The Los Angeles metro is great – so why aren’t people using it?

Just another day on the subway. Image: Getty.

LA Metro, the Los Angeles rail and bus transit system, is the third most comprehensive system in the entire USA, according to a study by the University of Minnesota.  Local online magazine LAist describes it as technically the “best accessible” transit system in the country, while the city's integrated bus system is “robust” and “incredibly extensive”.

Yet, in a metropolitan area of 13m people, only about 360,000 people use rail on an average weekday, and just 855,000 ride the bus. To put this into context, in New York, with a population of 20m, approximately 5m ride the subway on an average weekday.

What’s more, overall LA Metro ridership figures have been waning steadily. Bus ridership has declined – with 2m fewer bus boardings taking place in November 2016 than in the same month the previous year.

And although 700,000 more rail boardings took place in November 2016 compared to November 2015, LA Metro's total ridership fell by about 1.3m boardings.

So why is ridership down?

Thomas Rubin is a consultant with over four decades of experience in transport finance and government, who has written a report on the declining ridership. He argues that “the LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is overfocused on building way too much passenger rail, way too quickly.” 

Los Angeles rail network is certainly on an expansion spree. Last year saw the Expo Line extended, connecting downtown LA to the Pacific Ocean; the Gold Line was also extended eastwards towards Azusa. And in early January, officials announced that the federal government would be giving Metro $1.6bn to accelerate construction of the Purple Line extension.

In November, what’s more, a large majority of Angelenos voted for Measure M, a countywide half-cent increase to the sales tax, which will be used to fund an ambitious $120bn plan to expand mass transit in the area.  

But rail expansion could affect bus services. Rubin argues that the MTA needs more money to finish the current rail projects – money it can “only raise by reducing bus service and increasing bus fares,” a move which would eventually drive away riders. “Bus service has simply never been a priority at MTA,” he said.

This may be a mistake, because the layout of the city limits rail ridership. “There are a little over 100 rail stations in Los Angeles County, but there are over 20,000 bus stops,” explains Rubin. As a result, there are very few areas in LA where you can access rail stations without motorised transportation of some kind.

When bus service is eliminated, or made less frequent, it makes it harder and more expensive for people to get to a rail station – so, rail ridership is also hurt,” Rubin adds. “What MTA has not done is expand ridership and keep fares low.”

The LA Metro rail map. 

Matthew Tinoco, a journalist with LAist who has commented extensively on urban planning and transport issues, agrees that inconvenience plays a role. “Why wait 30 minutes for a 20-minute bus ride when you could drive the distance in ten?

“If bus service was more consistent, or rail service more ubiquitous, I think Angelenos would flock to transit.”

The new Expo Line extension to Santa Monica is a case in point. “Very quickly the trains became overcrowded, as more people packed aboard the trains” than they had capacity to carry, Tinoco adds.

Economics and perceptions

The fact that the price of motor fuel has been relatively low in recent years has also contributed to Angelenos opting for their cars instead, believes Steve Boland, an associate with transportation planning consultancy Nelson/Nygaard and an expert in fixed-route transit service and multimodal access.

“The ridership number tends to decrease when the economy is up, as more people can afford cars,” he says. “California recently legalised driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants and we’ve seen a spike in both numbers of license-holders and registered vehicles.”

Moreover, LA Metro is fighting against an image problem. Unreliability is partially responsible: Metro Buses are having a hard time staying on time, with 21.4 percent showing up late in 2015 and 22.7 percent in the early months of 2016.

Safety concerns is another reason. According to a recent Metro survey, almost 30 per cent of past riders left the system because they did not feel safe. The Blue Line has a  particularly bad reputation with regards to safety.

Some of these concerns are not well-founded. The number of serious crimes within the transit system is low and often much lower than in the surrounding community

In addition, it seems that Angelenos have limited knowledge with regards to Metro's reach, usability and offered services. As Matthew Tinoco says: “It turns out there's a gap between what some Angelenos think LA's transit system does, and what it actually does.”

“Metro has had a PR problem, but that's changing as people realise nothing can be done to make traffic better except build alternative transportation options,” he adds.

One last factor may be the popularity of Uber and Lyft. “Such services are huge here,” says Boland. “This is also a factor in recent ridership decline.”


Changing trains

It's hard to say what the future holds. LA Metro is still in the very early stages of building the sort of rapid transit network typical for a city of this size.

In 2015, LA City Council approved Mobility Plan 2035, an ambitious blueprint for its transportation future, that wants to shed LA’s “traditional automobile-centric approach and evolve into a modern, multimodal city”.

Steve Boland describes it as a “visionary” document. However, he stresses that the devil will be in the follow-through. “It calls for compromises in the allocation of space in the public right-of-way, and that’s something drivers and leaders in this region haven’t really been asked to do yet,” he said.

Measure M was a major landmark. It will fund over two dozen mass transit lines, rail extensions and 14 highway projects, as well as cycling infrastructure, bike share expansion, and a network of greenways.

“At some point we’re going to need a whole lot more bus lanes,” says Boland. “Even at Measure M build-out, trains won’t be doing most of the work.”

Ridership numbers will depend largely on the success of these measures - but LA Metro is often challenged by political roadblocks For example, building infrastructure in California is an immensely complicated and often litigious environment.

Homeowners often “litigate against projects they don't like,” explains Matthew Tinoco. “The city of Beverly Hills, an incorporated city within the county of Los Angeles, distinct from it and also a city incorporated in L.A County, spent the greater part of the past two decades suing LA Metro for their plans to build a subway beneath the city.”

“Right now, what Metro really needs is policy leadership, on street design, but also transit-supportive land use,” adds Boland. “It needs time to build that rapid transit network.

For his part, Tinoco thinks LA Metro is on the right track – though it should focus directly on greatly improving bus service. “If the service is good,” he concludes, “people will use it.”

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On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.