Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Metro’s First Report on Covid Recovery Raises Some New Questions

This week, as the Metro board prepares for its final committee meetings of the year, staff will be delivering a series of reports on what they call their Operations Recovery Plan. These reports include looks at how the behavior of transit riders has changed during the course of the Covid pandemic to date, and provides some context for the decisions that Metro is making in response.

The reports were created in response to Metro’s recently approved budget, which triggered concern from transit riders and advocates – and even from Metro Directors – due to its inclusion of 20% cuts to bus service. These cuts not only hurt the most vulnerable communities of Angelenos, who have been consistently overrepresented on the city’s buses, but they also jeopardize Metro’s ability to carry out its NextGen bus plan to respond to the crisis of falling transit ridership across the region, an issue which had long predated the arrival of Covid.

The first phase of NextGen was intended to reallocate the 7 million bus service hours that constituted the system’s baseline before the Covid pandemic hit. This reorganization involved redrawing existing bus lines and dividing the network into four tiers, where tiers 1 and 2 made up the busiest lines on the network. NextGen seeks to take hours from less busy lines and reapply them where current ridership (and potential ridership growth) are highest, creating in the process a frequent all-day bus network.

In September, when Metro approved its operating budget for the next year, it enshrined 20% service cuts that had been a de facto reality since the early Covid shutdowns in March. As a result, even as Metro has continued to state that they are committed to delivery the NextGen network, it has been clear that NextGen cannot be enacted as originally envisioned as long as the service-level deficit the agency has created continues to exist. It is paramount that Metro restores the service that was cut as quickly as possible.

The only question has been how, and not whether, the cuts will affect NextGen implementation. Now, in presentations set to be given to the board, staff have provided analysis on a line level of what the initial NextGen network will look like.
In examining ridership trends, Metro has shown that ridership continues to grow steadily from the absolute minimum of about 30% of pre-pandemic levels that was reached this spring. But growth has neither been equally distributed geographically nor across times of day.

The Tier 1 and Tier 2 bus lines that are slated for frequent all-day service as part of NextGen have added back more ridership more quickly than those in Tiers 3 and 4. These lines serve many of the densest generators of trips as well as being embedded in communities where existing transit use is more common. Additionally, Metro has found that – from a system level – the AM peak travel period has disappeared and shows no sign of returning any time soon.

In September, the AM peak served about 28% of the ridership that it had a year prior, compared with about 55% of ridership being served during the midday hours and 40% during the PM peak period. It is challenging to know how much can be made of these comparisons. After all, midday ridership has been disproportionately impacted by the ridership losses that have occurred over the past 7 years, owing at least in part to Metro’s infrequent and unreliable service.

However, it can be seen immediately that there is a wealth of data that Metro can provide in order to help the Board of Directors and the public assess the quality of the agency’s recovery efforts. Data transparency is a key component to modern crisis management. And, in general, there are signs that Metro is adopting the correct lessons from the data.

In the agency’s line-by-line analysis of the initial NextGen rollout, focus has been clearly given to boosting midday service levels on Tier 1 and 2 bus lines. This will have an immediate impact for riders, particularly those riders (disproportionately women) who continue to conduct non-work errands via transit.
There remain in this report causes for concern. In previous posts prior to the passage of the budget, we warned that status quo bias would develop rapidly against re-adding service if cuts were formally adopted. Unfortunately, this appears to have been a prescient warning.

In the report, Metro staff pit increased operations funding against continued funding for maintenance, suggesting that the board must resist “pressure” to increase service levels because it will come at the expense of system “reliability.” Looking ahead to next year’s budget, staff indicate that service hours cannot be increased barring a new funding source, like a new sales tax or federal stimulus funding (which with split control in Washington is certainly far from a sure thing).

In short, Metro is looking for reasons to maintain broad service cuts to buses as the “new normal,” just as they said they would several months ago. Like staff, we also urge the board to resist pressure – the pressure to maintain service cuts at the expense of the need to improve and build back service.

We are also grateful to the board for leveraging its authority to make more data available during this recovery than has traditionally been made public by Metro. We hope that they will continue to push the agency in this direction. The statistics provided here, though detailed, remain in many ways opaque.

Metro is correct that we are in unprecedented times for public transportation. As a result, it is imperative that the agency use this as an opportunity to do more to figure out the needs of riders and determine how to serve them. The same strategies that would have applied a year ago are not necessarily the ones that should be followed today.

Analyses of the when, where, and why of transit ridership in the Covid era are based on aggregated metrics that likely hide significant variation. Determining what is happening on the ground will require more work than Metro has ever done to reach out and build relationships within transit-riding communities. We urge Metro to use these Operations Recovery Plan reports as an opportunity to begin that work and to learn about the impact they can have in improving Angelenos’s lives as the region rebuilds.

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