Los Angeles Bus Service Declined as Rail Expanded

Given the tens of billions of dollars that L.A. will spend on transit over the next few decades, it's all the more important to invest it in ways that will be useful and attract riders. But since 2014, ridership has been dropping.

The loss of bus ridership as service has been cut and speeds have slowed swamps recent gains in rail ridership. Photo via David Guo/Flickr
The loss of bus ridership as service has been cut and speeds have slowed swamps recent gains in rail ridership. Photo via David Guo/Flickr

By now there’s a firmly established genre of media coverage about the transformation of Los Angeles from America’s freeway capital to a 21st century transit city. It’s an appealing narrative: The poster child for car-centric urban sprawl learning to embrace trains, buses, and walking. And it’s grounded in major victories at the ballot box, where Angelenos twice voted to tax themselves to raise billions for transit.

getting-transit-right-logo-600But the truth is a little less dramatic. By the (admittedly low) standards of American cities, L.A.’s transit service was never that bad, while its purported transit renaissance has yet to translate into more people opting for buses and trains.

Given the tens of billions of dollars that L.A. will spend on transit over the next few decades, it’s all the more important to invest it in ways that will be useful and attract riders. But since 2014, ridership has been dropping. If L.A. is going to become a good transit city, first it has to reckon with why this key indicator is trending in the wrong direction.

As we kick off the L.A. portion of our Getting Transit Right series, I’ll explore the current state of bus and train service in the region — and what it tells us about how L.A. can make transit useful to more people.

Frequent transit covers a lot of turf — but not all day

The largest transit operator in the region of 10 million people is L.A. Metro, which runs an extensive bus network, the region’s light and heavy rail lines, and even the local bike-share system. L.A. Metro led the campaigns for Measure M and Measure R, the ballot initiatives that will fund transit investments for decades.

In the city of L.A. (population 3.8 million), about 10 percent of workers commute by transit. That’s not much compared to cities like Boston or New York, but it’s a lot more than any other major city in the Sunbelt. In the L.A. region as a whole, the transit commute mode share is about 5.6 percent.

At peak hours, most of the region’s populated areas have access to transit that comes at least every 15 minutes on the L.A. Metro network, as shown on the following map (which does not include services provided by municipal bus operators):

LA-Post-1-Service-Morning

Off-peak, however, frequent service is far less extensive, with many of the lines in areas like Norwalk or the San Fernando Valley (such as around Van Nuys) not running very often:

LA-Post-1-Service-Noon

Still, while only about 10.6 percent of L.A. County’s population lives within a half-mile of a rail or BRT line, according to my calculations, almost half — or about 4.6 million people — live within a half-mile of an L.A. Metro transit line that arrives at least every 15 minutes at off-peak hours. About 2.8 million live within a quarter-mile of such routes.

Transit access to jobs, meanwhile, is best along the corridor extending from downtown to Santa Monica, roughly along Wilshire Boulevard — in part because that’s also the area with the greatest concentration of employment. In the rest of the region, job access via transit is not very good, with residents typically able to reach fewer than 50,000 jobs in 30 minutes or less via transit.

LA-Post-1-Jobs-Access

One way to improve transit access to jobs — and the usefulness of L.A. transit in general — is to tackle problems with the bus network, including slow speeds and a lack of reliability.

The decline of bus service is a very big problem

Despite passing a large new funding package in 2008 through Measure R, L.A. Metro began cutting service substantially in 2010. L.A. now spends far less per capita to operate buses and trains ($217) than Chicago ($303), D.C. ($450), or Seattle ($795).

The 2010 cuts reduced total hours of bus service by about 10 percent. But the cuts were far more severe in terms of the mileage that bus routes cover. Today, though L.A. Metro is operating only about 5 percent fewer bus hours than in 2005, it is operating almost 20 percent fewer bus miles.

LA-Post-1-Bus-Service

This discrepancy helps convey the massive decline in average bus speeds over the past 12 years. The average L.A. Metro bus now travels almost two mph — or 13 percent — slower than it did in 2005. So not only do L.A. riders get less bus service than they once did — they also get slower service.

LA-Post-1-Bus-Speed

After a decade of relatively steady ridership, the L.A. region has suffered a significant drop in transit trips since late in 2014. The region’s transit services now carry more than 100 million fewer passengers annually than they did just three years ago. That’s a huge decline.

L.A. Metro has a growing rail network, but increases in rail ridership have been nowhere close to making up for losses on the agency’s buses:

LA-Post-1-Ridership

L.A. must find a way to reverse the deterioration of bus service. Several factors could explain the loss of ridership, which is a national trend, but planners at L.A. Metro told me the major culprit for declining local bus speeds is likely increasing traffic congestion. This strongly suggests that L.A. Metro and L.A. DOT have not taken sufficient steps to prioritize buses and provide riders with service that bypasses car traffic on city streets.

Beyond L.A. Metro

L.A. Metro is the largest of more than two dozen agencies providing transit in the metropolitan area, from commuter rail run by Metrolink to buses run by city governments. Most allow users to pay with the Tap card, which eases transfers between agencies.

Other parts of the regional transit system are also underperforming dismally. Metrolink, the commuter rail system, is a good example. While it offers reasonably frequent train service from throughout southern California into central Los Angeles during peak hours, service is lacking the rest of the day. Want to travel from downtown Riverside, a city of more than 300,000 people, to downtown L.A.? There are no trains available between 8:10 a.m. and 3:07 p.m. It’s no surprise then that Metrolink carries fewer daily passengers than its Bay Area cousin Caltrain, despite having seven times as many route miles.

Grading Los Angeles transit service

L.A. has an extensive network of frequent transit service during rush hour. But outside of rush hour, buses come much less often. Despite an expanding rail network, service cuts and slower bus speeds have sapped overall transit ridership the last few years. There are many challenges and opportunities ahead for L.A. transit — but one of the absolute top priorities has to be making bus service a faster, more reliable option.

LA_service_quality

Strengths

  • Basic local transit service covers a very large area, with the highest transit mode share among major cities in the Sunbelt.
  • About half the region’s population currently has reasonable walking access to all-day, frequent bus service.
  • Good regional coordination between an array of different transit providers, exemplified by the interoperability of the Tap fare card on most local systems.

Weaknesses

  • Bus service quality  has declined in recent years as speeds have slowed.
  • The fall-off in bus ridership has not been compensated for by increases in rail ridership.
  • Good transit access to jobs is concentrated in one part of the region — the downtown-to-westside corridor.

Coming next

One of the biggest challenges for L.A. is its sheer geographic size. L.A. County has about 20 percent more people than New York City but is spread out over an area that is more than 13 times larger. Moreover, employment is perhaps less centralized in L.A. than in any other major region. This poses specific problems when it comes to reorienting land use to align with transit. In the next post in this series, I’ll delve into how the city is planning to address these issues.

  • TakeFive

    While I get the preference for better frequency and geographic coverage there’s more important issues IMO.

    Today’s millennial and smart phone crowd doesn’t care much for a dated product.and ride. Not the best transit example perhaps but Orange County recently cut some bus service where bus ridership had fallen but reallocated the money to BRT style routes where ridership was increasing. Certainly from a cost-benefit POV that makes sense. BTW, D.C.’s high per capita ($450) costs isn’t without its own significant challenges. 🙂

    Offer a higher quality, competitive product/ride and then watch ridership jump.

  • tomwest

    Except at a system level, that hasn’t happened. If LA Metro had moved resources into BRT-style routes, the number of service hours would have stayed roughly constant, and the bus speed would have *risen*, not fallen.

    You can’t cut your way to better service…

  • I’m a very occasional bus rider in Chicago. Usually off peak to or from my auto mechanic for obvious reasons. Today and about three months ago I had occasion to ride a popular line (77-Belmont) during congestion (rush) hours. (It’s time to dump “rush hour” and call it what it is.) Both times I was very impressed with our bus driver. I love an aggressive driver who is not afraid to budge into traffic.

    In both cases what speeded up the trip up for us greatly were instances of de-facto “slip lanes.” In one case it was a long entrance lane designed by DOT to facilitate entrance into a Home Depot parking lot. Because drivers would have to remerge into traffic they had left it empty as a way forward instead of entering the parking lot so our bus driver grabbed it and shot ahead of nearly a block of congested car traffic. Bus drivers are not shy about pulling back into traffic and are very skilled at using bus language (like body language) to indicate their intentions. I complemented our driver when I got off.

    Today I was impressed again (remember I am not a regular and I’m sure this is common knowledge). One of DOT’s traffic tools is the “No Parking between X and Y (congestion) hours” in order to create another traffic lane where needed. The fly in the ointment is enforcement. No matter how hard the police ticket and tow the effect is never maintained unless the enforcement is maintained. As soon as the enforcement stops scofflaws return and the lane becomes effectively useless as drivers don’t want to chance it.

    Except bus drivers. So even a partial lane during congestion hours become useful for buses well driven. And that’s what I got this morning. My driver skillfully used lanes where parking was theoretically illegal.

    Too bad my driver didn’t have an enforcement camera on the front of the bus to send tickets to illegal congestion hours parkers.

  • TakeFive

    Eh, you shot well wide of the target but I’ll accept partial responsibility from my acknowledged “not the best transit example.” It’s not the quantity but rather the quality that I wanted to emphasize.

    Are you aware that the most recent APTA report (1st quarter 2017) showed that only four cities managed to eke out an increase in bus ridership? Aside from S.F., Phoenix (city), Milwaukee and Columbus OH all other agencies showed a continuing 4-year downtrend in bus ridership.

    My view is that until a more competitive product is offered more agencies will feel budgetary pressures to reduce service. But the key is that it’s hard to solve a problem that isn’t properly defined or understood.

  • AMH

    Do buses have the right-of-way in LA? That’s an often-overlooked way to prioritize bus riders.

  • AB3

    “L.A. Metro and L.A. DOT have not taken sufficient steps to prioritize buses and provide riders with service that bypasses car traffic on city streets.”

    I think you hit the nail on the head with this. I ride the Metro daily, but when Metro buses (and even light rail) have to wait for or mix with car traffic, the convenience of taking transit begins to evaporate. Add to this a Rapid network that was billed as having “Fast, Frequent, Fabulous” service that has fallen short as it’s expanded. In many cases, Rapids only run during rush hours and on weekdays, and basically function as limited-stop service with the (difficult-to-confirm) ability to increase green lights as they approach intersections.

    Originally billed as a kind of BRT-light service, the advertised Rapid “stations” (which were were a step up from basic Metro Local bus stops) never materialized beyond the Wilshire Blvd and Ventura Blvd corridors. Instead, Rapid “stations” have become just a “7##” sticker on a standard Metro Local bus stop sign; sometimes with a small shade/shelter; sometimes with a lone bus bench; sometimes with just a sign pole.

    Implementation of additional bus-only lanes could be a good first step here, but only with constant enforcement at or near the level of enforcement seen in the bus-only lanes before a Dodger game.

  • Richard

    LA Metro provides 2 fundamentally different types of bus service.

    It provides certain backbone long distance routes for the entirety of LA County.
    It provides local bus service inside of LA City.(and a few other parts of the county)

    Cutting the longer distance routes, which go through less populated parts of the county would naturally lower revenue miles more than revenue hours, as well as slower overall speed.

  • Richard

    It’s all LADOT.
    LADOT will not allow bus lanes.
    LADOT will not allow signal priority.

    Cities outside of LA City(and not under LADOT) have been far more accommodating, giving LA Metro a greater share of the road and signal priority at least for trains.

  • Richard

    No, buses never have right of way in LA City. Not even trains with hundreds of people get right of way. They wait for 1-2 cars to cross at intersections. It’s a huge problem.

  • AB3

    While LADOT has proven a difficult nut to crack, there have been some exceptions to their resistance:
    > Wilshire Blvd peak-hour bus lanes
    > Sunset Blvd peak-hour and game-day bus lanes

    I think the key will be figuring out how get more of these projects executed. But also worth looking at are other time-saving and experience-enhancing changes to Metro Rapid lines that would be more within Metro’s purview. Some I can think of at the moment include:
    > expansion of all-door boarding beyond the 720
    > near-side drop-off during long-duration red lights (i.e. If a Rapid bus arrives at an intersection just after it turns red and the official stop is on the far side of an intersection, the operator should be encouraged to allow passengers the option to disembark while the bus waits at the red light.)
    > increase service hours/days on the limited-service Rapid routes and remind passengers that after 10pm, they have the option of requesting mid-stop dropoffs at the operator’s discretion

    I’m sure there’s more low-hanging fruit out there, but those are some of the thoughts that have been bouncing around my head.

  • Richard

    The Wilshire Blvd peak hour bus lanes are a joke. The 720s now take longer on that route than they did before the peak period lane. Only 2 hours in the morning and 3 in the afternoon, more than half of that time they are blocked by a parked car. The other half of the time they are blocked by cars turning right at intersections with lots of pedestrians. The lanes also do not extend over all of LADOT’s territory, missing a crucial segment in Westwood.

    To be of use, the bus lanes need to be well market, well enforced, and all day.

    As for low hanging fruit for LADOT.
    LADOT needs to install more scrabble crosswalks.
    Give trains signal priority
    They need to remove parking along major blvds. Santa Monica, Wilshire, Vermont could all easily accommodate a 24 hour bus lane if it didnt have parking lanes. Pico and Western could probably use it too. Many neighborhoods have wide local streets that could have diagonal parking to result in no parking loss.
    Obviously charging for parking in neighborhoods with high parking demand also helps. Why LADOT doesnt do this is beyond me.

  • Richard

    As for LA Metro. I agree with all door boarding.
    Also remove cash payment from the Rapid routes entirely to speed them up.
    Local buses should have a few less stops. Every single block is excessive.
    The 300 series limited stop buses are real candidates for upgrade to Rapid service all day.

  • AB3

    I think LADOT needs more direction from above to implement such changes. And to get that direction, the constituency seeking change and improvements needs to become more vocal/visible than the constituency seeking to enforce the status quo, IMHO.

  • Richard

    Sooo
    Want to march on city hall? I think we better not use Tikitorches given recent events.

  • AB3

    Agreed. Personally, I’d like the see the Rapids become the main “trunk lines” of the bus system, with the Locals taking on a role of *local* circulators in areas that DASH doesn’t serve, as well as some sort of first/last-mile option for those arriving at Metro’s rapid-transit stations. Not sure how to implement that last one, but my gut tells me there are some options out there.

  • AB3

    For better or worse, monied interests tend to have more of an effect than marchers. Bake sale?

  • michichan

    Beyond the 750 and 720, the Metro Rapids are nothing more than just limiteds with a couple fewer stops and red buses. Are they even still doing headway control on these routes like the 750 and 720 were originally touted as?

    The problem is that the overall travel time has increased since 1980. Now, of course, there’s more traffic volume but because of the additional transfers in order to get people to rail or the orange line, the overall trip can be longer in some circumstances, especially if the feeders on each side of the rail/BRT is operating at 30 to 60 minute headways.

    Go to retroride.net and enter in a trip plan in the SFV, SGV and portions of the westside and it will show you a comparison based on actual schedules or service levels from circa 1979 compared with actual schedules from 2009 and 2016. Some trips are better, some are worse.

    With the elimination of the freeway expresses and the lack of intercity high capacity rail (Metrolink) and the massively high Metrolink fares, transit is now much less of an attractive option.

    The nice part of riding the freeway express buses was that you got on and then there were few to no stops once you got on the freeway portion. It was a psychological thing. Plus, even though rail may seem overall faster, to many, it’s still like riding the bus because of the intermediate stops the trains make, especially if those intermediate stops are in “poorer” areas.

    Metro needs to add a third track on the old PE Watts line (DTLA to 103rd) and run express trains and bring back the glory of the old 36/456 line. If it was possible to pull the trackage away from freight, try to bring the alignment back to 4-tracks and run two lines on this route. Something similar to the old Watts Local and then a second Long Beach Line that has limited stops or express north of 103rd. If there’s a way to add some kind of express experience to the current Gold (DTLA-Pasadena) would be nice (I know this was experimented with in the past)..

    If Metro wants to do these lines right, they need to build for growth and get enough right of way to triple or 4-track a good chunk of this system so there are opportunities and it can also eventually give us an opportunity for limited owl rail service.

    At the same time, the doubletracking on Metrolink needs to continue where feasible and ROWs need to be better used for public transit and not for bike trails. One of Metro’s stupid bike projects is on an alignment that would make a perfect section of a potential one seat LAX to LAUS heavy rail candidate.

    The thought that visitors are going to transfer at Expo and Crenshaw to get into Los Angeles from LAX is ludicrous. Of course, that means they go to Flyaway and LAWA benefits and not Metro. Go to Denver and take the A-line and you will wish we had a one seat train between LAUS and LAX.

  • Joseph E

    The biggest surprise to me was learning that Los Angeles’s per capita transit operations spending was less than 1/2 as much as DC and 1/4 as much as Seattle. Yonah, are these numbers for the city limits, the county, or the metro area?

  • Wes Joe

    LA is the homeless capital of the U.S. and you see that on the buses. A significant burden on riders. And traffic is bad, the buses are slow, and the streets are potholed — you feel that, especially when standing on a bus. Long terms we have Measures M & H, hopefully more bus lanes, and employment and housing seem to be going in where there is transit. So 10 years out maybe not so bad, but in the short term…

  • Joseph E

    Yonah, your map of 15 minute service is great for the city of Los Angeles, where Metro is the main operator, but it leaves out several frequent lines.

    The blank spots on the map in Long Beach, Santa Monica, the South Bay, and San Gabriel Valley all have local municipal bus systems that offer frequent service. Long Beach has at 10 streets with headways better than every 15 minutes, Santa Monica has 6 frequent routes, and the others do as well.

    The official Metro frequent service map shows those lines as well. I suspect this adds another 1/2 million people living within 1/2 mile of frequent transit https://media.metro.net/riding_metro/maps/images/15_min_map.pdf

  • Joseph E

    That Metro 15 minute map is actually from 2012! But I’m sure Long Beach Transit, the Santa Monica “Big Blue Bus” and Culver City Transit still have similar frequent service.

  • Larry Diaz

    There is also one KEY element you failed to mention with regards to the decline in bus usage and that is the trash that gets on and off the bus. I have seen this first hand , adults and mostly teens who are from the inner city that make it a less than enjoyable ride to get to and from work safely. Living in Long Beach and commuting I would rather sit two hours in traffic than witness the non sense that continues to get worse on ALL LA METRO SERVICES.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    Undocumented immigrants in California were given the right to obtain drivers licences in 2015. Now, both the state and in the city of Los Angeles the minimum wage is in the process of almost doubling. The average household income for Metro bus riders was less than $17,000 a year about two years ago. Raising the minimum wage increases the likelihood that bus riders can afford to own a car. This is very likely to have a negative impact on the amount of bus riders. Expect decreasing bus ridership to continue for at least the next three years as more and more customers buy cars.

  • BJToepper

    An excellent article but with nary a mention of how falling fuel prices correlate strongly with falling metro ridership. This is a vicious cycle: falling fuel prices take riders off the bus and into cars, which creates more congestion, which causes slow buses, which takes riders off the bus, etc.

    Solving Metro’s “problem” really isn’t hard, if we were serious about fixing it: raise the price of driving.

  • bolwerk

    What’s a dated product and ride? Cut lower-ridership service that is contributing to higher-ridership service, and the higher-ridership service will take a shave. That has probably been what is happening in the first place. It might take years for such decisions to bear fruit, but they will, and it will take years to recover.

  • Richard

    Over half your post in response to “bus ridership falling, rail ridership gaining” is basically ‘spend tens of billions of dollars on rail.’

    I would like to see more rail service. I would like to see better rail service. But it wont be a replacement for better bus service and we dont have tens of billions of dollars just laying around.

  • Daniel

    the BRU was given total control of LA’s transit for 10 years and that meant buses, buses, buses and no rail, in order to keep “those people” away from Eric Mann’s Beverly/Hancock/Westside donors

    LA has all the buses it could want—it’s the mounting traffic that’s damaging their usability beyond a few miles (in fact they contribute to traffic)

    LA’s buses have the problems they do today—a decade after the consent decree expired—because rail’s been delayed for decades (add another decade thanks to a tiny vanguardist cult): they were used to substitute for rail (like the Orange Line, which, erm, has to be tracked now)

    that’s why the buses are stuck with unavoidable macro-level vulnerabilities: not to say buses are a black hole, but we need to maintain the buses and EXPAND the rail

  • neroden

    I’ll say it: buses are a black hole.

    As long as buses are running mixed with car traffic, they’re self-defeating.

    And if you can get the political will together to get bus lanes…. you can get a rail line, and you can get it cheaper.

  • neroden

    Don’t underestimate moneyed marchers. Head for City Hall in Brooks Brothers suits waving legal documents, perhaps?

  • Daniel

    it’s important to underscore that buses’ problems aren’t from the service cuts or from some sort of budget-slashing: money’s been poured into them for a decade, but people simply don’t ride once they have the income to do so, and it’s not because of a lack of conscientiousness on the riders’ part or promotion on Metro’s part

    rail competes with other modes of transit, buses compete with cars within a single mode of transit

    rail provides speed and capacity: buses provide coverage—getting you somewhere within half an hour (inclusive of the wait) or take you to the rail arterials

    from my own experience the Rapid has its own bus lane—which is clogged 24/7 with cars either waiting to merge left, or blocked by people turning right waiting for the crosswalk to clear; the Orange’s BRT has “succeeded” to the point where it has to be tracked (at higher expense than if they went with rail in the beginning)

    both of these were attempts to force buses to act like rail (streetcars and LRT, respectively)

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Chicago's Loop Link. Photo: Metropolitan Planning Council

Introducing a New Streetsblog Series: Getting Transit Right

|
With more American cities raising impressive sums to expand transit, the question of how to invest effectively is increasingly essential. So far, few places have hit on a policy combination that makes transit more useful to more people. To help cities "get transit right," Streetsblog is launching a new series about which transit strategies are working and which are not.

Sneak Preview: 2013 in Transit

|
Bus rapid transit projects in Austin, Tampa, and the Twin Cities. Streetcars in St. Louis, New Orleans, and Detroit. Those are just a few of the transit projects beginning construction or entering service in 2013, which looks to be a pretty good year for transit expansion in the U.S., says Yonah Freemark at the Transport […]

Transit Outsourcing Booms — But Are There Safety Trade-offs?

|
New Orleans streetcars, such as the one pictured above, are about to be outsourced to a private French company. (Photo: NYT) The Wall Street Journal reports today on the growing number of cities around the country that are in talks to outsource local transit systems to cope with the budgetary pressures of the recession. New […]