Bus ridership declines in LA

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Ridership on LA Metro buses continues to decline across Los Angeles. Why are fewer people riding buses, what's Metro doing about it, and how are other American cities dealing with public transit declines?

Why are fewer people riding buses?

Passengers say the buses don't go where they're going, or require multiple transfers, which is a big hassle. They also say buses don't run frequently enough. Then there's the issue of safety, especially for women who don't like being hit on or groped by strangers.

And with cheaper gas right now, people are incentivized to drive if they afford a car. Also, another factor could be the 2015 law that allows undocumented immigrants to get driving licenses. Meanwhile, immigration from Mexico and Central and Latin America is down, and those are potential bus riders.

Then there's the so-called "first- mile, last-mile" problem, the journey between home or work and the transit stop, which can be unsafe or simply unpleasant or a tiring walk, and that's a big deterrent.

Ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber are touted as the solution to the first and last mile, but they also become an alternative for the whole trip.

What's Metro doing about it?

Metro says it's going to study how to re-align its service with what riders need – something that they say hasn't been done in more than 25 years. The study won't be finished until 2019, however.

Metro is spending an estimated $120 billion in the coming decades on transportation projects, including bus line improvements. That money comes from Measure M, a sales tax increase approved in the county last November.

Is this just an LA problem?

While Metro has the country's second busiest bus system, ridership declines are reported in other cities around the country, with even bigger declines in Washington DC, Miami and Austin, Texas. Smaller cities in LA County, including Santa Monica, have also seen declines.

It's also not just a bus problem. It's a mass transit problem. According to transit experts, rail ridership has also fallen, with the exception of the Expo Line extension, which has proven very popular because it delivers people to the beach.

What's the wider conversation we should be having?

One of the main issues according to Michael Manville, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, is that cars are still too affordable relative to transit. If you want a functioning mass transit system, he says, you have to remove subsidies for cars.

"And the proof is in the pudding. If you look at places like London, places like New York, where you have very high levels of transit ridership, very high levels of bus ridership, i's not because the fares are low. The fares in those places are much higher than in Los Angeles. It's because driving is so expensive," Manville said.

That's not the whole picture, though. New York and London are denser and have far more comprehensive public transit networks. LA is so sprawling, so people find it hard and time-consuming to get to where they want to go.

There's another story about transportation in LA being discussed right now, and that's that the Metro Board is expected tomorrow to kill the long-fought-over 710 freeway extension to the 210 in Pasadena.

On the one hand, transit ridership is down. On the other hand, there's a move away from freeways. Community members and elected officials argue the freeway era is over and money should be spent on mass transit and other congestion fixes. There's a desire for better public transit, but it's proving difficult to get people out of their cars.

Photo: Photo: Metro says bus ridership fell 18 percent in April, 2017 compared to April, 2015.