By Noel T. Braymer
The media in general, but newspapers in particular love to find sensational stories which they don’t have to worry about upsetting their advertisers by running them. Since newspapers don’t get much advertising revenue from public agencies, these are easy targets to write sensational stories about. A popular whipping boy for the media is public transportation. Much has been written lately about despite increased spending that fewer people are riding public transit. What these stories don’t report are the reasons for this and what works and doesn’t work to increase public transportation ridership. A good example of this is in Los Angeles. Overall transit ridership is down in Los Angeles over the last few years. Most of this downturn is on local bus service. But there has been major ridership growth on rail transit since 2016 with the extensions of the Gold Line from Pasadena to Azusa and the Expo Line from Culver City to Santa Monica. Ridership is steady on the Red and Purple Lines. There has been ridership declines on the Blue and Green Lines. But much of this ridership decline is because both these lines have been undergoing overdue maintenance which has reduced and often disrupted service. Its hard to ride a train when they are not running. We can expect ridership on LA Metro rail service to grow once this repair work is finished and the Crenshaw/LAX rail line starts service next year and the Regional Connector is finished in 2021 connecting the Blue Line from Long Beach to Azusa and Expo Line from Santa Monica to East Los Angeles.
Where there is major ridership decline in Los Angeles and most urban areas are on bus services. There are several factors for this. The main issue is bus service is slow and unreliable. Buses in urban areas of the United Station generally average 10 miles per hour running speeds. A healthy person on a bike can travel as fast or faster than riding a bus with no waiting since you can come and go when you want on a bike, but not when waiting for a bus. What can be done to improve bus service? First, speed up loading. In many European countries at bus stops the bus opens all its door to first let people off, then to let people on. Passengers have to prepay their fares. Fare Inspectors randomly check buses to make sure people have paid and fine passengers who haven’t. LA Metro has experimented with all door loading and is planning to extend it on some of their express bus services. The common practice of pay as you enter on buses is very slow because it only takes one person unable to find their fare to hold up a line of people, many of whom have monthly passes on tap cards. What some counties do without opening all doors, is to allow boarding passengers to tap their tap card in view of the driver but get around fare paying passengers dropping their money in the farebox. These practices should be widespread in this country to speed up bus service.
Another thing that increases ridership is more frequent bus service. This also reduces wait times and speeds up travel. But won’t this cost too much money? One of the problems with bus service is it works best where there is fairly high population density. Starting in the 1960’s there has been Federal Funding to expand regular bus service in suburban areas with fairly low population density to encourage more people to use public transit. Despite these efforts these buses usually had low ridership. This is where much of the bus ridership has been lost. Recently in Orange County, the Orange County Transportation Authority which is responsible for local bus services has dropped bus service to many of its suburban areas. But it has increased frequencies on its busiest lines. This has increased ridership on these lines and cutting the low producing bus services has saved money. But what to do about people who are transit dependent and need to travel where there is little transit service? It would be cheaper and more productive to expand dial a ride services and send vans carrying several people in an area to be picked up where they are and travel to their destination or to transfer to a bus or train.
Much has been written in the press that more people are using ride sharing services or have bought cars and stopped riding public transportation. This has resulted in making traffic even worse. A major reason more people have bought cars beside traffic getting worse making the buses even slower is government policies continue to subsidize auto ownership. Going back to the “Great Recession” of 2008, the Obama Administration was faced with the loss of jobs in the auto industry which were clustered in the Midwest with many blue collar voters. In the process the auto industry was given billions in subsidies to save jobs. During this time General Motors was bailed out to stay in business and the Federal Reserve lowered the Prime Rate to record lows to encourage people to borrow money for major purchases to jump start the economy. This was particularly true for auto loans which for years have been available at rates under 2% after 2008. These practices have lead to a major increase in the number of cars available for sale. With this has come a large supply of used cars. Many of the people buying cars who had been riding the buses were low wage (i.e. poor) people who had jobs and needed reliable transportation to keep their job. With this have come “no money down” used car lots. The money in selling cars or any big ticket items comes from the loan which people pay interest, not the car which depreciates over time. These no money down car lots sell poor people old cars at prices higher than the cars are worth. Often these exploited customers have trouble paying for these cars and the cars get repossessed. Does this bother these no money down car lots? They made money on the inflated payments their exploited customers paid. Once the car is repossessed, they resell it to another victim and go back to making more money.
What else can be done to greatly improve transit service and save people money and live better? Besides speeding up loading times and running more frequent service, buses and Light Rail services should have priority using public streets. This can be done using sensors in the street which tells a computerized traffic signal system that a bus or train is approaching an intersection. The traffic lights can then be timed so that that the lights are usually green when a bus or train reaches an intersection. This doesn’t mean that public transit will never have to stop at a traffic light, but it will save time riding transit and spend less time bogged in traffic. Just as important, running transit service faster not only increases ridership and revenues, but also increases the productivity of transit by going faster it can carry more passengers in a day and does so costing less money per passenger carried which saves taxpayers money.
An example of what also can be done is to use lanes for transit only on busy transit routes. The city of Toronto, Canada still has streetcars and they carry many passengers. Recently Toronto as an experiment reduced car access on King St. on its busiest streetcar line. The streetcars were given their own lane most of the day on the left lane. Car are allowed on the right line, but can only turn right. This not only made streetcar service more reliable, but greatly increased streetcar ridership on King St.
The 2 greatest costs of living are housing and transportation, and these costs are the higher than most anywhere else in California. What we are already seeing is increased housing density being build along areas with transit centers in California. This higher housing density is allowing more people to live closer to where they work and needing to drive less to work. A bill has recently been introduced in the California Legislature which would allow high density construction of housing, 4 to 8 stories high within a half mile of a transit center. Much of this is already happening in cities in California. The opposition to this bill is bases on complaints that more density will increase traffic congestion. What isn’t discussed in the media about this bill is it would reduce the amount of parking required in a residential area to build new housing. Parking is expensive and mandatory parking requirements is a major cost in building new housing. It is also a subsidy to encourage people to drive more. Building less expensive housing for people who want to use public transit not only can control the rising cost of housing, but will also reduce the amount of road congestion and demand for parking. This is how most major cities work around the world, and how major cities in California are evolving as their populations grow and traffic gets worse.