What’s Really Happening to L.A. Transit

Since the recession, fewer buses have been on Los Angeles roads. Photo credit: Chris Yarzab, via Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons License.

Photo credit: Chris Yarzab, via Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons License.

Transit and transportation-reform circles are abuzz over last Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times article highlighting declining ridership on LA Metro, the largest transit agency in Southern California.

The Times piece and subsequent commentary have offered a variety of explanations. LA Metro asserted in response to the article that ridership is “cyclical.” Transit planner Jarrett Walker interpreted the agency’s ridership as fluctuating within a small range. Joe Linton at Streetsblog highlighted highway spending and parking minimums that have stymied dense, transit-oriented development and added to over-reliance on cars. Other observers blamed the rise of Uber and similar shared-mobility options, and still others accused the Times reporters of cherry-picking data.

Yet there is one fact behind the post-recession ridership decline that is unambiguous, according to the National Transit Database: the substantial cuts to rush-hour service LA Metro has made since the recession, especially between 2010 and 2012.

Source: National Transit Database

Source: National Transit Database

In April 2007, LA Metro service peaked at 2,490 rush-hour vehicles. Five years later, this figure had fallen to 2,072 vehiclesa 17 percent decline. (It has since slightly recovered to 2,138 vehicles as of August 2015.)

Vehicles operated at peak service is not a perfect metric. In some cases, a smaller number of trains running on recently opened lines may have replaced a larger number of lower-capacity buses. Still, the magnitude of the service decline is remarkable. Size-wise, it is as if since 2010 the entirety of Phoenix’s bus system has been subtracted from Los Angeles transit service.

Interestingly, the service reductions do not seem to correspond with the revenue declines or cuts to state transit assistance that occurred at the height of the economic crisis. Instead, the timing may be more directly tied to the lapse of a federal consent decree regarding bus service that resulted from a 1994 Bus Riders Union civil rights lawsuit.

LA Metro officials have also hinted that this court case may be a contributing factor. In a 2011 PowerPoint presentation on the “Experience & Lessons Learned” from the consent decree, the agency’s CEO called for “right-sizing” the “inefficient” bus system. This decision seems to have conflicted with the needs of many LA Metro riders, whose median income hovers around $15,000 per year and are thus heavily bus-reliant.

From a fiscal point of view, one can debate the merits of those service cuts. In any case, however, it’s unsurprising that a reduced LA Metro service network is not sustaining pre-recession ridership levels, especially when coupled with a fare increase in the fall of 2014. With 350 fewer buses on the road, there are many Angelenos for whom the system simply isn’t as convenient as it used to be.