Los Angeles’ rail transit system is now 20 years old, but the Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Tom Rubin, questions whether it should have been built at all. “The push for rail has forced transit ridership down,” says Rubin, who was the chief financial officer of L.A.’s transit agency when the rail lines were planned in the 1980s. “Had they run a lot of buses at low fares, they could have doubled the number of riders.”
Rubin is referring to the fact that in the early 1980s, when LA’s transit policy was to boost bus service by keeping fares low, transit ridership grew dramatically. In 1985, when the agency starting building rail, it raised bus fares and cut service to cover cost overruns. Transit ridership plummeted, and did not recover to its 1985 levels until after 2000.
Bus ridership bottomed out in 1995, when the NAACP sued the transit agency on behalf of a Bus Riders Union for racial discrimination by cutting bus service to minority neighborhoods while it built expensive rail lines to white neighborhoods. A 1996 court order forced the agency to restore bus service, and as the graph shows, the growth of bus service since that time has been much greater (at least through 2007) than total rail ridership.
“Rail transit advocates contend that it is premature to judge urban rail’s performance because the local systems are not fully developed and have yet to substantially benefit from being part of a broad rail network,” notes the LA Times article. It is interesting that, when a freeway opens and is heavily used, that use is considered a sign of failure because the freeway “induced demand.” But when a rail line opens and hardly anyone rides it, that is considered a sign that cities should build more rail.
Los Angeles has 673 miles of freeways with more than 5,600 freeway lane miles, most of which pretty much paid for themselves out of gas taxes and other highway user fees. Meanwhile it has less than 80 miles of rail that cost $8 billion to build, none of which came from transit riders. The Antiplanner wonders how many miles of rail costing how many billions of dollars will be needed before rail advocates finally concede that rail transit is a failure.