The Eastsider, a Los Angeles publication, has suggested a new explanation for that city’s spectacular decline in bus ridership: gentrification. Rising housing prices have forced many low-income transit riders to distant suburbs while the people moving into gentrified neighborhoods have higher incomes, more cars, and are less likely to ride transit.
The Eastsider bases this idea on a story in Curbed Los Angeles, which offers four explanations for declining ridership: traffic congestion slowing down buses; service cuts; low-cost fuel; and high-cost housing. “Many of the most transit accessible neighborhoods in Los Angeles are significantly more expensive, and home to more affluent demographics than they once were,” says the publication. “As the transit-riding demographics get priced out of relatively central and transit-friendly neighborhoods, and move to the cheaper but more far-flung and car dependent suburbs, ridership suffers.”
While I’m not discounting this as a partial explanation, Curbed LA never even mentioned Uber and Lyft, which the Antiplanner has estimated may be responsible for more of the decline in transit ridership than all of the other explanations put together. Aside from that, there are plenty of reasons to think that gentrification plays only a tiny role in transit ridership, even in Los Angeles.
For one thing, gentrification is at least as big an issue in the San Francisco Bay Area as in Los Angeles. Yet from 2014 to 2016, when Los Angeles transit ridership fell by nearly 13 percent, Bay Area ridership fell by less than 1 percent. On the other hand, gentrification should be less important in Sacramento, where housing is quite a bit more affordable than either the Bay Area or Los Angeles. Yet ridership there is falling as fast or faster than in Los Angeles. Riverside-San Bernardino, which make up some of the suburbs to which low-income Los Angelenos are fleeing, are also seeing ridership fall faster than L.A.
Outside of California, transit ridership is declining about as fast in Phoenix, St. Louis, and Tampa as in Los Angeles, yet these are all very affordable regions where gentrification should not be a major issue. Ridership is growing in Seattle and declining relatively slowly in Portland, both regions where gentrification is a major issue.
It seems likely that transit advocates are looking to find reasons for the decline in ridership that justify more subsidies to transit. If ridership is falling because congestion is slowing buses, then buses need dedicated lanes and transit needs more rail lines that can by-pass congestion. If ridership is falling because potential transit riders are moving to the suburbs, then transit needs to provide more suburban service. But if transit is declining because ride-hailing services are taking away transit riders, there is little justification for increased subsidies, which may be one reason why Curbed L.A. didn’t mention that explanation.
In Los Angeles, the bigger explanation is one that Curbed L.A. mentioned: declining service. While increased subsidies might help restore that service, it would be even better if Los Angeles shifted money from building new rail lines to restoring bus service. For one thing, one study found that new rail transit promotes gentrification. More important, resources are not infinite, and it makes more sense to spend limited resources on forms of transit that can move more people at a lower cost. Bus, as the Antiplanner pointed out yesterday, transit executives who run rail systems get paid more than those who run bus systems, so the pressure to build rail is internal as well as external.