Introducing a New Streetsblog Series: Getting Transit Right

Chicago's Loop Link. Photo: Metropolitan Planning Council
Chicago's Loop Link. Photo: Metropolitan Planning Council

Over the past 15 years, Los Angeles spent billions of dollars to nearly double the size of its fixed-guideway transit system, adding light rail routes throughout the county. Those lines opened up new access for Angelenos headed to Santa Monica beach, Pasadena, U.S.C., and East L.A. — certainly making travel more convenient for many trips.

But after all those investments, total transit ridership in the L.A. region is down. Over the past three years alone, the number of annual transit trips declined by 100,000,000 — an average of more than 300,000 fewer riders per weekday.


How could this happen? How could a region spend so much on improving transit, only to see ridership decline?

With cities across the country raising impressive sums to expand their transit systems, these questions are increasingly essential. So far, few American cities have hit on a policy combination that achieves the goal of making transit more useful to more people.

Thanks to a grant from TransitCenter, Streetsblog will be exploring these issues in a new series, “Getting Transit Right.” We’ll be looking at a dozen American cities to better understand which transit strategies are working and which are not.


The cities we’ve chosen are geographically and economically diverse. Some have metro lines that are more than a century old. Others are just exploring their first high-capacity bus routes. But they all share an interest in using transit to connect people to opportunity, help residents get around without driving, and create more walkable neighborhoods.

For each city, we’ll put together an in-depth profile of the state of the transit system and what public officials are doing (or failing to do) to improve it. We’ll interview local experts and inform our analysis by crunching data. Then the story of each city will be told through the lens of these policy areas:

  • Service quality: How useful is local transit service for getting around without needing to rely on a schedule? Are residents able to use bus and train service throughout the day? Which parts of the region are effectively served, and which areas are left out?
  • Land use: Do the areas around transit stations support car-free travel, with a mix of uses and a pedestrian-oriented street environment? Is the region taking steps to prevent auto-centric, exurban development? Is parking required for new projects, or are builders being encouraged to design for walkability around transit stops?
  • Maintenance: Is the transit system in good condition and up to modern standards? What strategies are policy makers pursuing to repair and upgrade transit infrastructure?
  • Recent expansion: Have recent transit investments proven effective at growing overall transit ridership? Are they serving areas where the need and demand for transit are greatest? Have they supported the creation of walkable neighborhoods and encouraged people to switch from driving to transit?
  • Future plans: Which transit projects does the region plan to invest in? Will money for new lines be spent to attract as many riders as possible, or will it support ineffective routes and political pet projects? Will stations be built close to major clusters of development and activity, or on the edges, beyond easy walking distance?

We’ll grade each city on how it’s doing in these policy areas. Allocating resources so transit service connects major clusters of residences, jobs, and other uses will rate highly, while politically expedient but low-ridership projects will not. Land use decisions that foster the growth of walkable neighborhoods will score well; park-and-ride development will not.

Our goal is to provide insight into how the allocation of transit resources can serve more people more effectively. Over the course of the series, we aim to generate analysis that readers can use for reference — best practices as well as paths to avoid. (To get transit right, you have to identify how transit can go wrong.)

We’ll begin our regular “Getting Transit Right” coverage next week, with a series of articles on Atlanta, which last November passed a $2.5 billion transit referendum. We hope readers find the series enlightening and that our work will help public officials and advocates make well-informed decisions for cities and transit riders.

39 thoughts on Introducing a New Streetsblog Series: Getting Transit Right

  1. Sounds great, looking forward to this series. In Los Angeles, I’m sure you’ll get into this, but it’s important to note that rail ridership is (way) up while bus ridership is down. It will be interesting to see what locals and experts think of this trend.

  2. How about time competitiveness against car? For me, if transit takes more than twice as long as car, I’ll drive or take Lyft. Higher frequency helps, but only so much since one can time their trip.

  3. It suggests that the city has weaknesses in running the bus system. They need to strengthen their management and user outreach.

  4. Here in East Bay, be sure to look at AC Transit Rapid Bus 72 on San Pablo Ave, and later in 2017 its new Bus Rapid Transit on International/E14th St

  5. I think an equal parity between transit and private car is almost always impossible to achieve, but I’d argue this isn’t even a reasonable goal. The reduction of congestion that frees up space for other uses like more sidewalk space, bike lanes, turning parking garages into more productive/developable and pedestiran-friendly land are all good target outcomes of better transit, even if transit doesn’t match the speed and “convenience” of a private car.

    Also, time on transit can be more productive than sitting behind the wheel of a vehicle; if the cost of time is factored into driving yourself and the benefits of productive time added into transit, I bet travel times don’t even have to come that close to each other in order to “break even.”

  6. This is typical of most American (read: US) cities. It explains the near universal fixation and praise for very expensive investments in new light-rail lines whereas investments in existing bus service or improvements to BRT and comparable pseudo-services is looked upon with continuing disdain. There is something about buses that Americans just don’t like, and that’s a stereotype and social fixation that is going to be very difficult to break.

  7. I agree with you to some extent, but consider success of Caltrain’s Baby Bullets… Car takes about 80% of the Caltrain time, so even without bad traffic, it’s competitive.

    Now compare I80 stretch over baby bridge vs BART from Richmond. Without traffic, Car takes about 30% of the time BART takes due to circuitous routing and slow running east of West Oakland.

    Given lack of alternatives, traffic on bridge is hopeless be bad because it takes 20 mins worth of delays just be on par.

    I think my answer is a little wordy, but I hope I illustrate my point that hopelessly slow bus that is slower than driving in heavy traffic is not useful.

  8. I take your point perfectly. Certainly travel times need to be competitive; I only objected to 100% parity. 80% seems acceptable, 30% is definitely not.

  9. Then they have their work cut out for them. The majority of bus lines are run by LA Metro (Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority) while LA DOT (Los Angeles City Department of Transportation) runs a few shuttle lines in the Downtown area. The problem is that buses have the stigma of being the poor man’s transportation and rail has the cachet of being middle class transportation. The Los Angeles Transit Riders Union has long lobbied for more and better bus service but sometimes they lobby against increase in rail service because they view it as discrimination against the poor of Los Angeles County.

  10. If you throw time spent searching for parking into the equation, public transit can be competitive if not an improvement over driving.

  11. Generally agree with this. Buses do have a stigma, but LA has been adding substantial rail service and not near as much bus service. So not only are there new rail riders, but many rail riders were likely former bus riders.

  12. Look forward to the series. I actually prefer learning about other cities transit systems that I’m not familiar with especially since I already know I’d disagree with the assessment of Denver so hopefully that isn’t one of the cities, lol.

  13. I think an equal parity between transit and private car is almost always impossible to achieve

    I live in Tokyo, and going someplace by rail is almost always faster than going the same place by car, sometimes significantly so. There are of course times and location-pairs where that isn’t true, but on average, it is.

    This is true for a number of reasons:

    (1) Very good coverage for the rail network, including destinations far outside the city core

    (2) Almost universally high-frequency. It’s rarely necessary to care about schedules, you just go and get on the next train.

    (3) Because rail is the dominant form of transportation for distances too far to walk (or bike), the city’s development has largely followed the rail network, so on average, destinations are more likely to be near a rail station than not.

    (4) Congestion means that travel time for cars (and buses, sadly) can be extremely variable, and at peak times, you’re not going anywhere fast. Tokyo actually has a very good network of highways and trunk roads, but it’s still not enough to handle the load. [Parking is also a huge problem for drivers, and will cost you dearly in many cases, making driving signficantly more expensive too.]

    For American cities, (4) is often already true, (3) will only happen very gradually over time, although you can give it a boost by promoting TOD. (1) is very expensive and long-term, but can be worked on. Maybe (2) is within reach for the short-term though…

  14. Buses are a different type of service, they’re suited for different things.

    Rail delivers a better service for high-capacity trunk lines and dense TOD. Buses work better in feeder service, where there isn’t enough [potential] ridership to justify rail.

  15. This is THE reason overall LA ridership is down. The vast majority of buses here are stuck in the same traffic as everyone else–but buses experience it worse because they have to keep pulling in and out of traffic to make stops. A trip that takes ~45 minutes during rush hour in a car can take ~1.5 hours on bus. Throw in a transfer and you’re talking 3 hours to do what might take 1.5 hours MAX in a car.

    Ironically when the bus MIGHT be competitive due to lack of traffic, there’s a combination of utterly shit headways and Uber/Lyft being cheap enough that only people for whom their money is significantly more valuable than their money will elect to still use the bus.

    Under such conditions, it shouldn’t shock anyone that rail expansion cannibalizes bus ridership.

  16. Exactly, Jason! The #1 thing cities can do to improve transit attractiveness is designate bus only lanes to keep traffic moving. It is the same principal as car pool lanes — Engineers and planners must get serious about incentivizing efforts to reduce traffic congestion.

  17. A good transit policy can only start with a good land use policy, and practically everything else comes secondary to that. A bad (3) will preclude (2) to a high extent as more money must go to coverage routes, and an abundance of parking, enabled by zoning codes and DOTs, will ensure cars are almost always time-competitive to transit. A city’s political decisions are the basis of its policy decisions.

  18. Frustration: 72 during rush hour, when it crawls along with the traffic but still only stops at every 2nd stop. Is there any way they could give it priority over cars?

  19. Would it make sense to make it legal for buses to use the shoulder at say 20mph, on freeways, plus require that cars in adjacent lane give them the right of way, if they need to move into it when the shoulder disappears or is occupied? (Yes it would require beefing up the paving of the shoulder.)

  20. The big problem seems to me to be that there is already much too much transportation capacity in America, and transit fans want to solve the problem by adding even more pricey capacity.

    The key is better land use.

  21. In terms of speeding up boarding and reducing dwell time at stops for buses, I’d like to see more transit systems move towards all door boarding, such as Muni in San Francisco has done, and moving away from cash payment as much as possible.

  22. The biggest problem I see with American systems is the poor frequency. You can’t expect people to take the bus if it only comes by every 30 min, you can’t expect people to use rapid transit if it only comes by every 10 min during peak hours.

  23. It is relatively easy to come very very close at the very least if not possible. I think that one can do it by removing the financially unviable freeways with and reconfiguring the unviable stroads into city boulevards. This would go a long way towards solving most of the ills of society today in and of itself without the boost to transit.

  24. It baffles me how this remains a mystery. Urban fabric and transit need to work together. Where they do, transit soars. Where they don’t people drive whenever they can. Also, buses are great if they feed a rail backbone that makes sense. Buses in lieu of rail (like paralleling rail, in LA, quite often) signals transit for those who do not have a car. Yes, BRT would be better, but then BRT is a system you build before you can (want to) afford rail. Rail is the contemporary transit of choice the world over, with smaller buses feeding into it; and with that we need a city that is coordinated with that, with appropriate densities that generate the ridership to keep it all afloat.

  25. And exacerbating the frequency is the scheduling. When lines overlap, instead of staggering the schedules to at least provide 15 minute headways on the overlapping portion, they’ll just have everything depart within 5 minutes of each other. Likewise, transfer opportunities will be timed such that you JUST miss the transfer–often you can literally watch the bus you need pull away while your bus is pulling up–forcing you to wait the entire shitty headway for the next bus.

    Also, many systems aren’t even serious about keeping to their pathetic schedules. In Santa Monica I have to deal with a Big Blue Bus line that can, and frequently does, arrive anywhere from 5 minutes early to 10+ minutes late. On a line that varies between 30 and 45 minute headways. Big Blue Bus’s response? Be at the bus stop 10 minutes before the scheduled departure time and not marking buses as late until 15 minutes have gone by. It makes all their advertising about trying to get people out of their cars ring rather hollow.

  26. Buses are slow, unreliable, uncomfortable, and smelly.

    Now, technically it is possible to fix all of this. Exclusive bus lanes fix slow and unreliable. Electric buses fix uncomfortable and smelly.

    If you do all of that, you often find that the buses are bursting with passengers and can’t handle the load, so you should have built rail (since trains can be waaaaay longer than buses). Case in point: LA’s Orange Line (or Orange Lie, as it is sometimes called).

    You also find that the electric buses with exclusive bus lanes are more expensive to operate and maintain than a train line.

  27. Correct, but in the US, places which can only justify feeder service generally have no service at all. Practically everywhere which has bus service in the US probably should have rail service. 😛

  28. The Orange line gets one of the worst ridership-per-mile figures of any dedicated transit line, rail or bus. But this is the ultimate BRT strawman argument though. You are arguing on the basis of rolling stock improvements and not corridor-by-corridor improvements. In Europe, when they deploy systemwide TSP, dedicated lanes and multi-door boarding, they don’t have to dress it up in special BRT branding or restrict it to piss-poor suburban areas. When US cities can’t replicate this, it’s not because they necessarily have to fight against rail, it’s that they’re completely misprioritizing where BRT, and by extension rail should go.

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