The Los Angeles Times has a depressing story on the ridership free-fall on Metrolink, Southern California’s long-haul commuter line:
Once hailed as the fastest-growing commuter line in the nation, the railroad has seen its annual ridership drop by almost 595,000 passengers since 2008, with resulting losses in revenue. That and other factors have left the agency squeezed between trimming service or boosting fares, either of which could prompt more defections.
The article blames the recession mostly, but the head-on collision in 2008 and poor service with high fares seem to be huge factors, too. Overall, the biggest long-term problem may be the increasingly diffuse pattern of job growth in Southern California:
Studies indicate that the size of the workforce in the core of Los Angeles has stagnated somewhat in the last 20 years while the number of residents has tripled. At the same time, employment has risen in Orange County, the South Bay and on the Westside.
But only Orange County is served by Metrolink, and many new downtown L.A. residents tend to work closer to home and don’t need the rail service.
“The job growth is not that high in downtown Los Angeles,” said Brian Taylor, a professor of urban planning at UCLA. Metrolink’s “ridership is very sensitive to economic change and employment shifts.”
Employment density near transit is one of the most important factors driving ridership. While it’s great that downtown LA has seen a huge surge in residential density, city leaders should be concerned about job sprawl undermining transit ridership. Perhaps San Francisco can be a model, where Mayor Ed Lee made it a priority to attract new businesses/offices to the mid-Market area, leading to the “Twitter surge” that has transformed that long-moribund part of the city. Los Angeles leaders should make attracting new businesses to downtown a top priority. Not just for the benefit to Metrolink of course, but for the overall convenience it would add for residents to have easy, traffic-free access to their jobs.