Just Growth, Measure M, transportation equity

#JustGrowth Agenda Outcome #4: Frequent Transit is Useful Transit


This is the fourth in a series of blogs outlining six draft outcomes to guide our advocacy work in 2017. For more background on this series, read the introduction here. We invite your questions, comments, and critiques! Please email us your thoughts at jessica@investinginplace.org

Outcome: Metro invests in a frequent network of bus and rail transit service.

What success looks like:

  • Metro defines a frequent network of rail, rapid bus, and high-ridership local bus service with all-day 15-minute headways, or better, that serves at least 70% of the county’s population, and at least 85% of people living in Equity Opportunity Zones.
  • Metro regularly reports on-time performance and state of good repair for the frequent network.

Despite significant investment in new transit and overwhelming public support for even more, Metro is in a decade-long ridership slump — down nearly 6% in just the last year — driven by declining bus ridership.

It’s tough to point to one singular reason for declining ridership. Some factors fluctuate month-to-month and some are decade-long trends: relatively low gas prices, bus service cuts, buses stuck in traffic without dedicated lanes, ease and affordability of transportation network companies (i.e. Lyft, Juno, Uber), drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants, the growth of job centers not served by high-quality transit, displacement of low-income transit riders from transit-accessible neighborhoods, and more.

The common thread is that alternatives to transit are becoming more accessible and sometimes more affordable. But, to be frank, transit service has not kept pace with customer demands for reliability and usefulness. The Expo Line is an exception to this trend. For instance, Metro has consistently invested in frequent, all-day service that has made the line useful and reliable for many first-time transit riders. The new clean rail cars also helped make a good first impression. But, not all buses and train lines have received the same attention.

How can Metro increase ridership?

Many aspects of our urban environment are out of Metro’s control. While Metro doesn’t directly control land use or parking policy, it can influence local jurisdictions who do. Metro’s transportation investments have significant effects on the region’s land use policy — intentional or not. Metro may not be able to convince a resident who can now legally drive to go back to spending 2-3 hours per day on the bus, but it can focus on making its service — particularly its bus service — more useful and reliable, so that it is more competitive for more trips.

Years of bus ridership declines means that Metro can no longer afford to take so-called “transit-dependent” riders for granted. Instead, Metro should view low-income riders as its core customer base — one that is increasingly choosing other options — and focus attention on improvements that will retain and grow its customer base.

A more useful and reliable bus network will help stem ridership declines among people who are abandoning the system as soon as they can afford to while likely attracting and keeping new riders more effectively than frills like free wifi.

What does a reliable Metro system look like? More frequent buses.

What do we mean by useful and reliable? In an era where customers expect on-demand mobility, this means all-day frequent service, seven days a week, on a network with strong connections.

Frequent service is useful service. It is the difference between scheduling your life around transit and having transit available when you need it. In a grid network like L.A.’s, frequent transit is the difference between smooth connections that open up access to more destinations and a frustrating, uncomfortable, or even dangerous wait on a street corner that is neither your origin nor your destination. Frequent service is also a hedge on reliability — if a bus doesn’t come on time, there will be another one not too far behind it. Frequent service that runs into the evening means that workers with nontraditional commutes, or students coming home from night classes, or people running errands, can still rely on transit being there when they need it.

This is not a new idea for Metro. In fact, Metro’s Rapid network was an innovative combination of new technology and marketing built on the foundation of a frequent grid of high-quality service. But the last recession caused a shortfall in Metro’s operations budget and painful service cuts that have yet to be restored. Many Rapids are now scheduled at 20+ minute headways outside of peak hours, which when compounded with variable traffic conditions and bus reliability problems can result in gaps of 30-40 minutes or longer along the route. That leaves bus riders stranded and drives them to look for other ways to get around.

Last thoughts…

Successes like the Expo Line demonstrate that there is still plenty of demand for transit, but only for transit that is useful and reliable. Metro should double down on the Metro Rapid model by investing in all-day, frequent service on corridors with high ridership potential. Those routes with particular reliability problems due to traffic congestion should be prioritized for bus lanes and other infrastructure improvements to improve on-time performance.

In addition to the Rapid network, Metro should look at upgrades to high-ridership local lines. Metro already started identifying these high-potential corridors in a 2015 study. In the Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP) update, Metro should identify a high-quality, frequent bus network with minimum performance criteria and commit to the level of funding necessary to operate it all day and into the evening. This should be the highest priority for new operations funding from Measure M.

Networks and frequency are the fundamentals for a successful transit system. Why does this matter for a more accessible and equitable region? Because, in the words of former Bogotá mayor Enrique Peñalosa, buses represent democracy in action: “An advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport.” A useful and reliable transit system is one that recognizes that all people deserve mobility.