Death Spiral: Riders Fleeing LA Buses

Ridership on the Los Angeles Metro bus system fell 25 percent over the past decade.

Los Angeles is struggling to keep riders and attract new passengers to its bus system.
Los Angeles is struggling to keep riders and attract new passengers to its bus system.

Los Angeles’s buses are losing so many riders you’d think they were filming a remake of “Speed.”

Ridership on Los Angeles County buses plummeted 25 percent over the past decade as the region’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority lost about 95 million trips, according to the Los Angeles Times.

It’s the steepest decline among major transit systems in the country, matching a stubborn nationwide slump for public transit with 31 of 35 largest metropolitan areas in the country losing ridership last year. In LA, only 2 percent of the region’s population uses public transit very often, about 20 percent ride rail or buses occasionally, and more than 75 percent never or very rarely use transit, a 2018 UCLA study found.

Instead, car ownership has been growing, particularly among low-income immigrants and Latinos in Los Angeles as well as Imperial, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura counties, according to the UCLA study. The share of foreign-born households that don’t have access to a car fell 42 percent between 2000 and 2015, the study found.

Californians are making the choice to purchase a car over taking public transit for several reasons.

Rising rents in Los Angeles have made housing unaffordable and pushed low-income families to the transit-starved suburban outskirts where a car is more likely to be seen as a necessity.

Lower immigration rates and a state law that allows undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver’s license is decreasing the pool of people who rely on public transit to get around the region, the LA Times reported.

A surge in the city’s homeless population — up 16 percent in the past year — has strained the bus system and led to complaints about rider safety.

Perhaps most damningly, the buses themselves are slow and unreliable. Average bus speeds decreased from 12 to just over 10 miles per hour over the past 10 years, plaguing riders with long wait times, delays, and multiple transfers just to get to work or school.

One beleaguered commuter who spends five hours a day getting to her college classes told the Los Angeles Times, “Driving here is a pain because of the traffic, but it’s still more convenient. On the bus, I just can’t get from Point A to Point B whenever I need to go. I hate it.”

The increased number riders trading their Metro cards for driver’s licenses is worrisome particularly as California seeks to curb traffic congestion and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

The Metro board has largely focused on expanding the county’s lattice network of rail system, adding $2 billion for building transit in its $7.2 billion Fiscal Year 2020 budget.

The agency slightly boosted bus service hours from 7.02 million to 7.1 million for 2020 and is redesigning 165 lines and 14,000 stops for the first time in decades.

Yet navigating buses through Los Angeles roadways at a higher speed remains a challenge. If buses can’t transport passenger quickly and more efficiently than a private vehicle, there’s little incentive to take one.

“Having a good basic service is critical, and that service has to be run well,” Conan Cheung, a senior executive at LA Metro, told the LA Times. “If it’s not on time, if we don’t have priority, or if we can’t speed up our service in relation to driving, then it’s going to be difficult to capture new riders.”

17 thoughts on Death Spiral: Riders Fleeing LA Buses

  1. Sharing about Death vortex is quite impressive and attractive. The topic you share is very interesting. I would love to read your article.

  2. LA County should have rail service similar to the Bay Area’s BART. Trains should be fast and frequent. This would enable commuters going long distances to take a fast train from their neighborhood to the neighborhood of their work, and then take a bus to complete the last mile (or two) of their journeys. Imagine if the Blue Line was as fast as the Red Line and had zero pedestrian fatalities or automotive collisions every year. With the minimum investment per mile of rail being so high, we should be investing in a backbone network that enables people to get out of their cars.

  3. The decline in transit stems from the poor buying their own cars because they’re fed up with inferior service and not being able to go where they please. Cities that spend billions of dollars on light rail projects LIKE Los Angeles inevitably decrease or terminate bus services to pay for the
    construction cost overruns that inevitably rise beyond projected budgets when the projects were decided upon…case in point almost every light rail project in the last 30 years.

    Low-income transit riders are giving up on transit. They have been for years. Transit ridership has been steadily on the decline since 2014. Transit systems growing costs, declining service are shifting poor
    people into autos. Constant service cuts, the Billions in deferred maintenance debacles rail construction costs, decreasing quality and increasing lewd behavior and criminal activity have all played their part in transits slow decline. They cant fix it, they don’t want to fix it; it’s sad and disgusting to be on and they want no expenditure to pay for upgrades; at least Not without Federal or states bearing most of the burden which in the long run creates a more bureaucratic and incompetent city government that cant succeed in any endeavor without. Worker productivity among transit systems nationwide have also declined.
    In 1960, most transit agencies were private, transit carried ~60,000 trips per working employee each year. Today it is less than
    25,000. In an era in which employee productivity in most industries is
    rapidly growing, in transit it is declining. The transit industry has become more a bloated bureaucracy and rail tycoon empire than a transportation provider. Combine ALL this with the fact the industry has evolved into a taxpayer addict; where subsidies ccount for over 70% of it’s operating costs and nearly ALL it’s capital costs.

  4. Bus speeds have reduced because of road diets. Check out the madness in Mar vista. Also the free licenses to illegal aliens combined with the crazies on the bus, it’s no wonder ridership is down.

  5. It could be that LA County’s emphasis on rail and highway construction is counterproductive because it takes too many resources away from the bus system. We need bus rapid transit with dedicated lanes, because it’s super cost effective, but that requires political courage, a natural resource LA does not have in abundance.

  6. Well, duh. Why do you think Metro implemented the stupid 2-hour transfer thing?

    Metro has cut lines short. This forces people to take more buses to get to where they are going. I used to take one bus to get to work. Now I take 3 (even 4 on unlucky days).

    What happens when one of those lines are delayed or they cut evening service? The time to commute balloons even more. This is not even counting the last mile walk since buses don’t always conveniently stop where you actually live.

    How can you not want to buy a car?

  7. Can’t believe this article doesn’t mention fares, which have been shown in study after study to play a major role in ridership.

    The omission exemplifies the bourgeois attitude where transit is designed to win over drivers rather than serve existing riders well. No wonder we’re spending billions to no avail.

    I like shiny trains too, but we should be prioritizing those who don’t have the choice to drive instead.

  8. To respond to the comment on BART- I’d have to disagree on Metro trying to emulate their level of service. BART service is pretty abysmal for a major rail system outside of the SF-Daly City portion where at least 4 lines meet on weekdays. Weekends are much worse than Metro Rail. I do agree that more routes should serve Metro Rail but that there must be a balance- otherwise we have systems like SamTrans that make way too many deviations– sure they go BART but if you’re just trying to get around on bus alone it’s terrible.

  9. Another factor that everybody has forgot is how transit systems all over this country and Canada slashed service and raised fares during the Great Recession, just as people were deciding to give public transit another try. The reduced service and higher fares meant that they went back to their cars, just as was predicted would happen.

  10. LA and NYC should make buses free. In NYC people are trading in their MetroCards for app-based ride pooling. Getting rid of the fare-gate on buses will make getting on and off faster, and may encourage tourists to ride it as well.

  11. Los Angeles is one of the metro areas that needs a hard ceiling on rents and home sale prices, an indefinite moratorium on publicly funded police services for evictions.and whatever else it will take to force housing costs down by the power of the state; the market is in an absolute failure mode there. Forcing housing affordability is worth trying in the interest or shortening commutes.

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