Driving Alone Hits High, Transit Hits Low in "Post-Car" City of Los Angeles


According to The New York Times, the car used to be “king” in the city (municipality) of Los Angeles. “'A Different Los Angeles', The City Moves to Alter its Sprawling Image,” was another story that seeks to portray the nation’s second largest municipality as having fundamentally changed. Following this now popular meme, a Slate story in 2016 referred to Los Angeles becoming “America’s next great transit city.” Los Angeles has surely become America’s greatest transit tax city, with Los Angeles County voters in 2016 approving a fourth half-cent sales tax increase principally for transit since 1980. Yet transit's market share has fallen, not only in the nation's largest county but even in the city of Los Angeles.

The Ascent of Transit: A False Narrative

The Los Angeles political establishment and media is virtually unanimous in its praise for the now quarter century old rail system. Yet, despite more than $15 billion being spent on rail transit the already meager levels of transit commuting in the city have fallen further, while solo driving has risen to an all time high. Unless platitudes are more important than results, rail’s success is a false narrative. People are driving more and using transit less according to the American Community Survey for 2015.

The share of city of Los Angeles residents commuting by transit fell from 11.2 percent in 2010 to 9.5 percent in 2015 (Figure 1, note truncated axis). The 2010 figure was the highest decennial census year transit figure in the period starting in 1980. Just five years later, in 2015, however, the city of Los Angeles transit commuting share had fallen below 1980 levels.

In 1980, 10.8 percent of the city’s commuters used transit, a figure that fell to 10.5 percent just before the initial Long Beach “Blue Line” opened in 1990. While new light rail lines and the Metro (subway) line opened after 1990, transit’s market share fell further, to 10.1 percent by 2010. During the 2000s, transit commuting rose 1.1 percentage points to the 11.2 percent figure, propelled by unprecedented gasoline price increases. But progress was short-lived as the share dropped to 9.5 percent in 2015.

City of Los Angeles Surge in Driving Alone

At the same time, commuters were turning even more to driving alone. In 2015, 69.8 percent of work trip access was by solo drivers. This represents a substantial increase from the 66.8 percent drive alone share in 2010. From 1980 to 2010, driving alone edged up slightly, much less than the increase in the last five years. In 1980, 65.1 percent of commuters drove alone. In 1990, a nearly identical 65.2 percent drove alone. In the last five years, driving alone has risen more than the entire previous 30-year increase in the city of Los Angeles.

The news could get worse. According to new American Public Transportation (APTA) data, total ridership on all Los Angeles County MTA services dropped more than five percent from 2016. The APTA reported decline is astounding, since the highly touted extension of the Expo light rail line to downtown Santa Monica opened in 2016. Even more astounding is that the expensive, at least seven line (counted at radial line ends plus the transverse Green Line) system has added not a soul to transit ridership on the Los Angeles MTA bus and rail system since 1985. Not all MTA service is in the city of Los Angeles, however, the APTA data could presage a further transit market share decline in the city with the American Community Survey data due in the Autumn.

All of this is consistent with the larger trend in the Los Angeles metropolitan area (which includes Los Angeles and Orange Counties). Overall, the transit work trip market share in the metropolitan area fell from 6.1 percent in 2010 to 5.1 percent in 2015. The MTA 2016 decline is likely to push this figure lower.

The Illusion of a "Different Los Angeles"

Yet to read the press and media accounts in Los Angeles, one might be inclined to believe an alternate reality that LA transit is ascendant.

Christopher Hawthorne, who teaches urban and environment policy at Occidental College told The New York Times that the recent defeat of a development moratorium, along with approval of the transit tax and an affordable housing measure is “a very clear statement from the voters that they want a different Los Angeles.”

The voters may want a different Los Angeles, but apparently commuters are sufficiently happy with driving and have been for the more than a quarter century since rail transit was restored to Los Angeles. This is not surprising, since the average commuter can reach 60 times as many jobs by car in 30 minutes in the Los Angeles metropolitan area as by transit. (30 minutes is the average one-way commute time in the metropolitan area). Data is not available for the city of Los Angeles (see: “Access in the City”).

However, it is a generally hopeless task for transit to be an alternative to the automobile, except for trips to and from the urban core (downtown and nearby). The reality is that it could take as much as the total income, every year, of a metropolitan area to provide transit that could effectively compete with the car throughout a metropolitan area for work and other trips.

Platitudes do not ride, people do. At least with respect to the implied transit ridership increases and forsaken cars, the “different” Los Angeles is an illusion, completely inconsistent with reality.

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 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. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.

Photo: Los Angeles City Hall (by author)