USC Transport Faculty respond to the LA Times Metro Ridership story

Metrans Transportation Institute asked a group of us to respond to the LA Times Ridership story, which you can find here.

Genevieve Giuliano is the Ferraro Chair in Effective Government at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, and Director of the METRANS Transportation Center writes about Placing the Numbers in Context:

While the Los Angeles Time’s interpretation of the study wasn’t incorrect, it targets LA Metro without providing context on what is happening in in other metropolitan regions. To really understand the study, we should first take a look at what was presented. Over the past few years, transit ridership has declined across the Southern California region. Some places have lost more ridership than others (Orange County, Santa Monica). It looks like LA Metro is in the middle of the pack, as we would expect for the largest agency in the region. If ridership is declining everywhere, there are systemic factors at work that are independent of any single transit agency’s policies. These factors may include changes in: 1) economic conditions, 2) work patterns; 3) population characteristics; 4) substitutes for transit.

Sandip Chakrabarti, Ph.D. is a Research Associate at the USC METRANS Transportation Center. His research focuses on the analysis of land use-transportation interactions, travel behavior, public transit planning and operations, multi-modal system performance measurement and monitoring, and impact analysis of new transportation investments. His entry is found here.

I did some quick number crunching, and it seems to me that Metro, the transit powerhouse of the Southern California region, has not made great decisions over the 2006-2014 period. See Figure 1 (top panel). Over the period, and in the group of the largest U.S. transit agencies in terms of their 2014 ridership (unlinked passenger trips or UPT), Metro has had one of the lowest increases in both UPT (as % – in fact a decrease) and in the number of boardings added (again, a decrease) per dollar spent in capital expenses. One can argue that Los Angeles is different and that it is far more challenging to plan for transit, and to attract and retain riders here. But the public can question, and Metro needs to have a good explanation. The 1995-2005 period, however, was different. See Figure 1 (bottom panel). In this period, just after most of the Metro rail network was built, Metro experienced a substantial increase in ridership and yield compared to its peers. Does that mean Metro is doing the right thing by building more rail in the region? I don’t think the answer is an easy “yes.” It’s all about building the right service in the right place at the right time.

James Moore is director of the Transportation Engineering program in the USC Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Vice Dean for Academic Programs in the Viterbi School of Engineering. He writes Busways are a Better Alternative:

The LA Times article focuses some overdue media daylight on specious policy claims by MTA and others that rail lines are key to improving transportation services in Los Angeles. The MTA responded in the article with the standard agency smoke screen: Let us finish the system. They report that once they achieve a “complete buildout,” the rail system will perform. It won’t. We’ll spend billions more on rail at the expense of bus service, and continue to drive down transit ridership as we force riders off buses. No one currently with the agency will still be employed by the agency in the distant future the MTA is claiming to predict. None of the parties responsible for spending on rail transit will be standing before the public to be held accountable. They will be long retired, and not available to explain why the future they promised never materialized.

Marlon Boarnet is a renowned authority on urban economics, urban growth patterns, transportation, and regional science. He notes that the system management perspective gets us better planning:

But let’s not kid ourselves. Sales taxes are, if anything, an exercise in the politically practical and far from an effective transportation finance tool. We should be exploring mileage fees (ideally weighted based on fuel consumption or pollutants emitted from the vehicle) and congestion pricing. Seventy-five percent of all transportation funds spent in the greater L.A. area are from local (sub-state) tax sources. We need to aggressively move toward a transportation system that finances our investments fairly, by charging persons for the pollution and congestion that they create. While we are at it, let’s be sure to tax the new rideshare services, Uber, Lyft, and the like, based on mileage fees, with higher taxes for rideshare services that occur during congested time periods in congested locations. Use the revenues from well-crafted mileage fees to maintain and, as needed, expand our highways, fill potholes in the roads, expand bus service, and complete our rail system.

And then obviously I’m me. I write that Angelenos have to commit to the systems, and politicians have to show leadership: can read all of it here.

Metro also needs to do better in working with employers and with other institutions. For instance, Metro did absolutely nothing when USC discontinued its support for transit riders. Regardless of whether USC’s transit subsidy program attracted many riders, it was a signaling and leadership moment when USC axed its program. Metro’s leaders didn’t say “boo” in response. The LA DOT didn’t say “boo.” For all the prancing around our Mayor and other state Democrats do about alternative transportation, they did diddly to stand up to USC. When one of the region’s largest employers kicks transit support to the curb, agencies like Metro and the DOT, and our Mayor, need to show leadership, set the tone, and say “Hey, wait a minute. We know this program costs you money, but we’re trying to accomplish something here; we’re trying to build transit as a way of life in this city. Why are you bugging out on us?” That episode is so discouraging because it shows how much LA’s elected leadership wants to dig into taxpayers’ pockets at sales tax time to make sure the pretty trains get built, but how little real political capital our politicians wield in helping riders ride the pretty trains once they actually get built.