Bus ridership in Los Angeles is steadily declining, with a system that saw 14 percent fewer riders in April 2017 than April 2016. Annual bus ridership dropped 18 percent from 2009 to 2016. Public transportation agency LA Metro has been laser focused on its rail system, investing billions in new lines and extensions, leading to a 4.2 percent bump in subway and light rail ridership last year (and a whopping 20 percent increase from 2009 to 2016). Now, the agency recognizes it’s been neglecting its buses and is making plans for a big overhaul.
“It’s been 25 years since we’ve taken a real hard look and restructured our bus system,” says Rick Jager, Metro spokesman. “We’re going to take a look at the entire system in terms of the service level, where we’re providing it, what we’re providing, how travel patterns might’ve changed over the years.”
Given that, it’s little surprise ridership has dropped.
“You can’t offer poor service over a huge area like metro L.A. and expect ridership to stay constant or grow,” says Jon Orcutt, director of advocacy and communications at TransitCenter, a national foundation focused on urban mobility. “The only places ridership is not going down in the U.S. are those where policymakers are paying serious attention to bus systems as integral parts of the transit system.”
Metro is ready to do just that. They are launching a two- to three-year system study that will culminate in a massive overhaul of bus routes and service levels. At the same time, Metro is participating in a joint study with 16 other transit agencies in L.A. County to try to improve intersystem connectivity. As is the case with all but a few bus systems in the U.S., the agencies around the region have also suffered from drops in bus ridership in recent years.
Jager says it’s far too early to speculate about what a revamped system might look like. But he points to ridership surveys that have shown that some people have “a perception the system is not safe. It does not go where they want it to go, doesn’t operate as frequently as they want, slow, unreliable, those kinds of things.”
Orcutt believes the overhaul needs to focus on better integrating bus service into the expanded rail. “When you’re adding rail, it doesn’t mean you cancel bus service. You treat them as a seamless network. You should take the buses you have and repurpose them as frequent bus lines across city that better connect people to rail.”
Orcutt points to Seattle where the transit agencies did exactly that. In 2016, King County Metro revamped its bus service to better serve the newly expanded light-rail system. It appears to have helped. Seattle was one of those handful of cities that saw bus ridership grow from 2015 to 2016.
Houston — another city that saw a small increase in ridership in the last year — may also serve as inspiration for Los Angeles. In summer 2015, after several years of outreach and planning, the city rolled out a revamped bus system overnight. Ten months later, bus ridership was up 3.3 percent. In total, Houston saw transit ridership grow 2.3 percent from 2015 to 2016.
The timing is right for major transit changes in L.A. Last November, voters passed Measure M, a historically large transit funding package that’s expected to generate $120 billion over the next 40 years.
Jager says Metro’s plan to overhaul the bus system also dovetails nicely with the regional transit work the agency’s doing with 16 other agencies in the county. The Regional Ridership Improvement Task Force will bring on a consultant to evaluate all 17 agencies and make recommendations for ways the systems can better integrate with and complement each other.
“We’re trying to find some solutions to increase transit use in the region over the next decade. Our plan is to hopefully identify innovative solutions to attract customers to hop on board again,” Jager says.
“We think this is a good development,” says Orcutt. “The trend of transit agencies really looking at whether the bus network is obsolete and needs an update is gaining momentum. And an agency as big as LA Metro doing it is going to send a message.”
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.