Placing the Numbers in Context

Thursday, February 4, 2016 - 2:00pm
Genevieve Giuliano

Last Friday, the Los Angeles Times published an article on the loss in transit ridership across the region. The article particularly targeted LA Metro, an agency which has seen a 10% drop after "$9 billion in rail transit investments." More details are available

here.

While the Los Angeles Time’s interpretation of the study wasn’t incorrect, it targets LA Metro without providing context on what is happening in in other metropolitan regions. To really understand the study, we should first take a look at what was presented. Over the past few years, transit ridership has declined across the Southern California region. Some places have lost more ridership than others (Orange County, Santa Monica). It looks like LA Metro is in the middle of the pack, as we would expect for the largest agency in the region. If ridership is declining everywhere, there are systemic factors at work that are independent of any single transit agency’s policies. These factors may include changes in: 1) economic conditions, 2) work patterns; 3) population characteristics; 4) substitutes for transit.

Economic conditions: In general, transit use grows with economic expansion as more people commute to work. The current economic expansion has been highly uneven, with most of the growth at the high end (professional jobs) and low end (unskilled jobs). The main market for transit is the low end, but stagnant, or in real terms declining wages may make even transit unaffordable at current fare levels.

Work patterns: We have all read countless articles about the sharing economy, rise of Uber, etc. The fundamental change here is the growth in intermittent, variable, contract work. Many of the newly employed may work for multiple employers on different schedules and in different locations. Transit is a poor option for non-routine work. In addition, transit service remains oriented to the downtown, which continues to lose share of all jobs in the region.

Population characteristics: The population of Southern California continues to change as housing gets ever less affordable and better job opportunities grow elsewhere. Middle class families may move to less transit friendly places (for example Riverside County), or out of the region. Immigration has slowed, reducing one of the region’s significant transit markets.

Substitutes for transit: There is a lot of discussion of car sharing, Uber and Lyft competing with transit. While this will no doubt be the case in the future, it is unlikely that these diverted trips account for much of the recent loss of ridership. The recent collapse in oil prices has reduced the price of fuel, making driving cheaper. However, we don’t know how much people choose to use their "savings" to buy more shoes or restaurant meals as opposed to driving more. The fuel effect may explain some of the change from 2014 to 2015, but not the general trend.

So, why is it that despite large investments in mass transportation, transit ridership is declining?

The massive investment in rail transit has not had much effect on accessibility -- how easy it is to get from one place to another on transit. Rail lines typically replace existing bus lines, so although capacity is increased (trains can carry many more passengers than buses), accessibility does not. In addition, rail lines generate more transfers, because even this massive investment is but a small part of the entire transit system. Many people need to transfer between rail and bus to get to their final destinations. Research shows that people don’t like to transfer, because it adds time and uncertainty to the trip.

Unfortunately the decline in ridership can lead to a downward spiral. As ridership declines, fares contribute less to the operation of the system. The response of the transit agency is to reduce service (say by decreasing bus frequency on some lines) or raise fares, or both. These actions further reduce transit demand, which leads to another round of service cuts, etc. LA Metro has faced a serious and growing operating deficit. Like many agencies across the country, the costs of service expansion (in this case the new rail lines) are outpacing increases in fare revenues.

Also like transit agencies across the country, LA Metro faces another challenge. In order to obtain the political support necessary to have passed three different sales tax measures to generate much of the funds for rail transit investments, every part of the County must get its "fair share" of the rewards, namely the promise of a rail line. In some cases this means building rail lines in places that don’t have strong markets (for example the Gold line extension), while not building lines where they are most justified (the "subway to the sea"). Similarly, buses operate everywhere by policy: federal guidelines target everyone being within one quarter mile of a bus stop. Thus a lot of unproductive service is operated, and transit agencies face significant political challenges in doing what really should be done: restructure service based on market demand.

Finally, for reasons too complicated to go into here, there is a preference for rail transit. Rail is seen as modern, reliable, required for "first class city" status, etc. Thus rail is often pursued for its own sake. In truth, transit users want frequent, safe, reliable, clean service and cheap fares, whether the tires are steel or rubber. The evidence is the striking success of bus rapid transit (BRT) in cities around the world as well as in Los Angeles.

LA Metro is an extreme case, because of the scale of the rail investment taking place, but its problems are not atypical. The planning solution is straightforward and broadly applicable: concentrate on serving the market as efficiently and effectively as possible. The challenge is how to deal with the politics.

Genevieve Giuliano

Genevieve Giuliano is the Ferraro Chair in Effective Government at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, and Director of the METRANS Transportation Center. She conducts research on relationships between land use and transportation, transportation policy analysis, and information technology applications in transportation. Her current research includes examination of relationships between land use and freight flows, development of applications for transportation system analysis using archived real-time data, and analysis of commercial and residential development around transit stations. She has published over 160 papers, and has received several awards for her research contributions.

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