Last week, a little paper called the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page story: “Billions spent, but fewer people are using public transportation in Southern California.”
Never mind that Gene Maddaus of the far littler L.A. Weekly broke the story of L.A. Metro's declining ridership four months ago.
No sooner had the Times posted the story than the transit-booster community lost their collective shit. Various excuses were tossed about like so many used-up TAP cards – Joe Linton has a very good summary of them here.
But the dream of a hyper-urbanized L.A., where we all ride the train to our skyscraper apartments and whisper sweet nothings to our sexy-sounding smartphones – oh wait, that was Scarlett Johansson in Her – has never felt further away.
But not to worry. The Weekly is here with 10 easy, if perhaps largely unrealistic and ridiculously unpopular, solutions to ripping the steering wheels from Angelenos'
cold, dead alive and well fingers.
10) Build a big rail network
Rail in L.A. doesn't really go anywhere. Unless you live by a rail stop and are going someplace by a rail stop, it doesn't make much sense to use it.
As we speak, Metro is building out this nascent system: Expo Line will reach the sandy beaches of Santa Monica in May; the Purple Line (aka the Subway Not-Really-to-the-Sea) extension is under construction and so is the Crenshaw Line. But the Gold Line extension opens next month! I can't wait to ride to the Donut Man in Glendora!
That's still a bit thin. So transit boosters are proposing yet another sales tax hike, this one on the November ballot, to build more rail lines and pay for more buses and who knows what else.
9) Make the damn thing faster
Only problem is, a lot of the trains aren't that great. Take the Expo Line. It's slow. It takes at least 30 minutes to ride from Culver City to downtown. When you factor in five minutes waiting for the train and 10-minute walks to and from your starting place and your actual destination, you're looking at a commute that's pretty much comparable to sitting in your car.
And why, again, did they build the Expo Line at grade, where it has to stop for cars at traffic signals? Oh right, to save money. Only problem is, that left Expo Line basically a glorified bus line.
8) Add Wi-Fi
Buses are pretty nice these days – they're clean and air-conditioned! But maybe the millennial set would be more likely to ride buses and trains if they were given more amenities or could get some work done. Maybe it's time Metro added wireless Internet.
7) Give us way more buses
About three-quarters of L.A.'s transit riders take the bus, not rail. And yet bus service gets treated like the red-headed stepchild. Granted, buses are slower and worse for the environment than trains. But the nice thing is, they can go anywhere a car can. And Metro can shift bus routes around, based on jobs and neighborhood demand. Since Google Maps now shows transit data, it's never been easier for the casual rider to find the right bus.
City planners get this, and part of L.A.'s controversial mobility plan is to add more bus-only lanes to the city streets.
6) Build more housing by rail — but make it crappier
Ever since Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's days, L.A. has followed a policy of “smart growth” — encouraging density without increasing traffic by building tall buildings near transit stops. Only one problem: That housing is new, and more desirable than some old stucco thing that's falling apart. It tends to be expensive, and the people who move into it can easily afford cars.
The median income for Metro riders is $15,918 — compared to the $55,909 median income citywide. Poor people, unsurprisingly, make up the vast majority of transit riders in Los Angeles.
So here's a thought: Why not build really crappy housing by transit stops? Maybe some micro units, like the kind a developer is trying to build on Skid Row.
5) Raise the tax on driving
Here's a popular proposal: Let's raise the gas tax. Or replace it with a tax on the number of miles you drive. This would discourage driving, and you could use the revenue to pay for roads and add more bus service.
4) Cut the price of bus and rail fares
The Times pointed out that transit ridership started to fall when Metro raised fares and cut service. So maybe lower the fares.
Of course, someone has to pay for Metro's overhead and maintenance. The more you cut fares, the more taxpayers must pay.
But maybe you decide poor people deserve access to this service. Maybe you think that having more people on trains and buses is super-important and you don't care if it costs. Or maybe you're just trolling readers and throwing out counterintuitive ideas that no one likes!
3) Raise the price of parking
Speaking of trolling…
No but seriously. Whenever I go to downtown, I try to ride my bike or take the bus. It's not because I care about the environment. It's because parking in downtown Los Angeles is crazy expensive and hard to find.
There's an idea out there that Angelenos loooooove cars and will never ride buses or trains. But most people are rational. If they find something that is faster or cheaper, they might start to use it — some of the time. If it's both fast and cheap, they'll start to use it most of the time.
The low cost of parking, while obviously good for individuals, is bad for society in ways that I couldn't possibly cram into this already bloated listicle, so I'll just direct you to this fantastic Los Angeles magazine piece on UCLA Professor Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking.
2) Embrace the newer meaning of ride-sharing
The Times cited the rise of Uber and Lyft as another possible reason fewer people ride on L.A.'s trains and buses. Metro still seems to think ride-sharing is what we do during our “first mile, last mile” — transit jargon for that space between Metro transit stops and our houses or jobs.
The real dream of transit boosters is to create a new class of Angelenos who don't own cars — or, at least, a new class of couples who share a car. Ride-sharing apps give the non–car owners a choice in addition to buses, trains, cycling and, of course, walking.
It's not like traffic is getting better. Eventually, traffic may get so bad that a 30-minute Expo Line slog seems like warp speed.
Or maybe we'll run out of gas all of a sudden.
The fact is, no one knows what the future will hold. Our birth rate is rather low, although people still move here. With rents eating up as much L.A. income as they do, more residents will surely consider going carless.
But the vision of a transit-centric Los Angeles was always further away than the politicians made it seem.
And by the way, there's nothing wrong with fewer people using Metro. The whole point of L.A.'s transit expansion was to offer an option. Yes, transit needs revenue and political support, but we could all just decide that we care about having the option of taking a bus or a train, and we care about poor people being able to get around. We're still gonna drive most of the time, but I'm glad we have the train for that one time of year I want to take mushrooms and go to Universal Studios, or ride a bus to Pershing Square for a Bernie Sanders rally, or take the train to the beach and pretend my phone sounds like Scarlett Johansson.