Public Transit in L.A. Is Growing in Leaps and Bounds — but Where Are the Riders?

Los Angeles, this is a bus. Maybe try one sometime?EXPAND
Los Angeles, this is a bus. Maybe try one sometime?

We are living in the golden age of public transportation in L.A.

Oh wait, no we're not! That was the 1920s, before Christopher Lloyd destroyed the trolley cars in order to build his evil freeways.

Fine, but the Los Angeles rail network is certainly on an upswing. In November, voters passed Measure M, which uses a small sales-tax increase to fund billions of dollars of Metro transit projects. Extensions to the Expo Line and Gold Line opened last year, the former of which reconnected downtown L.A. to the Pacific Ocean. And on Wednesday, officials announced that the federal government is giving Metro $1.6 billion to accelerate construction of the Purple Line extension, which will connect downtown with the somewhat less vaunted Veterans Administration campus, on Wilshire near the 405.

“There are very few places in our country where the vision is big enough for the challenges we face,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said at a press conference, according to the Los Angeles Times.

That's all to say that pretty soon, L.A. could be living through yet another golden-ish age of public transit, or at least quite a shiny age.

There's just one thing missing so far: riders.

The good news for Metro is that more people are riding its trains. November of 2016 (the most recent data Metro has released) saw 700,000 more rail boardings than November of 2015. Most of that increase came from the recently extended Expo and Gold lines.

Unfortunately, bus ridership continues to tank. November of 2016 saw about 2 million fewer bus boardings than in November of 2015. Which, according to the laws of mathematics, means Metro's total ridership fell by about 1.3 million boardings. (There were still nearly 24 million bus boardings, compared to fewer than 10 million train boardings.)

"It is part of a general trend we’ve been seeing nationwide," says Ethan Elkind, author of the book Railtown, a history of L.A.'s rail system. "It is still surprising, because L.A. has been investing in transit for years."

It's also kind of a problem for public officials, considering they sold voters on Measure M as a way to reduce traffic. Which makes sense in theory – more trains means more people riding trains which means fewer people driving cars. Except that in reality, we've seen more people riding trains and more people driving cars, and way fewer people riding buses.

"To some extent, at least, you can imagine the rail system has canibalized the bus system," Elkind says.

So why is bus ridership tanking so badly? Metro spokesman Kim Upton says there are a number of factors at work, though it's unclear which are the most important. Lower gas prices is probably a big factor. An improving economy might mean more people buying cars. And a California law that went into effect in 2015 gave undocumented immigrants the ability to get drivers licenses, which means many of them may now be driving as opposed to riding the bus. Uber and Lyft may also be a factor, according to Upton.

"And yes, we’re very concerned," Upton adds. "Our job is to create mobility for all of Los Angeles, and the more people we have riding, the more it helps everyone across the board."

Metro reports that the agency is hard at work trying to improve the bus-riding experience. The agency is slowly adding Wi-Fi to its buses, and the entire fleet should have it in a couple of years. And Metro is taking steps to improve safety on buses, which according to surveys is the number one reason why people stop riding them.

"Enhancing safety and security is really big for our passengers," says Metro spokesperson Pauletta Tonilas. "Safety is our number one priority at Metro."

Of course, another major reason why fewer people are riding buses may be the traffic that slows them down. And that appears to be a factor Metro can do little about.


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