20th Anniversary of the LA Rail System and where we go from here

So, the Blue Line is 20 years old this past week. The LA Times had a story that prominently featured comments from my colleague, Jim Moore, and his pragmatic assessment of where we are. In some respects, the rail in Los Angeles epitomizes the falling productivity numbers in transit overall. Here’s a selection:

According to figures from the Federal Transit Administration, the MTA had about 497 million passenger boardings in 1985, when the agency did not have any rail service. As the rail program developed during the 1990s, the figure bottomed out at about 375 million boardings by 1996. The boarding numbers includeFoothill Transit, which broke off from the MTA in 1989. Transit use finally met or slightly exceeded the 1985 level in 2006 and 2007, but dipped to about 487 million in 2009, largely due to the recession. Rubin and Moore noted that the MTA has not been able to increase its market share even though the population of Los Angeles County has increased roughly 20% since 1985. Rubin and Moore said the MTA had a 50-cent bus fare in 1985, which was subsidized by Proposition A, the county’s first sales tax to help pay for transportation projects. The low fare fueled a rapid rise in transit use in the early 1980s. In 1986, they said, bus funding from Proposition A was shifted to rail projects, initially for the Blue Line. With the subsidy gone, the basic, one-way bus fare rose by 35 cents and ridership dropped by about 47 million that year. Today, the basic transit fare is $1.50.

link: L.A. officials to mark 20th anniversary of Metro Rail system – latimes.com

It’s hard to disagree with much here, but I am going to. First, where they are right–the transit productivity numbers are falling, and that’s a real problem when we want to rationalize public investment. There are things that might turn this around, like a longer price spike for gasoline, but right now, our investments in transit appear to be diminishing in returns for Los Angeles, and we do not want that.

One of my intellectual debts to Tom Rubin and Jim Moore derives from the last point in the paragraph: the need to keep transit fares low and affordable if we want people to use the system, whatever the technologies the system is made up of.

Their point I can’t quite sign off on: that we’d have more passengers now had we forgotten about investing in rail and simply gone with the strategies noted above: more bus service (frequency), lower fares. I don’t think we can know that. It’s a very hard assessment. We don’t know what we’re trading off there, really. The faster, line-haul functions of rail transit do provide service quality improvements over longer distances. BRT innovations are still pretty new. If Moore and Rubin are right, it might be that there would be more users with access to fewer destinations; while this isn’t necessary the end of the world, it would be somewhere less than we imagine the optimum possible with many riders having near ubiquitous access throughout the region. That said, we might not be able to afford the optimum given budget constraints, and they could be right: we hit way lower than the reasonable sub optimum.

But for all we really know, the counterfactual for transit today–without rail–could also be one where we have even fewer passengers than we do because we didn’t add the line-haul improvements of the rail. With lower fares and better bussing we’d have more passengers than without those improvements, but I don’t think we can know empirically that those improvements would have caused productivity to fall less than the route we went.

And we could always argue that the population growth in the region occurred in places not well-served by rail transit. I just wrote a paper for the Volvo foundation asking why, after 19 years of near-frenzied real estate activity in Los Angeles, the Blue Line still didn’t get much development out of it. (It did get some, in the downtowns: Los Angeles, Compton, and Long Beach). I don’t know that we can claim that Los Angeles isn’t growing in places that are transit-accessible–this is a research project for when the next census comes out. It could be that we’re putting $750K condos near transit and wondering why we don’t get more riders–though there are some nice, affordable condos along the Gold Line.

Nonetheless, the lesson from the FTA numbers require us to think carefully about where we go from here.

We are in fiscal crisis in transit, and we are making a huge mistake, given my point earlier this week about frequency and their point about fares.

So along with the deafening keen to push more and more money into capital investment around HSR and more rail projects, transit companies are raising fares—by a lot—and cutting service frequency. It’s a pennywise and pound foolish strategy for dealing with transit’s money troubles and its future. Because geographic coverage is only one of our pillars of ridership: fares, frequency, and comfort are the others. Scrimping on those last ones merely to produce geographic coverages means we rushing towards an end-game in transit where we are building trains we can’t afford drivers to drive.

This is not sustainable.

As long as organizations like the MTA are dominated by the idea that they are transit builders rather than transit providers, we will have this imbalance. And if we ever needed some evidence that the MTA celebrates building rather than service, take a look at their site celebrating the 20 years of rail: not a word about passengers, just a laundry list of one project after another:

20 Years of Metro Rail

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