Transit in Los Angeles: Lost Opportunities


Low fares and more bus service, rather than urban rail, is the key to improving transit ridership in Los Angeles. That conclusion can be easily drawn from a recent installment of transportation consultant Thomas A. Rubin and Professor James E. Moore II in their series on transit in Los Angeles. This article covers Improving Bus Service and Reducing Fares have Greatly Increased Transit Use in Los Angeles as part of a series entitled A Critical Review of Los Angeles Metro’s 28 by 2028 Plan being published by the Reason Foundation and its earlier installments were covered in a previous New Geography article.

Rubin is a former Chief Financial Officer at the Southern California Rapid Transit District (SCRTD) and founder of the Deloitte transportation practice, and Professor Moore serves at the University of Southern California. Both have published extensively on transportation issues, and in particular, on developments in Los Angeles.

The authors describe the ebbs and flows of transit ridership (Figure 1) on the principal Los Angeles transit system, now called Metro, previously known as the Southern California Rapid Transit District (SCRTD) after its merger with the policy-only Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) in 1993. Their analysis can be broadly divided into four periods from 1970 to 2018.

Period 1: 1970-1985: Emphasis on Low Fares (15 Years)

The early 1970s were a time of economic disruption in the United States, with the OPEC oil embargo. Rubin and Moore describe the events that led to a near doubling of Metro (SCRTD) ridership in the 1970s:

“Gasoline was in short supply and difficult to find. The inflation-adjusted average price for a gallon of gasoline in California increased 117% from calendar year 1972, pre-oil embargo, to 1981. In addition, Los Angeles County experienced a large and rapid demographic shift that included increased the number of lower-income residents who had limited options with respect to automobility. Many of these residents relied on transit.”

Between 1970 and 1980, transit ridership increased by 102 percent. The key was a new $0.25 flat fare, that replaced the previous fare system that increased with distance. I had been a beneficiary of these transit improvements and began riding SCRTD’s new route 721 park and ride line to downtown Los Angeles from the San Fernando Valley’s Van Nuys Drive-In (which was located on Roscoe Boulevard between Van Nuys Boulevard and Sepulveda Boulevard), happily abandoning my car pool.

Transit ridership hit a modern peak, at 397 million in 1980. County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, then also Chairman of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC), proposed a one half-cent sales tax referendum for the 1980 ballot that would reduce the fare to a flat $0.50 for three years. By this time, SCRTD had raised the fare to $0.65.

At that meeting, as a board member of LACTC, I introduced the amendment that created the rail funding set aside in Proposition A, out of a belief that such a system would alleviate traffic congestion in Los Angeles. This motion was seconded by County Supervisor Baxter Ward (whose support of rail was legendary) and passed. Experience has disabused me of any belief that urban rail can materially reduce traffic congestion in a metropolitan areas (see: Evaluating Rail Transit).

After declining from 397 million rides to 354 million with the higher fares, the $0.50 fare, implemented in 1983, drove boardings to a new peak in 1985, at 497 million. This record still stands. Between 1970 and 1985 transit boardings rose more than 150 percent, at an annual rate of 6.4 percent (Figure 2). This was the high point for LA transit. From 1985 to 2018, boardings were to decline 21 percent, though the actual door-to-door ridership loss may have been double that, as is indicated in Note 1.

Period 2: 1985-1996: Emphasis on Rail Construction (11 Years)

In 1986, the 35 percent rail funding set aside took effect and rail construction became the priority. During this period, the Blue Line (light rail downtown to Long Beach), the Green Line (along the I-105 freeway), and part of the Red Line subway (ultimately downtown to North Hollywood) were opened. The three year 50 cent fare mandate expired in 1985 and the fare was raised 70 percent to $0.85 in 1986. Ultimately it was increased to $1.35 in 1994.

The higher fares took a toll on boardings, which dropped 27 percent, despite the new rail lines. The annual percentage loss was 2.8 percent (Figure 2).

Period 3: 1996-2007: Shift of Emphasis to Lower Fares (11 Years)

The high fare, which was at least partly due to the concentration of the budget on rail construction, was a burden on low-income riders and ridership losses provoked legal action. As Rubin and Moore relate:

“The 1994 fare increase included the elimination of monthly passes. These were extensively used by the most transit-dependent riders and, in combination with the other changes, their elimination amounted to approximately doubling Metro’s average fares. Opposition to this change generated a major Federal Title VI (discrimination in the utilization of federal funding) legal action, Labor/Community Strategy Center v MTA. This suit resulted in a consent decree (CD) that went into effect from December 1996, approximately half-way through Metro FY97, and which remained in force for approximately 11 years.”

The consent decree required reintroduction of a monthly pass that had been discontinued and creation of a $11 weekly pass, which was more affordable to low income riders who faced with greater cash flow challenges. The consent decree also required a substantial increase in service and replacement of virtually obsolete buses with new, less polluting vehicles.

Metro’s ridership turned around sharply. From 1996 to 2007, boardings increased 36 percent, a 2.8 percent annual rate. Boardings neared the 1985 record, (Figure 2) though actual passenger trips could have been materially lower, as is described in Note 1.

Notably, in 2007, Metro ridership nearly reached (Note 2) that of the nation’s historically second ranked transit system the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). After closing the gap over a long period, Metro came within 0.4 percent of CTA ridership in 2007. However, that was not to last. By 2018, Metro boardings had fallen 20 percent behind CTA.

Period 4: 2007-2018: Emphasis on Rail Construction (11 Years)

With the expiration of the consent decree, Rubin and Moore report, fares were raised, spending on rail was increased and bus service was reduced. While rail boardings increased by 27.9 million annually, bus ridership dropped 132.2 million. Roughly five bus riders fled the system for every new rail customer. Overall boardings dropped 104.3 million. By 2018, boardings had dropped to 390.6 million (and perhaps lower, see Note 1). This was below the 1980 figure that had been achieved at the end of the fiscal year just before LACTC approved the ballot issue, with rail funding.

Increasing Transit Ridership: Simple Inexpensive Steps

According to Rubin and Moore:

“On three occasions simple, inexpensive, and risk-free steps have substantially increased unlinked passenger trips on Metro’s system. Increases of 36% to 101% have been achieved over a few years by taking three actions: increasing the number of buses in service and the hours and miles they operate, improving the quality of bus service provided (operating enough bus service to relieve extreme overcrowding) and reducing fares or avoiding fare increases.”

Rubin and Moore conclude that:

“More rail service means more rail riders, but shifting resources from bus service to rail lines means many more stop using Metro’s buses than start using its trains. Therefore, the more Metro emphasizes rail construction, the fewer total riders it carries.”

There may have been lost opportunities of substantial proportions, not only for increased transit ridership, but more fundamentally for people that rely on transit.

Los Angeles County has large low-income areas. It seems likely that lower transit fares and higher levels of bus service could have made more jobs accessible to people not otherwise able to reach employment in reasonable time. The higher incomes could have strengthened businesses in marginal neighborhoods, not to mention the overall local economy.

Moreover, UCLA study suggests a strong trend toward more vehicles per household in Southern California since 2000. Some of these new vehicles may have been purchased by carless passengers driven off Metro services by higher fares and lower service levels. Rail transit not only failed to reduce traffic congestion, but excessive emphasis on rail construction may have increased total vehicle miles.

In a later installment, Rubin and Moore find that “Los Angeles ridership successes have been reversed as major over-investments in new rail lines have drained resources required for maintaining well-utilized bus service, producing continuing reductions in transit use.” Servicing the large, lower income customer base requires substantial reordering of priorities.

Note 1: It is likely that actual Metro ridership (door to door trips) has fallen even more than the present 1985-2018 data indicates. In the previous article, Rubin and Moore estimate that the reported 21 percent decline boardings may in fact be a 42 percent ridership decline. This is because passengers are counted each time they board a vehicle (boardings). Thus, if, for example, a passenger transfers from one bus to another traveling from home to work, the number of boardings is two, rather than one. Each transit vehicle, bus or rail, counts as a boarding. Some trips require the use of three or more transit vehicles.

Note 2: Based on Federal Transit Administration monthly data using the Los Angeles Metro fiscal year, July to June.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), Senior Fellow for Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California). He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. Speaker of the House of Representatives appointed him to the Amtrak Reform Council. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.

Photo: Los Angeles MTA Building,