Transit in Los Angeles

propa map.jpg

Los Angeles officials hope to convince Congress take the unprecedented step of having the US Treasury to front money for building the area’s planned 30 year transit expansions in 10 years instead. The money would be paid back from a one-half cent sales tax (Measure R), passed by the voters in 2008. That referendum required 35% of the new tax money to be spent on building 12 rail and exclusive busway transit lines.

Measure R was not the first instance of Los Angeles officials committing to spend 35% of a new one-half cent sales tax on new transit lines.

Proposition a: the Start of it All

In 1980, County Supervisor and Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) chairman Kenneth Hahn, whose district included low-income south Los Angeles, made a last-minute proposal (Note 1) to place a half-cent sales tax on the ballot to lower bus fares to $0.50. No funding would have been provided for rail.

Chairman Hahn’s proposal was amended twice and adopted by LACTC (Note 2). The first amendment provided funding to municipalities to start or expand their own transit services. The second amendment (which I spontaneously introduced), dedicated 35% of the money to building a rail system (My seconder, Supervisor Baxter Ward, required excluding busways). A 10 corridor map was drawn during the meeting (see Rail Rapid Transit System above). LACTC (Note 2) approved the program, which was adopted by the voters as Proposition A in November of 1980.

Results: The Proposition A programs met with varying levels of success (and failure):

Bus Fare Reduction: The bus fare was reduced for three years. As a result, transit ridership at the Southern California Rapid Transit District (SCRTD), the principal bus operator, rose 40%, to its modern peak, in perhaps the largest major system ridership increase in modern history. The program was also cost effective, with a cost per new passenger of $0.56 (2008$), a small fraction of virtually any new rail system built in the United States in recent decades. Fares were raised in 1985 and one-third of the bus ridership disappeared.

Municipal Transit Services: The more efficient municipal bus operators (such as Santa Monica, Long Beach, Gardena, Montebello and others) used the new money to expand their services and ridership. Other jurisdictions established new local services, usually provided more cost-effectively by private operators under competitive contracts (costs average 40% less per hour).

Rail Program: As it turned out, LACTC grossly over-promised on the its rail system. By 1990, only four lines were either completed or under construction but there was no money for the rest. Another half cent tax was approved by the voters to finish the job. By 2008, six lines were completed or under construction, still short of the 1980 promise. During the interim, two new exclusive busways had also been added to the system. The 2008 referendum, Measure R, would finish the job, and more, by building 12 new rail or exclusive bus lines.

Nonetheless, approximately 300,000 people ride the metro and light rail trains of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority (formerly the Southern California Rapid Transit District) every day. Some MTA officials have even suggested that this decade’s modest growth in Los Angeles traffic congestion has resulted from people giving up their cars to ride the rail lines.

The Results: The reality is quite different. Even when gasoline prices peaked at nearly $5.00 per gallon in 2008, total MTA bus and rail ridership was 5% below 1985 levels, indicating that for each new rail rider; at least one former bus rider had abandoned transit. Daily bus ridership dropped more than 300,000 (Table 1).

Moreover, traffic congestion growth slowed during this decade Los Angeles not due to a shift to transit (there wasn’t one), but because of its anemic population growth, with Los Angeles County adding only one-quarter the number of new residents during the 2000s as had been forecast. The Los Angeles metropolitan area (including Orange County) also had the highest rate of domestic outmigration in the nation from 2000 to 2009, losing at a rate one-third greater than Detroit. Employment in Los Angeles County was at the same level in 2008 as in 2000.

Table 1
MTA/SCRTD Ridership, Costs and Fare Recovery: 1985-2008
  1985 2008 Change
Unlinked Trips (Millions)             497          474 -5%
Passenger Miles (Millions)          1,947      1,989 2%
Operating & Annualized Capital Costs (Millions)  $      1,077  $  1,775 65%
Cost per Passenger Mile  $        0.55  $    0.89 61%
   Bus: Cost per Passenger Mile  $        0.55  $    0.77 38%
   Light Rail: Cost per Passenger Mile  $    0.85
   Metro: Cost per Passenger Mile  $    1.81
Fare Ratio 23% 19% -19%
   Bus: Fare Ratio 23% 25% 5%
   Light Rail: Fare Ratio 11%
   Metro: Fare Ratio 8%
Bus capital costs estimated using national ratio from APTA Transit Fact Book
Rail capital costs estimated from mid-year of project construction (discounted at 7% over 30 years)

The Costs: Rail systems are often promoted for their “cost-effectiveness.” However, these claims always exclude the cost of capital (building the system and buying the vehicles). Capital costs are far higher for rail systems than for buses. Los Angeles is no exception. It is estimated that SCRTD/MTA annual capital and operating costs rose 65% from 1985 to 2008, adjusted for inflation, in large measure due to the rail services. Bus riders pay double or triple the fares in relation to costs as rail riders (Table 1).

With Other Bus Operators: Ridership Up, Market Share Down:

Los Angeles is somewhat unique as a metropolitan area in having a large number of transit operators. So, even as the MTA/SCRTD system grew, the other bus systems expanded more rapidly. This was made possible by their more cost-effective operation and, especially among the newer systems, the use of competitive contracting (contracts with private operators) to reduce costs even more. In 2008, for example, more than 35% of the county's bus service was provided by operators other than MTA. Approximately 85% of the added transit usage (passenger miles) from 1985 to 2008 was from the bus services of these other operators.

Overall transit ridership increased in the Los Angeles urban area, with the new five-county Metrolink commuter rail system contributing substantially to the increase as well. The neighboring Orange County Bus system doubled its ridership, while rejecting rail (Figure). Even so, transit's market share in the Los Angeles urban area declined nearly 10% from 1985 to 2008 (Table 2).

Table 2
  1985 2008 Change
Annual Roadway Passenger Miles    114,590   168,219 47%
Annual Transit Passenger Miles         2,279       3,071 35%
Roadway & Transt Passenger Miles    116,869   171,290 47%
Transit Market Share 2.0% 1.8% -8%
Freeway Lane Miles         5,310       6,992 32%
Vehicle Miles per Freeway Lane Mile       13,487     15,037 11%
Average Congestion Delay (Peak Period) 27% 49% 81%
Los Angeles urban area includes Mission Viejo urban area.
Metrolink commuter rail system: 75% of passenger miles estimated in Los Angeles urban area.
Annual passenger miles in millions

Prospects: The Next 30 Years

Los Angeles has again committed to a major expansion of transit service, despite the fact that the Metro and light rail lines have done little more than siphon ridership from buses. There is little to suggest that the future will be any more successful than the past.

  • MTA, like LACTC before it appears to have over-promised on transit expansion. 35% of a half-cent sales tax is no more likely to finance a 12 line expansion today than a 35% share could fund an 11 line expansion in the 1980s and 1990s.
  • Nonetheless, new transit lines will be built. These Measure R expansions are likely, however, to be no more successful in reducing traffic congestion than the earlier rail expansions.

Further, funding the Measure R rail system is likely to be more challenging. The original Proposition A was followed by decades of growth, which generated rising tax revenues. Now, however, both LA’s population and employment growth have ground to a standstill. The rosy revenue forecasts are not likely to be achieved, which should be a matter for concern among not only local officials, but to the federal taxpayers being asked for a hefty advance.


1. LACTC had held hearings on a proposed ballot initiative, but a consensus had developed that no referendum would be placed on the ballot in 1980. Chairman Hahn surprisingly called a special meeting of LACTC just before the deadline for submitting a measure to the ballot.

2. LACTC was the principal transportation (transit and highways) policy body in Los Angeles County from 1977 to 1993. By state law, the commission included the mayor of Los Angeles, the five county supervisors (county commissioners), the major of Long Beach, two elected officials from smaller cities, and two additional appointments by the mayor of Los Angeles. Mayor Tom Bradley routinely appointed a city council member to LACTC and a private citizen (three times the author of this article). In 1992, LACTC and SCRTD merged into the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which has a similarly composed board of directors.

Illustration: 1980 Proposition A Rail Map (Los Angeles County Transportation Commission)

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris. He was born in Los Angeles and was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission by Mayor Tom Bradley. He is the author of "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Great article!.Your topics

Great article!.Your topics are interesting.Thanks for the informations! ChatRandom

But then what happens?

Rail may have siphoned off money and passengers from buses, but you are never going to get a big increase in transit ridership without starting a rail system somewhere. Only rail has the speed, capacity and comfort to draw people from driving to transit en masse. Rail has the potential to provide rapid, reliable connectivity, but it will only work in a sprawling place like LA if you have an expansive system, the type that will take decades and tens of billions of dollars to develop. It's not there yet. The system hasn't reached the job centers on the west side such as Century City or Santa Monica, and doesn't really provide for any circumferential trips, crucial in multi-nodal LA.

You don't have to be able to make every trip with rail, but you have to be able to make a good portion of it that way to attract riders. When the purple line becomes it's own true line and goes all the way to Santa Monica, you will probably have close to an extra 100,000 people on the rail system. Completing the Expo Line to Santa Monica, extending the orange line to the Metrolink, building the Crenshaw line, connecting the green line to LAX and Metrolink, and building the Regional Connector could add another hundred or two hundred thousand trips to the network. Metrolink currently moves 40K +/- people a day, but with all day service and better connections to the rail and busway system, it could attract many more, acting as the express network to complement the local service. Being twice the size and of more consistent density, LA has the potential to have the rail ridership of a Chicago or Boston.

I just don't see LA adding hundreds of thousands of riders to it's bus system, unless it developed a comparable network of exclusive busways, which could easily be as expensive as a good rail network. If the Harbor Transitway had attracted many tens of thousands of riders, I bet LA would have gotten a lot more excited about buses. There is only so much transportation market share you can get from a bus network, but rail can attract the vast majority of a city's population if it connects to enough destinations.

biased author produces biased histiry

Wendell Cox was a political appointee to the Commission. He leveraged it into a career as an anti-rail consultant who like a hired gunslinger goes from region to region being paid by NIMBYs etc. to take the same set of slanted analysis, inject the local data and produce the same old anti-rail arguments he has produced here. He aleready has conclusions and just carefully picks statistics (with biased interpretation) to push his pro-sprawl anti-urban agenda (a la Joel Kotkin).

Here is another trick--to declare "no more successful in reducing traffic congestion" proves rail is a failure. Traffic is a dynamic system and enduced use from the shift of some car users to rail is a well known phenomenon.

Cox has been pulling this stuff for decade. Has this website no quality control to realize when it is showcasing propoganda (and rather borning propoganda, at that)?

Responding to Tiresome Sloganeering

I normally ignore such incivility, however:

1. Carefully picked statistics? Transit ridership? Automobile use? Market share? There really is nothing else.

2. "enduced use from the shift of some car users to rail is a well known phenomenon."? Perhaps this is "well known" in the mythology, but not in the reality of Los Angeles. The question is not whether "some" people shifted to rail, but whether, on balance, light rail and metro rail have attracted more people to transit. The LACMTA/SCRTD data says "no."

Note that I do not question the motives of the commenter. I just disagree with him or her.

Wendell Cox

Wendell Cox

6 inches from rail

A friend and I had a talk when Los Angeles began putting the current light rail lines in back in the late 80's. The topic, of course, went to the irony of the having closed a world renowned light rail system in the 50's only to argue a desperate need to build one again in the 80's. He noted that the new system was costing in the dozens of millions per mile -- in some sections even more. I personally noticed how much of it had been built on new right-of-way only a hundred yards or so from existing unused right-of-way, and so on. My friend commented "It's funny, if you just peel about 6 inches of pavement off a lot of streets, you're back to the old rail anyway."

Isn't there an adage "Must we do this damn silly thing in a damn silly way?"