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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To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.