or even worse, cut them out.  Progress is not progress for us if it compromises or cuts out altogether our access to transportation!

Speaking of the Americans with Disabilities Act, if eliminating stops makes the increased distance to reach the nearest one too far for someone with mobility limitations – where the eliminated closer stop in the past they could walk to – then Access Services likely would find them eligible for its complimentary paratransit. The ADA standard is “supplementary paratransit services [shall] be provided for those individuals with disabilities who cannot use fixed-route bus service.” I wonder if Metro has considered the financial implications. The most recent statistics for Dec. 2018-Dec. 2019 show cost per Access passenger before depreciation is $39.76! Access fare is $2.75 for up to 19.9 miles and $3.50 for 20+. Do the math, and factor in the aging population. To quote Mr. Spock, the figures are taking an alarming direction.

Is the city of Los Angeles on board with losing the revenue it receives from the advertising on bus shelters and benches? And if we have to walk further to get to a bus stop, could Metro and the local jurisdictions commit to have street furniture for ALL stops?

I am glad to see owl service (midnight-4 a.m.) is being expanded, especially in the San Fernando Valley and mid-city. And also the good news is three additional routes will now have 30-minute headways during owl hours: routes 18, 207 and 910 (joining routes 4, 20, and 204 which also have 30-minute or better owl headways).

Before I share my thoughts on some of the specific service change proposals, I wish to address a particularly significant cancellation proposal: line 788. The principal advocate for its creation, Kymberleigh Richards (formerly of the Metro San Fernando Valley Service Council), shared the comments she submitted to the agency and gave me permission to include them in this article:

Line 788 was supposed to be a stop-gap until we built rail through the Sepulveda Pass. To throw everyone now using it (and I have ridden it a lot in recent years, now that the majority of my doctors are affiliated with Providence in Santa Monica, observing that ridership is sufficient to fill most of the seats on the trips I’ve ridden) back onto Sepulveda Blvd. completely undoes the logic I used when I sold the Board on giving us a RSH [revenue service hours] bump to run it… these passengers are saving somewhere around 250 hours a year over the Line 761 route you propose to restore.

I suggest… that [Metro] keep Line 788 in place until whatever lettered rail line goes into service between the Valley and the Westside. In fact, to build ridership for that new rail line, you should incrementally increase service on Line 788 so that the passengers know you’re serious about having time-efficient service through the Pass. Right now, the route summary …shows you’re still operating a 15- to 20-minute headway in both weekday peaks. I would suggest expansion in three steps: add 30-minute weekday midday service as a first step, then 20- to 30-minute weekend service 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. at a future shakeup, and consider 30- to 60-minute night service for at least two years prior to the rail line opening. You should maintain Line 761 service at whatever level is appropriate for those passengers who need to access the stops along the route that are bypassed by Line 788, but the latter needs to stay as the stop-gap we always intended.

To my knowledge, the only in-depth analysis of the NextGen service proposals is being undertaken by a work group of Southern California Transit Advocates, due to be submitted to Metro by the end of March.

I do wish to offer my thoughts on the proposals for routes I am familiar with, pro and con:

  • Combining routes 2 (Sunset) and 200 (Alvarado) is ill-considered and too long. Schedule adherence will be a nightmare. Why not have the 2 just shortline at Alvarado, as long as sufficient layover space can be found? I understand why having both the 2 and 4 go downtown is wasteful, but creating a overlong combined route is a bad solution.
  • Having the 14 (Beverly) and 16 (Third St.) drop segments west of San Vicente is sensible, as those have very low ridership.
  • I understand the 20 (Wilshire) will operate as it formerly did to downtown Santa Monica, albeit only serving the stops served currently by the 720 west of Westwood. But it is unclear what stops it will serve in owl hours on the western end.
  • Eliminating service on the 30 (Pico) on the west end along San Vicente seems advisable as ridership on that segment is quite low.
  • Dumping riders of the 51 (7th St.) onto the 20 (Wilshire) or 66 (8th St.) by eliminating service west of downtown Los Angeles will be disruptive and is ill-advised. Ridership is strong as far as Alvarado. Dumping people in downtown and expecting them to scramble aboard buses that carry significant ridership of their own makes no sense.
  • Having owl service in Eagle Rock with the 81 (Figueroa) instead of the 83 (York) is long overdue.
  • The 96 by all accounts has low ridership and merits being canceled. Instead of diverting the 501 to serve the zoo why not arrange for the new Parkline shuttle interline with the DASH Observatory to operate 7 days a week and also serve the Sunset/Vermont subway station? Makes sense to me.
  • Having owl service on the 210 (Crenshaw) is long overdue. But the proposal to have service north of Wilshire along Rossmore and Vine as a separate route 610 is ill-advised. My experience from riding the northern end often is most of the ridership from Hollywood take it to the Crenshaw corridor which means you would end up with significant numbers of people dumped off at Wilshire/Crenshaw to continue south. It ain’t broke so don’t fix it.
  • Combining the 217 (Fairfax) and 180 results in a very long route with multiple chokepoints. This is another example of something that will be a schedule adherence disaster.
  • Dumping riders bound for downtown Los Angeles on the 460 (Disneyland) at Norwalk Green Line station, expecting them to endure the inconvenience and added travel time of taking the C and A Lines is unconscionable. The bus uses busways to glide into downtown for customers who mostly are seeking to ride the subway (lines B/D) to continue their travels. This is an improved customer experience? Every few years the agency proposes this then withdraws the proposal after substantial pushback. I predict that will happen again and deserves to.
  • Why are the Rapid 720 (Wilshire) and 757 (Vermont) to be only operated in peak hours weekdays? However frequent the local buses become, nights and weekends they will burst at the seams carrying their own riders plus former Rapids patrons. If Metro does this, I predict chaos, consternation and confusion.

Readers should avail themselves of the opportunity to attend a workshop and provide comments on NextGen. I plan to go to the March 26 workshop at the Felicia Mahood Center in West Los Angeles.

When I objected to a change years ago, one strategy I engaged in was to make a postcard expressing opposition, ride the affected line segment with a stack, have riders who felt the same way sign a card, and then send them to Metro. And while eventually the change happened, we delayed it about two years with the cards. It was a small investment of time and money, but it empowered affected users who likely otherwise would never have been heard.

This whole thing is predicated on bold leadership, vision, and a willingness to overcome objections. As I have documented, Metro’s track record in that regard for implementing transit restructurings is spotty to poor. I don’t envy CEO Phil Washington having to guide the agency through successful implementation, especially as my prediction is bus lanes being put in place will necessitate further tweaks and course corrections. We will see how it plays out.

Dana Gabbard is a longtime transit rider, treasurer of Southern California Transit Advocates (SoCaTa), and a 2011 Streetsblog Streetsie Award winner. For more than a decade, he has written articles for Streetsblog Los Angeles.

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