By Noel T. Braymer
There has been a lot of media coverage about how local governments are spending lots of money on transit, only to see ridership go down and not up. What is never said in such stories is why ridership is declining. A major reason is traffic is increasingly congested. This results in slower and unreliable bus service. So people are driving even more now because at least they can leave home earlier to get to work or other places they need to go to on time. Is this sustainable? Consider that the used car market has billions of dollars in delinquent car payments because frankly the owners can’t afford to pay them. People should have priority on public roads, not cars. As road traffic blocks transit, more people drive in heavy, slow congestion. So how do you get more people to get out of their cars to ride buses and trains? Make things more democratic, give people in High Occupancy Vehicles (HOV) priority when using publicly owned rights of ways. Does this work? It does when service is on time, fast, and connects to other services to more places. With more people in HOV’s, more people get around faster with less traffic congestion. And its much cheaper than building wider roads.
A recent example of this are on the M14 buses on 14th Street in Manhattan. Up until recently 14th street had one of the slowest and least reliable bus line services in New York. Since July 1st of this year buses and trucks share the center lanes on 14th street, but not cars. Also cross traffic along 14th street between third and ninth avenues was shut down to avoid gridlock. The results of this is much better on time performance and growing ridership. There are other examples of this. Recently LA Metro finished work upgrading its Light Rail Blue Line service between downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach. To make up for lost capacity one lane on Flower Street (which is a one way street) was used for buses only carrying people between Long Beach and Downtown Los Angeles. The following is from LA Metro’s blog “The Source :A Metro staff report shows the Flower Street bus lane in downtown Los Angeles decreased bus travel times by up to 20 percent and helped keep buses on schedule. Metro staff are planning to continue the bus lane for another five months to test the lane under regular conditions. The lane has proved popular with riders, many of whom said it speeded up trips.“ The City Council of Los Angeles recently approved a motion to maximize traffic signal prioritization for the Expo Line trains when travelling along streets of Los Angeles. There have long been complaints that hundreds of people on Expo Line trains are often stuck at traffic lights which gave priority to a dozen or so people in cars.
Lets take a look at Metrolink, the regional commuter train service for most of Southern California. Ridership started in 1992 and peaked around 2012 at 42,265 for average weekday ridership. By 2014 there was a noticeable downturn in ridership. Service was cut and fares increased which instead of improving revenues, made the financial problems for Metrolink worse. In 2015 recently retired LA Metro Chief Executive Officer Arthur Leahy took over as CEO of Metrolink. He quickly went about turning things around at Metrolink. He ordered new long overdue replacement locomotives and introduced on line ticketing so people could use their smart phones to buy tickets and not be stuck at a station with broken ticket machines. Central to Art Leahy’s plans was the creation of a 10 year business plan for Metrolink based on ridership growth and service expansion. Under Leahy ridership and revenue increased on Metrolink. While Art Leahy retired in January 2019, he left behind a foundation for ridership growth and a plan to greatly expand service and revenues for his successor. A major part of this plan is based around SCORE as it was described “Metrolink is excited to introduce Southern California Optimized Rail Expansion (SCORE) program, which will upgrade the regional rail system to meet the current and future needs of the traveling public. By adding tracks, grade separations and upgrading signal systems across the entire Metrolink system, trains can operate more frequently and reliably, making regional rail easier and more convenient to use. The crossings will also be upgraded so the majority of the system will be Quiet Zone-ready, enabling cities to apply for a designation so trains horns aren’t routinely blown.”
What is planned under SCORE will be daily, frequent regular rail service running mostly 2 to 4 trains an hour on most of its lines. Central for this will be the need to build “run-through tracks” so trains don’t have to back out of Los Angeles Union Station. Instead trains will be able to run directly between Orange County and Ventura County as well as Antelope Valley to Riverside County. There are lots of other potential combination of routes using Los Angeles Union Station as a hub. The plan is to run 7 days a week, with connections to transfer with other Metrolink trains as well as the Surfliners and Coaster trains. At stations there will be more local transit with timed connections for transfers with local bus and rail transit. Longer distance bus connections are planned so Metrolink riders can take connecting buses to beach cities and airports. Most of these services are expected to be operational by 2028, in time for the Summer Olympics at Los Angeles.
So the skeptics out there are likely asking “so what’s the proof that any of this is going to work?” It already has, and has been for years in Europe. This started in Switzerland which is not only one of the most prosperous country per capita in the World. But the Swiss also are some of the biggest users of transit and rail service on a per capita basis. The way the Swiss handle trains and connecting services is to run the same schedule for all services every hour of the day. This make it easy to remember when a train will arrive or depart at a station. And it makes it easier to schedule connecting bus or other services. From this people traveling in Switzerland can travel almost anywhere in Switzerland to almost anywhere in the world. Most towns have at least 2 trains an hour in both directions scheduled to arrive and depart at the same minute in each hour. These rail connections include airports as well as rail connections to many countries in Europe.
This is the basis of Metrolink SCORE’s plan and it is central to the California State Rail Plan for rail passenger service. The rest of the trains in California will get new schedules which stop and leave at the same time of the hour all day long. There will be more and faster trains with more connections to more places. In the case of Metrolink, its trains will be scheduled to connect with each other. There are also plans to use the Metrolink system to replace many of the connecting buses used by Amtrak in Southern California. One example of this will allow passengers to avoid the traffic congestion on the I-5 north of downtown Los Angeles by riding Metrolink and take a shuttle bus at Santa Clarita to Bakersfield. This will put fewer vehicles on the I-5 and more people going to where they want to go faster.
This is planned to evolve over the next 20 years or so into a busy and popular mode of transportation to serve most of California. This will be linked also to areas with more jobs, new housing and services.