Pandemic Reversal?


A recent article in the San Jose Mercury-News reports that transit ridership in “car crazy” Los Angeles has exceeded ridership in the “transit mecca” of the San Francisco Bay Area, a “reversal that could remake California’s mass transit landscape.” This would be a lot more interesting if the writer hadn’t done the arithmetic wrong.

The story compares ridership carried by the major agencies in six San Francisco Bay Area counties with ridership carried by the main agencies in Los Angeles county. But Los Angeles County is not all of the Los Angeles urban area any more than San Francisco County is all of the San Francisco Bay Area. The Los Angeles urban area includes all of urban Los Angeles County and all of urban Orange County, while the Greater Los Angeles area also include three more counties.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco urbanized area includes urbanized portions of five counties: Alameda, Contra Cost, Marin, San Francisco, and San Mateo. The greater San Francisco Bay Area also includes Santa Clara County (Silicon Valley).

So the Mercury-News story compares counties in the greater San Francisco Bay Area with one county in one part of the Los Angeles urban area. When just Orange County is added, then the Los Angeles area has always (at least as far back as we have data available, which is far enough) seen more transit riders than the San Francisco Bay Area.

In 2019, for example, LA transit carried 528 million trips vs. 444 million in the Bay Area. Moreover, Los Angeles transit has been declining faster than the Bay Area’s, so a few years ago, the difference between LA and the Bay Area is even greater. In 2008, for example, LA transit carried 713 million trips while the Bay Area carried just 446 million.

Politically, California’s transportation landscape is heavily influenced by its metropolitan planning organizations. The one for the Bay Area includes Santa Clara County as well as Napa, Solano, and Sonoma counties (where transit ridership is insignificant). The one for the Los Angeles area includes Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura counties. Ridership in the LA area has always exceeded that in the Bay Area, so there is no reversal of fortunes or in the politics of transportation.

What is true is that Bay Area ridership has recovered more slowly since the pandemic than LA’s. As of June, transit in the Bay Area was carrying 54 percent of June 2019 numbers, while LA transit was carrying 70 percent. This is a reflection of the mix of jobs in the two regions: San Francisco’s is much more oriented to jobs that can work at home than LA.

Despite this slow recovery, I suspect Los Angeles transit ridership will continue to decline at precipitous rates. Historically, the more light rail LA has built, the more riders it has lost, and it has plans to continue to build more light-rail lines at least through 2028. The real news story will be a few years from now when LA ridership dips below that of the Bay Area.

This piece first appeared at The Antiplanner.

Randal O'Toole, the Antiplanner, is a policy analyst with nearly 50 years of experience reviewing transportation and land-use plans and the author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future.

Photo: Downtowngal, via Wikimedia under CC 3.0 License. Contrary to the implications of the Mercury-News story, Los Angeles has always been one of the biggest transit markets in the country and certainly bigger than that of the Bay Area.