Los Angeles: The MTA's Bus Stop Strategy

Los Angeles Metro Bus.jpg

Those who run the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority evidently believe that, since the Consent Decree that forced it to improve service to its bus riders has expired, they are free to rewrite history to justify Metro's elimination of nine bus lines, its reductions in service on eleven more, and its overall elimination of four percent of its bus service hours by attempting to show that MTA bus service is little utilized and not cost-effective.

The Consent Decree followed a decade of reductions in bus service and increases in fares while the majority of transit spending by the major LA transit agencies went to rail. As a result of a Federal Title IX (discrimination in utilization of Federal funding) legal action, Labor/Community Strategy Center v MTA, in 1996, Metro agreed to the CD. It was forced to eliminate the effective doubling of fares that it had imposed, to return to offering the monthly passes that had been highly utilized by low-income transit riders, and to commit to a relief of overcrowded bus service. Those of us who fought for the CD, and who fought Metro to make it live up to its commitments, believed the CD to be an incredible success.

MTA has always felt otherwise.

To see how MTA characterizes the CD as a failure, and thus justifies bus service reductions, go to the source… literally. The Source is MTA's blog:

"After the late 1990's, Metro increased bus service by more than one million hours. Although overall Metro ridership has increased over time, bus ridership has fallen or been flat in the past two decades."

This is a wonderful example of the creative use of statistics.

The latest National Transit Database data is for 2009, when there were 386 million bus boardings. In 1989, twenty years earlier, there had been 412 million. So, yes, Metro bus ridership fell over this two decade period.

However, a more relevant way of looking at this is to compare 1996 – the year before the CD went into effect – to 2009. From 1996 to 2009, mostly as a result of the CD, bus vehicle revenue hours were up 20.2%, miles were up 14.6%, and bus boardings were up 14.5%.

What the CD was intended to correct, more than anything, was Metro's history of reducing overall ridership, bus and rail, by an average of 12 million a year in the eleven years that followed its start of major rail construction in '85. The measure of the CD's success was the turnaround: Once it went into effect, Metro ridership increased 12 million a year for the next eleven years until it expired.

Metro did increase bus service substantially after the CD, and utilization of this service increased at right about the same level. Again, from The Source:

"How full are Metro buses today? Overall, Metro buses are running at an average of 42% capacity."

The 42% figure is evidently derived by dividing Metro's FY09 bus average passenger load – passengers-miles/vehicle revenue miles – by the average number of seats on Metro buses. The figure looks low, doesn't it? Think about all those empty seats.

However, unlike an airline flight from LAX to JFK, Metro buses make many stops along their routes to pick up and drop off passengers. Bus scheduling is developed around the maximum carrying capacity of a bus at the peak load point of the route during the peak ridership period. This means that, for much of the day, and for most of even the busiest bus trips, there are a lot of empty seats. That's the nature of the transit business.

And compare Metro bus service to its 20 largest peers. For 2009, Metro was had the second highest average passenger load of the group, at 17.1, beaten only by MTA-NYCT, at 17.9. The average of the results of the Top 20 was 11.3. That 42% starts looking pretty good . In fact, a ratio this high actually suggests that a lot of Metro bus lines should be examined for overcrowding.

"At present, Metro subsidizes about 71 percent of the cost of each passenger's bus ride, an amount higher than most other large transit agencies."

More commonly, this ratio is turned around, as in: Metro has a 29% farebox recovery ratio.

How does Metro bus rank up against its Top 20 peers? Seventh, and the average of the Top 20 is 27%. However,farebox recovery ratio can be a very misleading metric. Direct subsidy ratios are a more significant indicator, particularly taxpayer subsidy per passenger and per passenger-mile. Metro's subsidy/passenger was $1.74, third in the Top 20, against the average of its peers of $2.49; its subsidy/passenger mile of $.44 was second best, against the average of $.68.

So, rather than the bus service financial performance being sub-standard, it is actually outstanding, providing good value for the riders and great value for the taxpayers.

Instead of Metro telling the world what a great job it is doing, and taking pride in what it has accomplished, why is Metro leadership explaining how wasteful it is, and why service must be cut?

"As to whether [these] will be the final bus service changes, Leahy said that he wasn't sure. 'But, if we don't do these things, the capital program is not sustainable.'"

For those not familiar with MetroSpeak, "capital program," when applied to transit, primarily means building more rail.

This is the central issue: Metro is in the business of construction of transportation infrastructure, and money wasted on actually moving people takes away from what is available to build new guideway transit corridors.

As of this writing, Metro has Chatsworth Orange Line extension (BRT) and Expo Light Rail Phase I in construction, Expo Phase II approaching construction, and a design/build procurement for Phase 2A of the Pasadena Gold Line is underway.

Metro is also in various stages of planning and obtaining funding commitments for East San Fernando Valley North-South BRT lines, Sepulveda Pass Transit Corridor, Westside Subway Extension, Downtown Regional Transit Connector, Crenshaw/LAX Transit Corridor, Eastside Transit Corridor, Green Line LAX Extension, South Bay Green Line Extension, and West Santa Ana Transit Corridor. Plus, it's the majority partner for the seven Metrolink commuter rail lines.

Clearly, Metro is so short of operating funds that it is cutting service on a bus system that is the best value to the taxpayers and riders in the nation. It cannot afford to operate its current bus system, and it is attempting to get Congress to front-load massive construction funding against the thirty-year half-cent sales tax passed in 2008. Given Metro's less than stellar record of bringing in capital projects on budget, and considering its failure to provide for the very large capital renewal and replacement costs of the current rail lines as they age, exactly how does it expect to pay the operating costs of the expanded system it is rushing to construct?

As Will Rogers said, "When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging."

Tom Rubin has over 35 years in government surface transportation, including founding the transit industry practice of what is now Deloitte & Touche, LLP, and growing it to the largest of its type. He has served well over 100 transit agencies, MPO’s, State DOT’s, the U.S. DOT, and transit industry suppliers and associations. He was the CFO of the Southern California Rapid Transit District, the third largest transit agency in the U.S. and the predecessor of Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Photo by biofriendly, Metro Bus Campaign, Los Angeles



















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Bus Service Los Angeles

Bus transportation is very essential in any type of transporting services. In public transportation or in case of some other transporting works, the bus transit is mostly necessary. Here is the news about the bus service in Los Angeles and the role of MTA(Metropolitan Transportation Authority). Now MTA planning for the bus service reduction by minimizing the bus lines. It almost minimized 9 bus lines. It is because of the less earnings by the bus operators. So, might be this step will help to change the things soon.
Coach Bus service Ventura

Response to comments of Doug Mortenson

TAR: Thank you for your comments – although many of them do not appear to apply to my piece.

Some responses below.

Tom Rubin

From: Douglas Mortenson [mailto:dougiemort@gmail.com]
Sent: Wednesday, April 13, 2011 1:14 PM
To: Newgeography.com - Economic, demographic, and political commentary about places
Subject: Re: Newgeography.com - Economic, demographic, and political commentary about places

Sorry, Tom, I'm not buying it. As some one who works downtown I can tell you that the 42% ridership for metro is probably high.

TAR: I’ve been working this data for about two decades, including some years as the CFO of the transit system, and I have a high degree of confidence in these numbers. I have also followed very detailed point- and ride-check data as the principal transportation expert for the plaintiffs in L/CSC v MTA (as in, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or MTA, which is what it was known as for years, and is how the lawsuit is cited), plus I work downtown also – and I’ve been a consultant or auditor for well over 100 transit agencies, so I have a pretty good idea of what I am looking at.

I’ve worked with the people who collect this data and I have critiqued it in detail during the decade I was monitoring the Consent Decree, which ended a few years ago. I haven’t seen any reason to believe that much has changed since I was in direct contact.

Metro has always had very good passenger data collection and reporting systems, generally far above the industry norms.

The 42% annual load factor for Metro bus for 2009 is a reliable piece of data.

END TAR

Even during peak hours I see mostly empty buses, …

TAR: Load factors vary significantly from route to route, from day to day, from hour to hour, and by position on the route. Even for downtown buses during rush hour, if you happen to be standing at the last bus stop before the bus goes out of service on the morning in-bound route, yeah, it can be far under 42%.

However, as an overall system average, you can count on it .

Tell you what – you tell me what bus stops, for what routes, at what times of day, in what directions, in downtown LA, and I’ll check it out.

END TAR

… while others (mostly redline) are overflowing.

TAR: By “redline,” are you referring the Metro Red Line, the heavy rail from Union Station to North Hollywood?

If you mean the buses painted red, which are the Metro Rapid, or Rapid Bus, yes, I certainly agree with that, in general. Most of these lines are very productive.

If you are referring the Red Line, as in subway, I still agree with your comment. Besides operating some of the most overcrowded transit buses in the U.S., Metro also operates one of the most overcrowded heavy rail systems, with an average passenger load of 37.5. The original 30 cars were delivered with 69 seats, which would make the load factor percentage – comparable to the 42% for bus – at 54%. However, the current adopted Metro Heavy Rail standard load factor is 129, based on 235% of 55 seats. If you use the 55 seats from here, that would be a 69% seated load factor, or a 29% total load factor. For bus, using the recently adopted 130% total load factor on an fleet average 41 seats/bus, the 17.1 average occupancy is a 32% total load factor. (Rail cars are a lot wider than buses, don’t have stairs, and have a lot of door space, so they are always scheduled for far more standees than buses.)

Metro’s average passenger load is the highest in the U.S. transit industry for heavy rail, by far. However, since heavy rail cars vary significantly in size, and number of seats, it is a lot more trouble to do percentage occupancy calculations, and I haven’t done this for Metro and its peer heavy rail operators in a few years. Metro is either the leader in this, or very close. (PATH, which runs from NJ into Manhattan, is always very high on this, because they have small cars with not many seats and high passenger loads.)

Metro light rail load factors re also high, particularly the Long Beach-Los Angeles Blue Line.

In short, almost everything that Metro puts on the street, or under it, tends to be heavily utilized, far more than Metro’s peers.

Overall comparison goes like this – by mode, at peak, it is more difficult to get a seat on rail than on bus, but bus overall load factors, as a percentage of standard, are higher. Because no one but an idiot would put a rail line where there was not a lot of ridership, while bus lines go everyone, if you do the comparisons with the more heavily utilized bus lines only, bus passengers, IMHO, have more overcrowding than do rail passengers.

The problem I have is, Metro, since it came into being, has always had rail construction – not rail transportation, as in actually carrying people – as its highest priority. The rail system operating statistics, while doing very well on productivity, are poor, by industry standards, on cost-effectiveness of operations. Metro is one of the very few multi-modal transit operators that has rail farebox recovery ratio lower than of bus, and the few others are operating rail lines that can best be described as widely acknowledged planning errors. When you factor in capital, for Metro bus, annualized capital costs are about 13% of total costs, while, for guideway modes, it is 79%, you can see how the rail subsidies for new passengers are incredibly higher than for bus (last time I did the detail calculations, which take a while, was for 2007, it was $26 taxpayer subsidy per new passenger for rail and BRT vs. <$2 for CD bus passengers).

END TAR

During non-peak, buses are mostly less than 50%.

TAR: All transit modes have lower loads off-peak than during the peak. Metro has some of the highest off-peak load factors in the industry; in fact, it is the ONLY bus operator I know of that has scheduled off-peak buses for standing loads.

END TAR

Not to mention the bus gridlock during peak due to the many regional carriers.

TAR: LA has well over a dozen different fixed route bus operators and coordination is far from what it should be. To be fair, this type of situation is very common when there are multiple operators in one region; the San Francisco area, for example, is far worse than LA in this regard.

The current situation is an out-growth of the origins of Metro, back to when there was the Southern California Rapid Transit District, the County-wide transit operator, and the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, the planning, funding, and rail construction entity – which controlled most of SCRTD’s finances, and which hated SCRTD and wanted to destroy it/take it over.

Well, in order to win favor with the Muni operators for its battles with SCRTD, LACTC started overfunding them. For example, in 1992, SCRTD carried a bit over 85% of the County’s bus passengers and got a bit under 80% of the subsidies. Turn that around, and the Muni’s were getting about 20% of the funding for carrying 15% of the passengers, a bonus of over one-third on a per-passenger basis – and the carry-over effects of this policy were that SCRTD had to keep cutting service and raising fares, which meant it got less funding, while the Muni’s were going the other way. It got to the point where the Muni’s were significantly overfunded for their level of operations – and, after the merger that formed Metro, the legislation was set up allow the Muni’s to keep that high funding, and there isn’t really anything much that Metro can do about it.

Of course, there really isn’t anything that the Metro Board wants to do about it, as a heavy majority of the Board Members represent Muni operators – and there is not a single representative of the Metro bus riders on the Board.

END TAR

Do your costs include the repair of streets that buses damage?

TAR: No, not for Metro, and not for any of the other operators. It is not generally included in the costs of running transit systems.

Last time I did the calculation, it came out to adding something like 2% to operating costs.

For this report, which is, to a large extent, peer group analysis, it doesn’t matter much if it is in or out because the dollar value is minor and the operations of the peers are pretty much comparable.

What is far more important, by the way, is that the costs do not include anything for capital, not original nor renewal and replacement. There are almost never included in such analyses. I do use capital costs a lot, but, since no one else does, it takes a long time and a lot of research.

END TAR

I would ride the bus to downtown except for the damage I would do to my kidneys riding either the 3rd street corridor or Wilshire, doesn't make any difference.

How is it possible that LA would rank so low in per passenger or per mile costs?

TAR: The main reason is that the buses are so full – the costs are spread over far more passenger and passenger-miles than almost all the other operators.

Also, Metro tends to get a lot of use out of its buses, and its riders tend to use the buses a lot. There is a limit on how many people you can get on a bus at any one time, and almost every one of the peer group operators have at least some lines that approach this limit during peak periods. What is different about Metro, and a few other heavily used operators, such as MTA-NYCT, is that they have a lot more of those heavy lines and, Metro in particular, the loads during the off-peak, Saturdays, and Sundays, are particularly high.

Finally, Metro does a lot better in keeping its costs down than many of the operators. Its costs per hour are generally right about in the middle of the Top 20, which is doing very well considering the cost of living in LA and the general rule of, the bigger the city, the higher the pay for transit workers (which is due, in part, to higher costs in some central cities).

END TAR

Part of the problem with bus riding is the city is so expansive, what other city encompasses as large area as metro does?

TAR: It’s the service area, not the political boundaries. Metro’s is 1,513 square miles. Among the other major “peer group” operators, NJ Transit is at 3,353, MBTA (Boston) is at 3,244, and Maryland Transit Administration is at 1,795. However, for these three, the service area they report is for all modes, and they are this big because of their extensive commuter rail operations, which go dozens of miles out from the central city.

Denver RTD is in at 2,326, but that is primarily because it is a multi-county system. For example, it operates a lot of service to and in Bolder, which is 30 miles from downtown Denver and to Longmont, which is 37 miles. It has one park-and-ride lot in Lyons that is 44 miles – and many other really long commuter bus routes spread almost 360 degrees.

MTA-NYCT’s service area is 321 square miles – with over 8,000,000 residents.

If you adjust for all these correctly stated, but somewhat usual, factors, I think it is fair to say that Metro operates more bus service over a larger area than any other U.S. transit operator.

END TAR

Somethings fishey about your figures.

TAR: Nope; they are good.

All are taken from the National Transit Database “profiles.” I’ve following this data for decades and, with a few exceptions, only one of which even factors into the data I reported, and that wasn’t even cost data (CTA over-reports vehicle revenue miles and vehicle revenue hours, which gets it more Federal “formula” funding, but lowers its service utilization metrics, such as boardings per hour), this data is consistent with what these operators are reporting to the Federal Transit Administration for all of that period.

If you’d like, I’ll be more than happy to send you the spreadsheet and you can check my data and computations back to the source if you like.

Check all you want if you like; I’ve been doing this for a LONG time and I know what I’m doing.

Just because you see some data that isn’t what you expected doesn’t mean it is wrong.

I’ll give you an example: Of the bus operations in the 20 urbanized areas I used as peers:

1. Where do you think Greater LA ranks in terms of population density?
2. Where do you think Greater LA ranks in terms of centerline miles of freeway per capita?
3. Where do you think Greater LA ranks in terms of total road miles per capita?

Answers below.

END TAR

The problem I have with all this metro blather is none of you even suggests that private carriers could do a better job, which they could.

TAR: “You,” as you have used it, is plural, and I’m the sole author of this piece (it was edited by others). I certainly did not suggest “that private carriers could do a better job,” but the main reason for that was that the subject of the piece – for which I had a limited number of words – was a completely different topic.

I have frequently proposed, and advocated for, competition in the provision of public services of all kinds, including transit.

Metro, by the way, does use private contractors for some of its services – not a huge amount, about 4% of its ridership and probably double that of service operated.

Answers to the three questions above:

1. First
2. Last
3. Last

(I win a LOT of bar bets on those – if you want proof, I’ll be happy to send you the spreadsheet from the Federal Highway Administration.)

END TAR

Of course, I'm sure you'd march out an overweight mother with a crying baby and whine about "not enough ridership for the poor".

TAR: Well, again, you make an interesting point, but I really don’t see the connection to my paper.

Also, I’m not exactly sure what you are saying. Considering what immediately proceeded this comment, are you, perhaps, saying that I (or “we,” if you can identify the other party or party whom you believe contributed to my paper) would “march out an overweight mother with a crying baby” to protest against the use of a private contractor to provide publicly funded transit services, the point evidently being that the wages need to be kept higher than market to provide for these individuals?

Well, no, I’ve never done that – and, when I was PROPOSING the use of private contractors for the operation of publicly funded transit service, never had anyone do that to me, either.

If you are saying that I would use your above-mentioned marching tactic to advocate for a higher level of transit service for TRANSIT RIDERS, no, when I advocate for higher levels of transit service, particularly in LA, I use the same types of facts that I used in my paper. When you wind up going to court – which is exactly what we did in LA – those types of data tend to be far more useful in getting the Judges and/or Special Master to see things your way than your proposed tactic.

END TAR

The truth is, there's not enough now, but of course, when it's the city doing the denying, that's perfectly acceptable.

TAR: While I am generally on the side of those saying the city (actually, now-a-days, most major transit operators are independent special purpose government units; of the Top 20 peers, two – NJ and MD – were state agencies and one – Miami-Dade – was a county, but no city governments) isn’t doing enough, in fairness, there is a very considerable problem of insufficient resources to satisfy all needs, to say nothing of desires.

Here, I take this comment to be saying pretty much what I was trying to say.

END TAR

No government entity should be spending money on large scale transit systems.

TAR: I don’t agree with you, but I will go this far – no government agency should be spending taxpayer money on inefficient or non-productive transit systems, or where there is a private sector provider willing to provide the service without subsidy.

I would really like to be able to say, government should get the hell out of public transit. However, 35 years in the industry have convinced me that, under the present rules, if you tried this, the result in most cities would be a very large reduction in the amount of transit service offered and an increase in fares, leaving many areas totally inaccessible to the transit-dependent.

Assuming that the state and local governments and, in a few cases, the Federal government (for service that crosses state lines) don’t make the legitimate licensing/safety/public protection police duties far too seriously, before too long, private sector transit service will begin to pop up. In the beginning, these will be of two main types:

1. Long-haul commuter express services, designed to provide home-to-work commute service for suburbanites. In the beginning, the longer the trip, the better, with perhaps 20-30 miles, depending on a number of variables, being the minimum. Right now, there are a number of such services that are operated by private operators for government transit operators that have very high farebox recovery ratio’s. For decades, such services provided by several operators working for New Jersey Transit have operated at about 90%, with employees working under labor agreements that are pretty much the same as the NJTransit’s own employees. If government transit went away, and government transit’s restrictions and requirements, I can see this type of service being profitable in a number of places.
2. Busy routes, small vehicle, frequent service, such as operated by jitney’s, including “route association” operations. These are very common in many South American nations and have come to many U.S. cities along with their riders. I can state with a high degree of confidence that, if you announced today that all publicly-operated transit service would stop tomorrow, there would be a lot of such operations on the street, picking up passengers, tomorrow.

How can I be so confident?

Well, it is mainly because they are there NOW – often illegal, but ignored.

Places where they are legal include San Juan (Público) and Atlantic City.

There will also be a huge increase in various forms of “casual carpooling,” with, before too very long, hand-held electronics being used for real-time hook-ups.

However, until there are changes in the American political structure that are somewhat terrible to contemplate (well, at least for some), this ain’t gonna happen, so we will continue to have more or less “traditional” government provided transit service, which is, to a large degree, the method of urban transportation of last resort for those that have no other options.

END TAR

In a word, ACCOUNTABILITY. A word that's never in the same sentence as Public Works.
Doug Mortenson
TAR: You know, I think I know what you mean.
END TAR