The rumblings have died down somewhat from January’s LA Times article about the recent dip in public transit ridership in Southern California. “For almost a decade, transit ridership has declined across Southern California despite enormous and costly efforts by top transportation officials to entice people out of their cars and onto buses and trains.” How is that possible? transit advocates wonder. You’ll never get people here out of their cars, confirmed drivers assert.
There’s been pushback to the article, unsurprisingly, Human Transit’s Jarrett Walker for one. Starting with Perils of Transit Journalism I: Don’t Let Trendlines Confuse You and going forward to his response to the anti-transit triumphalism of Randal O’Toole at the Cato Institute, Mr. Walker forcefully and thoroughly makes the case why the Times’ story is actually less than it seems. I’ll leave it for you to get into the meat of the argument but one significant thought popped out at me.
“A broader point here is that ridership, and especially ridership trends, are meaningless unless they are compared to the service offered to achieve them,” Walker writes.
This echoes the common fallacy that transit ridership is generated by infrastructure.
In fact, transit ridership comes from operating service. Infrastructure is mostly a way to make that service more efficient and attractive, but its impact on ridership is indirect, while the impact of service is direct.
Or, as he sums up in a later post: “What matters is not what is built but what is operated.”
This is key, as municipalities rush in to build out their transit networks with the latest and shiniest technology. Here in Los Angeles, one LRT extension opens next month, another in May. A subway line is being added to in the slow march toward the coast.
Toronto too is suddenly all abuzz with new plans for expanded subway and LRT lines. Finally! We are joining the 21st-century.
“What matters is not what is built but what is operated.”
Los Angeles, like almost every North American city that isn’t New York, has a transit system heavily, heavily dependent on its buses to keep it operational. 74% of transit users here, I believe it is, use a bus. Most riders have to get to the higher order transit lines cities like Los Angeles are investing in. The only way to do that, both economically and from a built form standpoint, is by bus.
One of the reasons floated for the drop in transit numbers here was a recent fare increase combined with bus service cuts. The same situation the Toronto mayor, John Tory, faced when coming into office back in 2014. Forget Build It and They Will Come. Don’t Run It Properly (and Charge More For Doing Less) and They’ll Stop Coming.
This was a very theoretical argument for me, living where I do in Toronto, with my easy access to non-bus transit. But I’ve become a bus rider while in Los Angeles, and things look quite different from the seat (or not) of a bus. This is the defining public transit experience for a solid majority of transit users. You want to increase ridership? Make taking a bus a better way of getting around.
I’ve been taking the Wilshire Rapid back and forth. It’s an express version of the local service, running from Santa Monica in the west, east to downtown. Stops are further apart, meaning less time with ons and offs. There’s a dedicated bus lane during rush hours, for fits and starts along the route that is, more or less observed, depending on how heavy the car traffic is.
The ride has worked for me more than not although it is still a small sample size. My time hasn’t been of the essence on any of these outings, so an extra 10, 15 minutes or so wasn’t not an issue. If it had been, I would’ve left that much sooner. Another luxury I have getting around.
Bus travel, at least along the Wilshire Boulevard route, isn’t all terrible. But is that any way to sell people on it, to increase ridership numbers? Take the bus. It doesn’t suck.
Except when it does. When you’re packed tight, standing for close to an hour in close quarters with strangers, that woman, nodding off in her seat, keeps dropping her open beer can on the floor, adding to the cloying fragrance. Is that Axe that guy’s wearing?
The Wilshire “Rapid” grinds to a further halt as it crawls into mixed traffic at the Beverly Hills city limit because it doesn’t care for dedicated bus lanes, like the city’s been fighting to stop a subway running below it. It’s not lost on any passenger who’s able to see out a window that this part of Wilshire Boulevard is lined with luxury car dealers. BMW. Ferrari. McLaren.
If bus service is integral to a properly functioning transit system, and it is for almost every transit system, and if your goal is to get more people using the transit system and out of their cars, and it should be for every major city, road hierarchies must change. That is the key rather than — or an important addition to — building high end transit infrastructure. Buses must run regularly, on time, and as convenient and pleasantly as possible.
The only way to do that, until at least until we’ve invented flying buses, and that takes us back to big ticket transit projects, is to start squeezing cars, making it more expensive to drive them, taking road space from them and giving it over to the smooth and efficient operation of buses. I sometimes wonder if those like Randal O’Toole claim to be bus “champions” because they realize the only way for a bus dependent transit system to fully function is at the expense of the private automobile. Assuming that’ll never happen, not in their lifetime, not if they have their way, it means public transit will always be a second rate way to get around, never a question of choice but necessity.
As long as that remains the case, the lowly bus as the afterthought in transit planning, building ridership will always be an uphill battle.
— bussily submitted by Cityslikr