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L.A. public transit moves in wrong direction

Instead of cutting service as gas prices rise, the MTA should be developing driving alternatives.

March 31, 2011|David Lazarus
  • Public transit ridership nationwide is expected to rise as gas prices go up. Yet the MTA is cutting bus service. Above, a bus in L.A. in January.
Public transit ridership nationwide is expected to rise as gas prices go… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)

It's not easy to argue that cutting service is actually good for customers.

So big props to Art Leahy, chief executive of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, who told me with a straight face that the decision to eliminate two bus lines and scale back about a dozen more will result in better public transit for the people of Los Angeles.

"We can achieve seeming incompatibles," he said. "We will reduce the quantity of service while improving the quality of service."

Impressive.

Meanwhile, back here in the real world, it's hard not to think that public transit in our sprawling, car-choked metropolis has taken a big step backward at a time when we should be boldly moving in the other direction.

The American Public Transportation Assn. concluded in a recent report that if the average price of a gallon of regular gas hits $4 nationwide (it's already there in SoCal), transit systems across the country could expect 670 million additional passenger trips a year.

If the cost of gas rises to $5 a gallon, an additional 1.5 billion passenger trips is likely, the nonprofit transit-industry organization said. At $6, an additional 2.7 billion passenger trips can be expected.

The reason isn't hard to fathom. High gas prices provide a strong economic incentive for people to leave their wheels at home and turn instead to buses, trains and other forms of conveyance.

That's exactly what we saw in 2008 when gas prices nationwide topped $4 a gallon. Overall public-transit ridership rose 4%, the association reported.

In Southern California, Orange County Transportation Authority buses and Metrolink commuter trains both set new ridership records as gas prices hit the $4.50 mark. Foothill Transit buses came close to setting a new agency record.

The MTA attracted 395 million bus riders and 91 million rail passengers in 2008. By last year, as gas prices settled to more reasonable levels, bus ridership dropped about 9% to 358 million. Rail ridership has risen about 5% since 2008, partly because of expansion of the Gold Line.

The lessons of the spike in gas prices and bus ridership weren't lost on transit officials. An MTA ad in last week's Times noted, "With gas prices rising daily, there's never been a better time to Go Metro."

Um, yeah, except for the MTA's board of directors' voting last week to cut about 300,000 hours of service annually.

Service will be discontinued on the 26 and 247 lines. Other lines that will be shortened or have their operating hours reduced include the 96, 155, 217, 445, 485, 577, 751, 757, 760 and 794.

"What the MTA is doing is very dangerous," said Esperanza Martinez, lead organizer of the Bus Riders Union, a transit advocacy group.

She said the cuts would have a substantial effect on lower-income people who depend on public transportation to get around. Jobs could be lost, Martinez said, and families hurt.

Those are the sorts of concerns that should have business leaders throughout the region backing a greater commitment to public transit. Jobs, commerce and productivity are all on the line as gas prices head north.

Leahy said MTA's cuts will allow the agency to balance its budget without raising fares again. He also said savings from the cuts will be applied to improving buses and trains so they're more attractive to riders.

Buses and trains might be more crowded because of the cuts, Leahy said, but generally speaking the system will make better use of its resources.

The upshot, he argued, is that more "discretionary riders" who don't have to ride public transportation will likely be willing to give the system a try.

"By having more reliable service on a cleaner bus, we will attract discretionary riders," Leahy said.

Maybe. But I doubt it.

I'm one of those discretionary riders, using a bus/subway combo to get to and from work every few weeks. I'd happily ride public transportation every day, but it takes about twice as long as driving my car (not to mention a half-hour walk from the bus stop to my home), and the system isn't convenient if you have other places to go as well.

As I've written before, the key to improving public transportation in L.A. isn't just targeting the needs of people who already use the system. The trick is to lure the rest of us out of our cars by providing a means of getting around town that's reliable, convenient and safe.

What we need are designated bus lanes that would allow buses to speed past traffic. What we need are more commuter routes that can cover big distances, such as from the San Fernando Valley to downtown. What we need are transit passes that are good for all regional systems, and transfers that allow us to seamlessly move from buses to trains.

Longer term, what we need (desperately) is a regional commitment to light-rail, subway or monorail lines that would get commuters off the hopelessly congested roads. I prefer subways, but that's probably not economically feasible for L.A. — the building costs and legal wrangling would keep us waiting forever.

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