The Los Angeles Timesreports that L.A. bus ridership is falling, so the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) is “looking to overhaul the system.” Unfortunately, the Times didn’t make the effort to figure out the real problems, instead relying on transit agency claims that they were due to “factors beyond its control.”
In fact, in the past ten years, the number of vehicle miles of revenue bus service offered by Metro has declined by more than 21 percent, from 86.3 million miles to 67.7 million. Transit riders are probably more sensitive to frequencies than anything else, and this 21 percent decline probably did not involve the cutting of many bus routes; instead, it represents a reduction in the frequencies of most routes. That factor was completely within Metro’s control.
Metro’s bus ridership peaked at 399 million trips per year in 2007 (which buses traveled 85.4 million miles), but has since declined to 318 million trips. The 20.2 percent decline nearly matches the decline in bus miles. Continue reading →
The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) wants voters to give it $120 billion over the next forty years so it can build more rail projects that are already obsolete. Among other projects, it proposes to build a nine-mile light-rail tunnel between west LA and the San Fernando Valley that it estimates will cost at least $8.5 billion, and probably much more. That’s a billion dollars a mile, which is neither a misprint nor an April Fool’s joke.
The plan, which will probably be on the November ballot, includes some new roads as well as trains. But Metro proposes to spend twice as much on new transit construction as on new road construction, plus lots more on transit operations. As little as 19 percent of the funds would be spent on highway projects.
In 2008, Metro persuaded voters to dedicate a half-cent sales tax to transit for 30 years, which is estimated to bring in $34 billion. Now it wants to double that tax and extend it to 2057, which is estimated to bring in $120 billion on top of the $34 billion it is already getting.
Last week, the Antiplanner highlighted an LA Times story showing that Los Angeles transit ridership was dropping despite billions being spent on transit improvements. A blogger named Ethan Elkind wrote a response arguing that a graph in the Times story was unfair because it showed that Los Angeles transit ridership peaked in 1985.
That high point was reached, says Elkind, because L.A. County had kept bus fares at 50 cents for three years in the early 1980s. After the region started building rail, it raised fares and ridership declined. “So choosing 1985 as your baseline is like climate change deniers choosing an unusually warm year in the 1990s to show that global warming hasn’t really been happening since then,” says Elkind. (A better analogy would be transit advocates’ habit of using 1995–a low transit year nationwide–as a starting point to show increasing transit ridership.)
The Los Angeles Time seems surprised to report that Los Angeles’ 9-mile-long Expo Line has failed to relieve congestion in the corridor it serves. Rail and bus boardings increased about 6 percent after the line opened in 2012 (at least some of which would be due to transfers of passengers from bus to rail who previously could go the entire distance of their journey by bus), but the rail line had no “significant or consistent impact” on auto traffic.
Many people believe rail transit depends on population density, and if so then the Expo Line should be a perfect candidate, as the area it serves has 26,000 people per square mile (about the same as New York City and nearly ten times the average urban density in the United States). On one hand, even that’s not dense enough for rail to attract a lot of riders. On the other hand, light rail is really low-capacity transit, so is truly the wrong solution for areas of high transit demand.
As the L.A. Times observes in other articles, rail does benefit some people. First, it gives perverts opportunities to engage in anonymous sexual harassment. Second, it gives politicians opportunities to spend a lot of money: with the prompting of Governor Jerry Brown, Los Angeles is considering spending billions of dollars on six more rail lines.
Los Angeles transit officials are eagerly contemplating the opportunity to spend money converting the Orange bus-rapid transit line into a light-rail line. To promote this idea, they are letting people know that light rail will be faster, more comfortable, and operate more frequently (so riders will be less likely to have to stand) than buses.
These lanes are exclusively dedicated to buses, but transit agency officials say they need to replace them with light rail because there is no room to run more than one bus every eight minutes.
Of course, all of these things are wrong. The current bus line averages 26 mph, about 4 mph faster than the average light-rail line. Buses can be just as comfortable as light rail, and when vehicles are full, a higher percentage of bus riders get to sit down (about two-thirds as opposed to less than half). As for frequencies, the current schedule of the Orange line calls for one bus every eight minutes at rush hour. Since the road is closed to all other traffic, somehow I think they could squeeze a few more in if they wanted to.
Last week, Los Angeles became the first major city in American to coordinate all its traffic signals. The city spent $410 million coordinating signals at 4,000 intersections, or about $100,000 per intersection.
The $410 million cost is less than the cost of one mile of L.A.’s proposed Westside Subway Extension and about the same as the cost of two miles of Portland’s latest light-rail line. Yet the signal coordination will do far more to relieve congestion, save energy, and reduce air pollution than both of these rail projects put together–more, in all probability, than all rail transit projects in the United States.
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.