Southern California Transit Agencies Respond to COVID-19 Ridership Declines

In response to COVID-19, many transit agencies are aptly trimming service. Bus photo via Foothill Transit
In response to COVID-19, many transit agencies are aptly trimming service. Bus photo via Foothill Transit

Transit agencies all over are reducing service in response to declining ridership and declining revenues during the coronavirus pandemic. This post features a run-down of what many L.A. County transit providers are doing now, but the situation is changing quickly, so it may well be out of date by the time you’re reading.

Ridership being down is generally a good thing right now. Angelenos are doing their part to shelter in place. This means eliminating non-essential travel. Fewer riders makes social distancing possible for the people who are relying on transit.

Transit expert Jarrett Walker was one of the first to sound the alarm that COVID-19 could mean transit agencies running out of money. Walker’s early advice to transit agencies was to avoid the types of cuts that cause ridership to fall further and stay down longer. Walker recently followed up, echoing the American Public Transit Association’s call for Congress to direct emergency aid to transit agencies. To date, the federal government has approved packages for emergency economic stimulus, but has left transit behind, despite calls to aid struggling transit agencies. TransitCenter estimates that U.S. transit agencies will face a coronavirus-induced shortfall of $26-$38 billion over the next year.

Operating transit remains an essential activity, including getting essential workers to jobs, and shuttling others to stores or healthcare facilities. Though nationally a few small transit agencies are temporarily shutting down, right now L.A. transit agencies remain open, albeit mostly – and smartly – operating at reduced levels.

Metro, which carries the lion’s share of the county’s transit riders, made modest service cuts two days ago. This morning, Metro reiterated its commitment to remaining open to serve essential mobility needs, but announced more service reductions, including dynamically adjusting service “almost on the fly.”

Other L.A. County rail service includes Amtrak and Metrolink. For now, Metrolink is operating regular service. Amtrak expects to move to a temporarily reduced schedule on Pacific Surfliner trains starting Monday, March 23.

Beyond Metro there are more than two dozen “Munis” – municipal bus operators in L.A. County. Many operators’ early responses included quickly trimming transit service directed toward serving closed colleges/schools.

The remainder of this post owes a debt to transit enthusiast Kenny Uong, who is keeping an extensive listing of Southern California transit agencies’ responses to COVID-19 – including Orange and Ventura counties.

Below are some highlights from prominent L.A. County munis:

  • Many transit agencies – including Culver City Bus, Foothill Transit, and Santa Monica Big Blue Bus have eliminated fares and mandated rear-door boarding for all riders not in a wheelchair. To learn more, see, for example, Foothill Transit’s rider alert.

For a much more comprehensive list, see Uong’s document. Stay at home to the extent that you can, and when you need to travel via transit, contact agencies to check for service updates.

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In my circles, there has been a lot of discussion swirling around Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times article, Billions spent, but fewer people are using public transportation in Southern California, by Laura Nelson and Dan Weikel. The Times’ authors cast a disparaging light on recent downturns in ridership: “Despite a $9-billion investment in new light rail […]