Rollout of Service Changes Shows Why Metro Ridership Keeps Declining

On Sunday, June 27, LA Metro rolled out a sweeping program of changes to its bus system.  On Monday, June 28, I got off Line 94 at Tuxford and San Fernando to transfer to the 152.  There was a sign that said….

“We’re making changes to this bus line or stop.”

That was all.  No specific info.  I was a little worried at first, wondering if the stop might have been eliminated.  But I told myself that wouldn’t make sense.  If Metro had discontinued the stop, surely they would have removed the signage for the 152, or at least covered it with a notice saying the bus wouldn’t pick up passengers there any more.

I was so wrong.  The stop had been discontinued.  And this wasn’t the only instance where Metro had failed to update signage before implementing its service changes.  Apparently there were a lot of problems with the updates to the bus system, and riders have been expressing their frustration on social media.  Riders Kenny Uong and Keegan both tweeted about failures to update signage at stops.  And a number of riders vented their frustration over service changes and cancellations at Metro’s blog The Source.  Here’s a sample….

ladylee1969

As one who relies on public transportation everyday, I find the cancelation of route 236 upsetting and disconcerting by MTA. Many people uses the route pass foothill to get to work. I had sent an email to some of the board of supervisors and the Mayor’s office. NOT ONE ANSWERED!!!!

Marc

The rerouting of 236, cutting off people from their jobs is a terrible idea

Al

New route 237 fails to provide local service between NoHo station to Ventura via Vineland. By forcing people to walk or be forced to use the Subway and connect to other buses is time consuming. Having the New 237 end at Universal Station would have been a better and viable choice. The other route provides a haphazard service along vineland to burbank airport.

Wes

Thanks for cutting the 720 off from East LA, been riding that line since it started and I was in high school. Still depend on it to get to work on the west side so now your adding more time by making me and others take two buses. All these cuts you’re making are asinine, as always you prove to outdo your incompetency Metro.

Upset line 83 rider

Why discontinue line 83?? I travel everyday from downtown LA to York Blvd and now I will be forced get off the 81, which seems to be the only line going close and wait and transfer to another line, it takes time as it is and I don;t even think the new line 182 will run every 5-10 minutes, discontinuing line 83 will disrupt schedule for many riders, I’ve been talking to people in the bus and we’re not happy about it. This is crazy.

Jason

Metro really needs to have staff (supervisors, ambassadors, etc) drive around the canceled bus lines / stops / segments. The signs that are strapped to the pole are not enough. And no, not everyone has a smartphone. Even if they do, they may not be following Metro or aware of the shakeup. I saw people standing at some bus stops under extreme heat yesterday waiting for the bus lines that no longer exist.

Dan Wentzel

These service changes have unfortunately been poorly executed. I am hearing reports of stops throughout the system with old signage and the maps on Metro’s websites are from 2017-18.

This all should have been rolled out together in advance, especially if fares were to be reinstituted. The “Is My Bus Line Changing” webpage is clunky. New systemwide maps illustrating the new service reflecting the new schedules should have rolled out well in advance.

Streetsblog also weighed in, compiling an assortment of complaints, and lamenting the fact that Metro can’t even seem to issue a clear statement on what’s happening with fares.  During the pandemic, collection of fares had been suspended.  When the service changes were implemented, apparently bus drivers had different ideas about whether or not riders needed to pay.  As you can imagine, this resulted in a lot of confusion, and Metro’s communications on the matter did not make things any clearer.  Streetsblog ended by saying, “Sadly, this week’s failures are more signals that Metro continues to fail to prioritize its bus riders.”

I couldn’t agree more.  But actually, I’d go even further.  Honestly, Metro doesn’t seem to care about any of its riders, whether they’re using bus or rail.  If the botched rollout of these service changes was an isolated episode, that would be one thing.  But this is just the latest in a long line of failures. 

There was the disastrous reopening of the Blue Line in 2019.  After several months of partial closures for repairs and upgrades, it reopened in November of that year, and problems started almost immediately.  While Metro promised that service would be better than ever, there were numerous issues with gate crossings, power lines and signals leading to frequent delays. 

Then there’s the fact that Metro keeps pushing back completion dates for the new lines and line extensions that are being constructed.  Yeah, I know they had to deal with the impact of the pandemic, but the Crenshaw Line was supposed to be finished in 2019, before the pandemic hit.  Metro is now projecting they’ll finally wrap it up in 2022.  The Regional Connector was supposed to be done in 2020, but now Metro is saying it will open in August 2022.  While it’s true that large scale rail projects often run behind schedule and over budget, I have to wonder why Metro keeps promising more than they can deliver.  I suspect that when they first announce these projects they know that their projections are absurdly optimistic.  It’s easier to sell it to the public if you promise quick completion and low costs.  But when construction consistently drags on way longer than expected and the cost always goes way higher than the original estimate, the impression taxpayers get is that the agency is run by inept bureaucrats who don’t know what they’re doing. 

And this impression is reinforced by the fact that ridership has been sinking for years.  According to Metro’s own statistics, estimated weekday ridership for systemwide bus and rail went from 1,459,150 in 2014 to 1,174,751 in 2019, a 19% drop.  (I’m not including stats from 2020, because people were warned to avoid using transit due to the pandemic.)  Some folks like to blame the decline on a supposed passenger preference for rail over bus, citing growth on the Gold and Expo Lines, but actually ridership fell in both categories.  It’s true that the Gold and Expo Lines have been performing well, but overall estimated weekday rail ridership went from 351,833 in 2014 to 295,889 in 2019.  Certainly construction on the Blue Line was a factor, but the Red Line has been losing riders, too, and the numbers for the Green Line were down about 25% over the same period. 

To be fair, I don’t believe the loss of ridership is all Metro’s fault.  For years the LA Department of City Planning has been helping real estate speculators gentrify working class neighborhoods.  In the process, thousands of low-income households have been forced farther away from transit hubs like Koreatown, Hollywood and North Hollywood.  I remember a meeting of the Central LA Area Planning Commission where tenants who lived in a rent-stabilized building had filed an appeal of a project that involved the demolition of their homes.  One woman told the Commissioners that if she lost her rent-stabilized apartment she couldn’t afford to stay in Hollywood, and that would mean losing access to the transit she depended on to get to work.  The Commissioners didn’t care.  They denied the appeal, and cleared the way for demolition of 40 rent-stabilized apartments to make way for a new hotel.  Hard to believe that LA City Planning has been claiming for years that they’re totally committed to transit-oriented development.  If you point out to them, say at a City Planning Commission hearing, that transit ridership has been dropping for years, they ignore you. 

But we could also ask if Metro itself is driving displacement.  When you look at the decisions made by the politicians who dominate Metro’s Board, it’s hard to believe that their highest priority is creating a reliable, efficient transit system that will serve those who need it.  They’ve spent billions of taxpayer dollars building a massive rail system while making round after round of cuts to bus service, and ridership keeps sinking lower.  Are they really interested in getting people out of cars and onto transit?  Or are they more focussed on creating infrastructure that will promote new development?  Every time a new rail line is announced, real estate investors rush to snap up whatever they can in the surrounding area.  Numerous observers have pointed out the relationship between gentrification and new rail lines.  Maybe that’s really what it’s all about. 

Whatever Metro’s priorities are, riders don’t seem to be very high on the list.  The careless, inept rollout of the recent service changes demonstrates how little the Metro Board actually thinks about the people who rely on transit to get to work, to get to school, to do their shopping.  Far from trying to attract new riders, it seems like Metro is trying to drive people away.

Building Empire

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For years now construction crews have been tearing up Downtown Burbank. Caltrans is the lead agency on a huge infrastructure project which is remaking the I-5/Golden State Freeway corridor, as well as bringing changes to a number of Burbank’s surface streets. The actual name for all this activity is the Empire Interchange/Interstate 5 Improvement Project. Here’s a brief overview from the City of Burbank’s web site.

“This project, lead [sic] by Caltrans and funded primarily by State transportation funds and Los Angeles County transportation sales tax funds, will relieve congestion along Interstate 5 while providing an important new access to the Golden State area of Burbank, including the Empire Center and Bob Hope Airport.”

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The I-5/Golden State Freeway as it passes through Burbank

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Traffic on Burbank Blvd. where it crosses over the freeway

Here’s a short list of specific changes that are part of the project.

> Full freeway interchange at Empire Avenue
> New freeway and railroad crossing allowing access to Empire Center
> Freeway widening including 2 carpool lanes and weaving lanes
> Burbank Blvd. Interchange Demolition & Reconstruction
> Railroad grade separation at Buena Vista Street
> Realignment / Closure of San Fernando Blvd near Lincoln Street.

You’ll notice one of the main goals is to improve access to the Empire Center. If you’ve never been there, it’s basically a massive mall that has all the same chain retail stores and restaurants you can find almost anywhere else in Southern California. But more on that later.

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Excavation next to the Empire Center

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Mounds of dirt rising above Victory Place

The project is way behind schedule. Various factors have pushed completion back substantially, including a dispute with a contractor and this year’s heavy rains. Demolition and replacement of the Burbank Blvd. bridge had been scheduled to start this year, but now Caltrans says they’ll start in 2020. It isn’t unusual for a project this big and this complex to take longer than expected, but Caltrans’ original 2018 deadline was ridiculously ambitious. Work has already been going on for over five years, and will continue for at least a couple more years.

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A barrier under construction at San Fernando and Winona

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Construction site at San Fernando and Winona

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Work on Winona where it passes under the freeway

In the project overview above, you may have noticed that it said funding comes in part from an LA County transportation sales tax. This would be Measure R, which was approved by voters about a decade ago. Measure R money funds a lot of different things, but the major categories are: 35% to new rail and bus rapid transit projects; 20% to carpool lanes, highways and other highway related improvements; 20% to bus operations; and 15% for local city sponsored improvements.

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Construction on San Fernando next to the freeway

LA voters have consistently approved new taxes for transit and road upgrades, but there’s an ongoing debate about the way these measures are structured, with many transit advocates saying it’s counterproductive to levy new taxes to fund both transit and highway improvements. Their argument is that if we continue to invest in infrastructure that makes it easier to drive cars, then people will just continue to drive cars, even though billions are being invested in new rail infrastructure. On the other hand, the people who write these measures say that voters won’t approve them if there’s no money for roadwork.

There does seem to be a conflict here, which may, in part, explain the dismal performance of LA’s investments in transit. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (or Metro) has spent billions on new rail infrastructure over the past two decades, and yet transit ridership is lower than it was in the 80s. Some commentators believe that LA voters like the idea of transit, but ultimately end up sticking with their cars.

You can take the bus to the Empire Center, but as you can see by the photos below, most folks drive.

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Parking lot at the Empire Center

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Another shot of the parking lot at the Empire Center

Burbank is a really car-centric town. Aside from the Empire Center, the Downtown area also has the Burbank Town Center and an adjacent outdoor mall. On weekends the parking areas/structures for all three of these malls are packed with cars. Burbank residents love to participate in the great American pastime of driving somewhere and buying stuff.

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A family heading back to the car

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Shoppers in the parking lot at Empire Center

And let’s not forget the other great American pastime of sitting in a line of cars waiting for food.

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Line of cars waiting for their turn at the window

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The line of cars looping back through the parking lot

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The line of cars extends back around the building

Let’s face it. This is what powers our economy. Which I’m sure is why two of the primary goals of this project involve making it easier for people to drive to the Empire Center. Cars don’t just make it easier for Americans to buy stuff. Cars themselves are products that Americans love to buy. For decades one of the main drivers of the US economy has been the auto industry. After WWII, car manufacturing helped make the US the world’s major economic power. The jobs generated by the industry helped to create the American middle class, and the fact that they were union jobs meant fat paychecks that pumped dollars into the consumer economy. When the big auto makers were on the ropes a decade ago, Washington stepped in to rescue them, and the rebound in car sales was one of the things that lifted the US out of the recession.

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Freeway onramp to be permanently closed

But it does seem like we have a problem. One the one hand, we have government officials telling us we need to get away from cars and rely more on transit if we want to fight climate change. On the other hand, we have government officials, sometimes the same ones, promoting efforts like the Empire Interchange/Interstate 5 Improvement Project. We’re spending tons of money on transit, and at the same time we’re spending tons of money to make it easier for people to drive to the mall.

Does this make sense to you?

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Completed section of new roadway near Empire Center

Here are some links to basic info about the project.

Burbank Empire Project Page

The Empire Project: A Virtual Tour

My5LA Home Page

And here’s a story from the Burbank Leader that covers some of the reasons for delay.

5 Freeway Project, Hampered by Winter Weather, Has New Finish Date

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Talking to the MTA

DSC04388

I’ve spent a fair amount of time slagging the MTA, so I want to make sure I don’t overlook the things they do right. Recently I learned about the agency’s NextGen Bus Study, which is an effort to redesign the bus network with an eye toward building ridership. This is an important step. Ridership has been declining for years now, and the MTA really needs to rethink what it’s doing. I was glad to hear that they were taking a good, hard look at the bus system, and I was wondering what kind of public outreach they’d be doing.

That outreach has taken the shape of Telephone Town Halls, so far two of them, held earlier this month. It’s a virtual town hall meeting where people can join using their phone or their computer. MTA staff members were on hand, and they took questions directly from callers. At intervals they asked the audience to take quick surveys, and the results were revealed wihin minutes.

I thought it was great. While I still think public meetings in physical spaces are important, I loved the fact that I could participate while sitting in my living room. I was afraid most of the meeting would be about bureaucrats explaining spreadsheets, but my fears were unfounded. The bulk of the time was given to answering questions from participants. And it was interesting to learn from the surveys what other peoples’ priorities were.

Two of these virtual town halls isn’t nearly enough. This one was actually split between the NextGen Bus Study and a discussion of budget issues. I hope the MTA schedules more of these focussed specifically on redesigning bus service. I think the decline in ridership is in large part due to the fact that the agency has lost touch with its core ridership. They really need to find out what people want, because otherwise the declines will continue.

And along those lines, I hope the MTA plans to reach out specifically to the low-income immigrant communities that depend on busses to get around. I noticed they did provide Spanish translation at the town hall I attended. I hope they were also providing translation in other languages. Many of the people who ride the MTA don’t speak fluent English, and their voices need to be heard.

But this was certainly a step in the right direction. I’d definitely log on for another one of these.

NextGen Bus Study

 

 

To Have and Have Not

Bilt Where Will

I was so bummed. I desperately wanted to go to UCLA’s 32nd Annual Land Use Law & Planning Conference. Unfortunately, the $535 registration fee was a little too pricey for me. But just the thrill of being close to all the movers and shakers who were attending the conference drew me to Downtown. Even though I couldn’t afford to go in I just stood on the sidewalk across from the Biltmore, gazing up at the windows where I knew the attendees were debating lots of heavy issues.

Bilt Angle

The conference brochure definitely made it sound cool. They had a bunch of high-powered attorneys and consultants on hand to talk about CEQA reform, the housing crisis, infrastructure and other important stuff. And beyond all those big, heavy issues, they even found time for a session entitled Community, Health, and Planning for Environmental Justice. I mean, okay, they kind of jammed that into a half hour slot along with about half a dozen other topics, but I’m sure they covered everything they needed to.

Unfortunately, my reverie was interrupted by a bunch of noisy protesters who were standing nearby, holding signs and chanting slogans. What were they complaining about? Well, they were angry because one of the speakers was Sacramento superstar Scott Wiener, the Senator from San Francisco. The protesters had a problem with a bill the Senator just introduced, SB 827, which takes zoning authority away from cities. Wiener says if we override local zoning to allow developers to build housing up to eight stories along transit corridors, we can solve both our housing problems and fight climate change. Doesn’t that sound great? According to Wiener, his bill will let developers build tons of new units so housing prices will definitely go down. And because the new units are close to transit, everybody will dump their car and jump on the train.

I wonder if anybody at the conference asked Wiener about a recent report from UCLA that shows transit ridership is way down in Southern California, even though local officials have been approving pretty much any crazy project developers propose as long as it’s near transit. If so, I really would’ve liked to hear his response. I’m sure Wiener had a ready answer for the cynics who point out that in New York housing is still outrageously expensive even though the city has been building tens of thousands of new units every year. And so what if cities like Vancouver and Toronto have thousands of units sitting empty while middle-income and low-income families struggle to pay the rent? Foreign investors need homes, too, although, okay, maybe they don’t always really need them.

Bilt Speaker

At lunch all the power players adjourned to the Gold Room, where they heard the keynote address from Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Rothstein apparently talked about how federal, state, and local governments have implemented and upheld racist policies to create and maintain segregated communities since this country’s inception. Of course, he’s absolutely right. I wonder if he spoke about the fact that many of these policies were formed as a result of intense lobbying by development and real estate interests that wanted to protect their investments? Kind of like the development and real estate interests that are pouring money into Sacramento right now. It would’ve been nice to hear what he had to say about research from the Urban Displacement Project, which shows that current government policies promoting transit-oriented development have resulted in gentrification, pushing low-income people of color away from transit hubs in LA and the Bay Area.

Bilt Hand

Even though I was standing across the street, I could feel the soothing vibrations emanating from the collective wealth and wisdom gathered inside the Biltmore. So what if most of these people make six figures, live in single-family homes, and drive nice cars? So what if most of them rarely ride transit and never had to worry about getting evicted? They’ve got college degrees and lots of money and they go to a lot of conferences. They’re well qualified to tell the rest of us what to do about housing and transit.

But the protesters kept disrupting all the good vibes I was getting from the Biltmore. I guess some of them are facing eviction, or they’ve already been evicted, and they’re ticked off because they’re losing their homes. Yeah, okay, that’s a bummer. But they need to trust the folks inside the Bltmore. All we need to do is listen to people like Scott Wiener and let developers build tons of new housing around transit. Just because the median income for people living around rail lines in LA is mostly between $30,000 and $40,000 a year, and they could never afford the new units, which usually start around $2,000 a month, is no reason to keep the developers at bay. I’m sure at some point we’ll have such a housing glut that these new units will lose 50% of their value, and then the families that were kicked out could return to their neighborhoods.

So, okay, it could take decades. And yeah, it might never actually happen. But that’s no reason to rethink policies that are displacing the poor and destroying communities.

Is it?

Bilt No Nos

 

Transit Riders Can Do More, Too

20 Bus FINAL

So far this campaign has mostly been about getting car owners to reduce their time on the road by 20%.  Transit riders may be thinking, “Hey, I’m already riding the bus to work.  I’m doing all I can.”

Actually, there is more you can do.

While riding transit instead of driving will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, busses are still doing plenty of damage to the atmosphere.  You may think that because the Los Angeles MTA has converted its fleet to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) that we’re doing all we can.

Wrong.  CNG busses produce significant amounts of CO2, in addition to other pollutants.  But we could really make a dent in greenhouse gas emissions by converting the fleet to electric, and the MTA is already studying that possibility.

Not that this will be easy.  The MTA has already tested a few electric busses, and the results were less than stellar.  Electric bus technology is still fairly new, so cost and reliability are both factors.  On top of that, switching the fleet to all electric would require a massive investment in new infrastructure, and that will take years to implement.

So what can you do?  Get involved.  Stay informed about the MTA’s progress on going electric, and don’t be afraid to let them know if you think the process could be moving faster.

Follow the link below to read articles about this issue on the MTA’s blog, The Source.

The Source/Electric Bus News

 

 

Be the Light

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It’s clear that the White House doesn’t care about science. In spite of the fact that the overwhelming majority of scientists agree that climate change is real and that it’s caused by human activity, the current administration has dropped out of the Paris Agreement and is aggressively trying to roll back regulations designed to reduce CO2 emissions.

But just because our government is going in exactly the wrong direction doesn’t mean we have to go along. Millions of Americans understand that we have to reverse the effects of climate change. If Washington isn’t going to act, then we have to act ourselves.

Can you reduce your carbon footprint by 20%? We mostly think of CO2 emissions related to transportation and industry, but there are plenty of other things that contribute to our carbon footprint, from plastic bottles to the appliances we have in our home.

Check out this list from the National Geographic. It offers 14 ways you can reduce your carbon footprint. Take a look and see how you can help. Don’t wait for Washington to change course. Make a commitment to take action yourself.

Fourteen Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

Fight the darkness. Be the light.

 

Let’s Stop the Madness

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According to an October 2016 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 48% of US adults believe climate change is caused by human activity.  And yet millions of those same people get into their car every morning and head off for a commute that often involves a fair amount of time spent sitting in traffic.  We know that climate change threatens the planet, we know we need to reduce emissions, and yet we’re still locked into the same behavior that got us into this mess in the first place.

In the same poll people were asked what would make a big difference in addressing climate change.  Out of six possible responses, the first four were….

> restrictions on power plant emissions

> international agreements

> higher fuel efficiency for cars

> corporate tax incentives

The interesting thing here is that all of these steps would require the government to take action.  And let’s face it, the current administration isn’t gonna do a damn thing about climate change.  So let’s look at the last two responses….

> more people driving hybrids

> people reducing carbon footprints

The people who chose these steps were the people who were ready to take action themselves.  Switching to a hybrid is great, and getting an electric vehicle is even better, but a lot of people can’t afford to buy new car.  So what can they do?

How about cutting your driving by 20%?  Think about how you might reduce the amount of driving you do, either by taking transit, riding a bike, or walking.  Maybe you could find ways to car pool with your friends.

How many times have you been stuck sitting in traffic, staring at an endless line of brake lights, and thought to yourself, “This is crazy!”  And you’re right.  We say we want to fight climate change, but we’re stuck in the same bad habits that created this crisis.

So let’s change our habits.  Let’s stop the madness.

 

 

The Climate Is Changing. Can You?

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If you’re waiting for the White House to change its stance on climate change, you’ll be waiting a long time.  And whatever the oil companies say publicly, they’ll do whatever it takes to keep the crude and the profits flowing.

So it’s down to you.

Can you cut your driving by 20%?  If every American citizen who believes climate change is a threat were to spend 20% less time on the road, it would cause a huge reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.  It would also send a message to Big Oil that we want a faster transition to renewable energy.  When their profits start falling, they’ll start listening.

So could you take public transit to work one day a week?  Or car pool with someone you know?  Instead of driving to the park this weekend could you ride your bike?  Instead of taking that epic road trip this summer, could you scale it back a little and go some place closer to home?

You can wait for the government or Big Oil take action, or you can take matters into your own hands.

Stopping climate change starts with you.

Pipelines Making You See Red?

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In spite of years of protests, the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines are both moving forward.  It’s obvious big oil isn’t listening, and neither is the White House.

So what can we do?

Use less oil.  It’s that simple.  Oil companies build infrastructure based on how much money they think they can make off it.  When oil prices started diving a couple of years ago, the industry cancelled or postponed construction of over 20 major projects.  There’s no point spending money on infrastructure if it’s not going to pay off.

What if everybody cut their driving by 20%?  The oil market is already shaky, with soft prices making investors nervous.  If we use less, supply will increase, and that will drive prices lower.  And it will also make oil companies think twice about plowing billions into building new pipelines.

So how about it?  Can you cut the amount of time you spend behind the wheel by 20%?  Not only would you be helping move the country toward clean energy, but you wouldn’t spend so much time stuck in traffic.  It’s win win.

Start Your Own Paris Agreement

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Millions of Americans are angry about the White House’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, and certainly their anger is justified. But just because our government won’t take action on climate change doesn’t mean we can’t.

Cut your driving by 20%. If every American who supports the Paris Agreement were to drive 20% less, it would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There are a number of steps you can take….

Take transit to work, or try car pooling, one day a week.

Ask your boss if you can work from home one day a week.

Walk to the market instead of driving. Or share the trip with a friend who’s also shopping.

Think about taking local outings instead of longer trips.

Use your imagination. Everybody’s lifestyle is different, but ask yourself if you can change your driving habits to spend 20% less time on the road.

If Americans cut their driving by 20%, it would not only send a powerful message to the White House, but also to the oil companies. As long as we keep using fossil fuels, they’ll keep selling them. A 20% drop in their profits would let them know we want a faster transition to renewable energy.

Start your own Paris Agreement. Commit to cutting your driving by 20%.