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