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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“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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