Next week, Metro is set to vote on its largest ever annual budget. Spurred by the ongoing economic recovery in Los Angeles and stimulus support from the federal government, the transit agency expects to spend $8 billion next year. That money pays for rail and highway construction, system maintenance, local government services. But, as Metro points out, it will also go toward restoring transit service to its pre-Covid levels after the Board of Directors approved 20% cuts last year.
Joined by a coalition of transit riders, advocates, and community organizations, Investing in Place opposed the bone-deep service cuts put in place by Metro during the pandemic. These cuts, we argued, would fall disproportionately on the Black and brown low-income Angelenos that make up the core of Los Angeles’s transit riders. While local leaders spoke about the selflessness of essential workers, they were putting many of those same workers in even greater risk of lost wages, serious illness, or even death by stripping the transportation services on which they relied.
Metro argued that these cuts were undertaken out of necessity, but that was shown not to be the case when staff identified a mid-year surplus and failed to recommend that any of that money be used for restoring service. When the Board of Directors twice directed the agency to use the additional funds to boost bus service, staff delayed and an eventual compromise was put in place to return to the pre-Covid level of service by September 2021, a full 18 months after the cuts were first implemented.
In pushing Metro to provide the “Old Normal” of service during the pandemic, we were asking the agency to hold the line in support of the riding public. This, in our opinion, was a duty that Metro owed to Angelenos who had no choice but to continue relying on public transportation. Now, though, with Metro’s financial position better than ever, we cannot support the idea that the Old Normal is cause for celebration.
Since the end of a federal consent decree in 2006, Metro has repeatedly cut bus service. With the exception of the cuts that began in March 2020, bus service has been kept flat for nearly a decade. During that decade, riders voted with their feet, abandoning the buses and the transit system as a whole once it became clear to them that Metro was not serious about providing high-quality service.
Riders can tell from experience when transit service is bad. The wait for buses becomes agonizing. The time it takes to get to their destination becomes unreasonably long. But they generally don’t have data on hand to make their experience something more than anecdotal. It turns out, Metro’s own budgets show the degradation in service that riders have been noticing on the ground.
In statistics that the agency records on the number of hours its bus fleet is in service annually, as well as how far they cumulatively travel each year, it can be seen that bus speeds have dropped 20% on average since the start of the 21st century.
In the upcoming budget year, Metro expects that bus speeds will reach their lowest point yet. And, as NextGen redirects more bus service hours onto congested corridors where demand is higher, we can expect that trend to continue without significant and expedient work to get buses moving faster. That means that, even as Metro touts its belated decision to return to the pre-pandemic Old Normal, the actual amount of bus service riders are getting will continue to decline.
Below, we graph the number of budgeted service hours for each year dating back to 2000 in black. But, if we want our year-to-year comparisons to be more effective, we want to adjust each years budgeted hours based on average bus speeds. That is shown in red. What the red line tells us is, for any given year, how much service would need to be provided in order to match what riders could have expected at the start of the century.
Our takeaway is simply this: bus service has collapsed since the Great Recession, and Metro has done nothing to repair it. More and more transit riders have left the system because of the too-slow, unreliable, infrequent, and unsafe riding environment that Metro provides. While the agency says they are “restoring” service, the real service provided continues to sink. And riders cannot be fooled.
If Metro were to provide a level of bus service equal to what was provided in 2000, it would need to dramatically accelerate its bus fleet or provide 1.5 million service hours above what is currently proposed in the 2022 budget. While the NextGen plan proposes to accelerate buses, on the current funding timeline, it would take a decades or longer to complete the planned speed improvements to the network. This budget is, quite frankly, not a document that reflects either the ambition or the urgency with which Metro needs to approach the problem of declining bus service.
We call on Metro to dramatically increase the level of service provided in the 2022 budget, and to begin the first real expansion of bus service in Los Angeles since the end of the federal consent decree.