Bus-Only Solution To L.A.’s Transit Ridership Problems Ignores Context & Other Options

Some longtime rail opponents made an appearance in the Los Angeles Times op-ed pages last month, with a bus-only solution to recent transit ridership woes. James Moore from USC teamed up with former Southern California Rapid Transit District chief financial officer Tom Rubin to blame falling transit ridership on L.A. Metro’s lack of investment in buses compared to rail.

Moore and Rubin went to lengths to extol the benefits of the now-expired 1990s consent decree to settle a lawsuit against L.A. Metro by the Bus Riders Union. The settlement decree forced L.A. Metro to privilege spending on buses over rail:

The settlement allowed Metro to build all the rail it could afford, so long as specific bus service improvements were made too. Those improvements included reducing fares, increasing service on existing lines, establishing new lines, replacing old buses and keeping the fleet clean. Lo and behold, while the decree was in force L.A.’s transit ridership rose by 36%. When Metro was no longer bound by the settlement, it refocused its efforts almost exclusively on new rail projects. The quality of bus service began declining in almost every way measurable, and overall ridership again fell.

Moore and Rubin’s 2017 op-ed hasn’t actually changed much since their 2008 version in the same paper. But their claim that the consent decree boosted L.A.’s transit ridership by 36% sounds different from the 2008 op-ed. In that original piece, they acknowledged that the ridership boost during the consent decree also included rail riders, given the new lines being unveiled at the same time:

Over the next 11 years, [L.A. Metro] added buses, started new lines and held fares in check to improve the country’s most overcrowded bus system. As a result, users of public transit gradually started to increase again. Yes, some chose the Blue, Red, Green and new Gold rail lines, but the majority of riders returned to buses.

“Gradually started to increase” in 2008 doesn’t seem to match their 20017 claim of a 36% boost. Meanwhile, Bus Riders Union estimates of ridership during the consent decree years was evidently 1% per year increase, per the LA Weekly in a 2005 article.  That’s not much to get excited about, given the scale of the ridership problem and the amount of money L.A. Metro spent on consent decree compliance.

I certainly agree that lower bus fares can mean more ridership, and I support improved bus service. But the idea that the consent decree was a big ridership win seems like revisionist history. More importantly, Moore and Rubin’s arguments fail to put the L.A. transit ridership problem into the national context it deserves. With low gas prices and a booming economy, plus the impact of Uber and Lyft, transit ridership decreases are happening everywhere. This isn’t just about L.A. Metro’s decision to build a lot of rail.

A true response to the challenge involves multiple solutions, of which better bus service and lower fares are just one arrow in the quiver. More dense development around transit and congestion pricing also need to be in the mix, for example. Focusing only on ideologically motivated solutions, introduced regardless of context, is less likely to be an effective approach to tackling the problem.