For over five years, one of Metro’s biggest concerns has been trying to reverse the downward plunge of bus ridership. We must take it then as a sign of our extraordinary times that, in a matter of weeks, the agency’s mindset has been inverted completely: who would have imagined at the start of the year that by April Metro would be telling people to stay off transit for all but the most essential trips?
Throughout the past two months – as stringent restrictions on business operations and personal movement have been enacted to slow the spread of COVID-19 through Los Angeles County – Metro has been forced to repeatedly modify bus and rail service, making major cuts across the board. This has been necessary, according to Metro, in order to adjust to reduced passenger demand and an increased number of driver call-outs each day (Metro estimates a range of 25% – 30% of staff have been unable to work during COVID-19).
During April’s Operations Committee meeting, Conan Cheung, Senior Executive Officer for Operations, announced the latest plan for bus and rail operations, which went into effect on April 19th. The new service changes call for buses and trains to run on Sunday frequencies every day of the week, with trips also being added back for lines that do not usually run on Sundays to retain basic coverage for those riders.
With these changes, Metro says that they have established a baseline of service at which transit riders will not be forced to breach social distancing requirements, while also allowing for the agency to save money and maintain more reliable service for the remainder of the Covid crisis. However, by relying on the pre-existing Sunday schedule, Metro has disproportionately reduced transit for bus riders, exposing them to longer waits and more crowded waiting and riding experiences. If they want to ensure safe and rider-centered transit for the frontline workers and the unhoused Angelenos who are currently most reliant on their service, Metro must add back bus service above the current baseline. Metro is working to do this on corridors such as Slauson, Olympic, Broadway in South LA, 3rd Street and more – where they are increasing bus service and adding articulated buses. Metro reports that 43% of the bus riders along the South LA Slauson are still riding. We are eager to see this type of data as it is showing key lifeline bus routes that need increased service now and going forward.
Bus riders have always made up the majority of Metro’s ridership; in January, they outnumbered rail riders 2.5 to one. This massive disparity has grown only larger since the issuance of state and local Safer at Home orders. Since that time, comparatively wealthier rail riders have been more likely to be able to forgo transit trips. Metro reports that rail ridership is down three quarters compared to 65% on the buses. That means that as of March, bus riders now outnumber rail riders 3.5 to one.
Despite this, it is bus riders who will bear the brunt of Metro’s new schedule changes, unless new bus service is added. Last month, the Metro Board approved cuts that eliminate 29% of service hours for bus lines compared to 14% of service hours for rail lines. Additionally, while, on the rail network, Metro has pledged to continue running full train-car consists in order to facilitate distancing, on the bus network no such measures are available, unless we see targeted increased bus service using articulated buses implemented.
Without targeted increases to bus service, we might expect that Metro’s buses will become too full for passengers to distance and that riders will be left waiting long intervals for buses at stops where practicing safe distancing is generally difficult on narrow sidewalks.
Last month, when Operations Committee Chair Mike Bonin brought up the heavy cuts to bus service, he was told by Cheung that Metro wanted to use Sunday service as their guide because riders already had familiarity with that schedule, allowing them to make the change more quickly. While it is important to acknowledge that Metro is being forced to act faster than ever these days – service changes being normally accompanied by public outreach campaigns – it doesn’t stand to reason that the Sunday schedule will be more easily understood by riders.
It is true that some passengers may have experience riding transit on Sundays, but for riders accustomed to riding to work on other days of the week, it is unlikely that they would be familiar enough with Sunday service to make a seamless transition to the new, significantly-reduced headways.
Some friction is no doubt unavoidable, but Metro should be leading in this moment with safety and transparency rather than simplicity as a guide. To that end, ACT-LA submitted a letter requesting that Metro restore bus service on high-demand corridors in order to protect passengers from crowding that might occur during the course of the day. This would mean a marginally greater expenditure for Metro, but it would prevent the close-quarters contact that can be the difference between life or death right now. More than attempting to find the minimum level of service that can be easily achieved, promoting safe distancing practices should be Metro’s aim.
In response to a question about crowds on Metro buses, staff responded that they were utilizing on-board passenger counts and social media to determine whether or not buses might be too full. But neither of these can be relied upon to allow Metro to supply additional service when and where it is needed. Metro reviews passenger counts on a monthly basis, which means the information will come too late for Metro to use it to prevent person-to-person transmission of Covid.
Checking social media is a good but insufficient strategy: it means Metro will only know about crowded vehicles when a social media user – likely younger, wealthier, and whiter than the median transit rider – happens to be on-board and contact the agency. There is no solution to the issue of intermittent crowding on Metro buses that doesn’t involve increasing service.
The vast majority of rides taking place on the bus network right now are riders whose jobs have been deemed so essential that they do not have the luxury so many of us take for granted – the ability to be Safer at Home. Metro’s service changes seem to suggest that it wants to operate as much as possible like it is business as usual. But there is nothing usual about this moment in time. For the essential workers who still rely on transit, and for the rest of us who depend on those workers, the bus trips that are being taken right now are more important than ever.
At the May Operations committee, we encourage Metro to share data on COVID-19 trends on specific bus routes and continue to share this data going forward to inform the COVID Recovery Task Force and NextGen implementation and prioritization. Over 340,000 trips have been made every day on Metro bus and rail during Stay at Home orders, understanding where key essential trips are happening and additional buses are needed is critical. Investing in Place supports Better Buses for LA and the Metro staff and operators who are working incredibly hard to respond and serve our communities, however we see a breakdown from Metro Executive Leadership and the Board in sharing this information and having a much needed conversation about what is happening on our streets now. The Board is sharing aggregate data reports on transit service but our communities, policymakers, transit operators and local jurisdictions need real time data for specific lines and neighborhoods as the COVID-19 recovery policies and programs begin to be developed.