Reader Comment: Tom Rubin Takes On L.A. Rail And Ridership

Tom Rubin, an anti-rail activist and former financial official for Southern California Rapid Transit District in the 1980s, penned a lengthy rebuttal [Word] to my blog post on Los Angeles transit ridership, which was in turn a rebuttal to the Los Angeles Times article on transit ridership trends since 1985.  The comment is posted on the Antiplanner blog.

Mr. Rubin’s purpose, as he states it, is to:

respond to the contention Mr. Elkind expressed in the title of his piece and to demonstrate that, not only is [Times reporters] Ms. Nelson’s and Mr. Weikel’s article not misleading in stating that Metro ridership is down, in reality, the downward trend in ridership of the principal transit operator in Los Angeles is actually far worse than the Times article and the data in it makes it appear.

It’s worth reading his comment letter in full, although the basic point is straightforward: low fares mean higher ridership.  His secondary point is that fares have increased in Los Angeles in part to subsidize a rail system that has failed to attract more riders over more cost-effective bus lines, if not cannibalize the bus lines and their riders completely.  Here’s a key section:

Mr. Elkind dismisses the comparison of 2015 to 1985 ridership in Nelson and Weikel’s article by his statement, “The problem with the graph is that the reporters are cherry-picking the absolute high water mark of transit ridership in Los Angeles.”

That is not the “problem;” it is the main point – Los Angeles County was able to achieve this transit ridership high water mark very quickly, relatively simply, and very inexpensively by one main action – lower the fares. No other major city in the U.S. with a mature transit system has ever seen a three-year growth in transit ridership anything remotely close to SCRTD from 1982 to 1985 since at least the end of World War II – and remember, at the end of the three-year 50¢ program, ridership was still going up.

There’s a persuasive correlation between fares and ridership, and it’s fine to make that point.  But my objection to the Times graph was that the reporters made it seem like 1985 was normalcy and an appropriate benchmark for comparing everything that came afterwards.  But starting a graph from the absolute high point is by definition misleading.

And given Mr. Rubin’s point that 1985 was an important outlier, he too should object to the Times not including the prior years.  If anything, those years bolster the point he’s trying to make that the fare decrease was working to boost ridership.  And the full picture also would have put 1985 into perspective for casual readers, so they wouldn’t draw the wrong conclusions about rail and overall ridership.

And that brings me to my other objection to the Times article, which also applies to Mr. Rubin’s critiques, which is that they both seem to blame rail for the ridership woes in Los Angeles.  Or at least in the case of the Times, imply that rail has made no dent in overall ridership.

As Mr. Rubin may know, the three-year bus fare reduction and freeze that he rightly celebrates was actually enabled by the advent of the rail program in Los Angeles.  Proposition A in 1980, which passed with 54% of the vote to raise the sales tax for transit, contained a specific, voter-approved rail set aside, as well as the lowering of bus fares.  The driving force for that initiative was Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, as I detail extensively in my book Railtown (for which I also happened to have interviewed Mr. Rubin).  Mr. Hahn’s primary goal in pushing that initiative was to get a rail network started again in Los Angeles.

So without Hahn’s interest in rail, there would have been no initiative.  And without an electoral coalition that included those voters in favor of rail but otherwise disinterested in buses, there would almost certainly have been no victory for that initiative and therefore no temporary reduction in bus fares for Mr. Rubin and other bus advocates (and riders, at the time) to celebrate.

Pitting bus versus rail is therefore a mistake in my view, as the above example indicates.  Bus advocates have a common interest with rail enthusiasts in bolstering transit in Los Angeles, regardless of mode.  That’s not to say that advocates shouldn’t be critical of wasteful spending.  I’m certainly critical of the lack of development around rail transit stations in Los Angeles, which would make the existing system much more cost-effective and utilized.  I’m also critical of specific rail routes (Green Line) and lack of rail in other routes (Wilshire corridor).  And I’m critical of the long timelines and big price tags to build rail.  But rail brings its own political constituency and funding pots to the table, many of which can be harnessed to benefit buses, too (although that’s admittedly not always the case).

Meanwhile, despite the billions spent on rail to date, which Mr. Rubin decries, I still believe that the system shouldn’t be judged fully until we get a comprehensive network in place and compact neighborhoods built around it.  Given the size and scale of Los Angeles, the current lines are really just a half-built system.  The Measure R projects now in the pipeline will go a long way toward filling in the critical corridor gaps, and their opening should improve the ridership picture (as well as provide other benefits).  So the money that’s been spent to date could still garner ridership pay-offs, particularly once the Purple Line extension to Westwood opens.

The one big caveat is that we don’t know yet if local communities will accept the higher density around rail stations that is needed to make the system truly effective.  So far the evidence is mixed, with a Santa Monica voter initiative to overturn a transit-oriented development and a new city-wide one to restrict density in general.  But we see successes in places like downtown, Hollywood, Long Beach and Koreatown.

Finally, I note that Mr. Rubin takes issue with the comparison to climate change in my original blog post:

Mr. Elkind’s comment, “So choosing 1985 as your baseline is like climate change deniers choosing an unusually warm year in the 1990s to show that global warming hasn’t really been happening since then ” should be ignored.

….This discussion is not in the least similar to climate change, where there are still huge arguments over how much conditions are changing and what man-caused changes are causing this or not – the ridership facts are very clear, there is no argument about how much ridership has changed, and the causes are exceedingly obvious to any one who cares to look for them.

Given my work on climate change mitigation, I feel compelled to dispel any notion that there are “still huge arguments” over these issues, at least in the climate science community.  The scientific consensus on the scale of the problem and the human-induced causation is overwhelming.  Yes, there is debate about exactly what kind of extreme weather events will be most likely and where, but we know there will be some catastrophic changes in store for our civilization, particularly if we don’t transition soon to low-carbon energy.

But overall I’m glad to see the Times article spark an important debate about bus fares, ridership, and the future of cities like Los Angeles.  Even if the original article was misleading and could have addressed the fare issue more directly.


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