Rendering for proposed rail to Century City
To Bus or Rail in L.A. County? Questions of Equity, Cost Benefit and Illusions
By Gary Crethers
Hamlet merely had the meaning of life on his mind, a simple matter, compared to the myriad problems associated with transporting some 316,000 workers via public transit across the 4083 square mile vastness of Los Angeles County (US Census LA County, US Census Means of Transport…Geography). Approximately 7% of the working population in the county is transported via mass transit. It is important that an equitable and cost effective means of public transportation is available for the largely a lower income population that uses the METRO system. The question arises are buses better, or is rail, especially light rail? Yet there is a bias to rail systems. What exactly does that mean for the future of Los Angeles County in a time of constrained public budgets, health concerns and increasing transportation congestion?
Chart indicates ridership levels at time of survey.
Some simple definitions are required. There are two main mass transit options in Los Angeles County. One is rail with feeder bus lines, and the other is to run bus lines, local which stop at every designated location, rapid which make less frequent stops and express which run on the freeways and make very infrequent stops (Los Angeles Public Transit). The other is two types of rail, light rail which can run on surface streets and on right of ways and heavy rail which requires sole right of way tracks and often run underground. The county chose light rail over heavy rail and gives a preponderance of funding to rail over bus service. This has not always been the case.
A little history helps. The first local rail transit services, called trolleys, were horse drawn in the 1870’s. By the 1880’s they were supplemented by cable systems and around the turn of the twentieth century rail lines were electrified. The Los Angeles Railway’s ‘Yellow Cars’ and the Pacific Electric Railway’s ‘Red Cars’ were the two main trolley rail lines. The last of these went out of service in 1963, replaced by bus lines and the ubiquitous automobile (METRO Los Angeles Transit History).
Why did the trolley lines go out of business? Ultimately “the trolley was out-competed by automobiles” according to James Moore, professor at the University of Southern California, in a review of Jonathan Richmond’s book Transport of Delight the Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles. Moore notes Richmond correctly disposed of the General Motors Conspiracy theory proposed in 1974 by U. S. Senate Judiciary staff attorney Bradford Snell that GM wanted to replace trolleys with buses (Moore 371-372). In fact the Pacific Electric railway bought out private competing bus lines starting in 1917 and took them over to maintain its market, but competition from automobiles, the decentralization of real estate that the automobile afforded, forced Pacific Electric and the Los Angeles Railway to switch over to the more flexible bus lines long before GM entered the market. It was simply the “Displacement of Technology” that caused the demise of the old trolley service (Richmond 21-29).
Whittier bound bus
According to Bin Mo in his paper “Mapping Potential Metro Rail Ridership in Los Angeles County” problems are due to the fact that “Metro Rail must compete with the automobile…Los Angeles County has been evaluated by many scholars as the paragon of polycentrism for which the area population is difficult to serve from a transit perspective…the automobiles created the polycentrism, not that polycentrism created the need for automobiles” and yet traffic congestion, increased population density, environmental concerns and fuel prices all are factors to push for a solution (Mo Mapping Potential).
From 2012 Transit Leadership Conference figures show low transit ridership and population density in Los Angeles.
Politicians and planners seem to want mass transit, rail has a certain romance to it and works in metropolises around the world. Thus Los Angeles County passed Proposition A in 1980, a half-cent sales tax increase, to build a county wide system of rapid rail transit, and to fund a three year fare decrease for the bus fares from $.85 to $.50 starting in 1982, as well as providing some local discretionary transportation funding. This was done according to Richmond, without federal funding by local initiative. Quoting County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, “Now we need light rail transportation. It’s a priority for the nation, let alone for Los Angeles. Just travel the freeways; see the jammed bumper-to-bumper freeways” (qtd. in Richmond 3-4). The first line finished in 1990 was the Blue Line from downtown Los Angeles to downtown Long Beach, symbolically starting where the last line of the old ‘Red Car’ interurban street cars closed in 1961. But why the switch from buses which had replaced the rail lines and apparently have been capable of competing with the automobiles, with their flexibility and the added advantage of being able to share the same road infrastructure?
Metropolitan Coach Lines - MCL 407 San Pedro - Long Beach line - Los Angeles, California - September 09, 1957 - Express cars roll by at Slauson Jct. in south central L.A. The inner two mains were express tracks, running from downtown to Long Beach.
Attempting to answer this question, John Kain then head of Economic Dept. at Harvard University states before a meeting of the Executive Committee of Southern California Association of Governments that “My overall impression of this is that your transportation system planners are trying to impose a 19th century technology on a 20th or 21st century city…I can’t understand, on any rational basis at least, this fascination with light rail…[which] seems to be nothing more than a slow, low capacity express bus system…[l]ight rail is incredibly more expensive than a well-designed express bus system” (qtd. in Richmond 38-39). That seems to be the crux of Richmond’s argument, that light rail does not make rational economic sense. Richmond claims a conference of economists were unanimous in concluding that light rail was “the worst step Los Angeles could take to improve transportation” (39). Certainly the civic boosters in the 1980’s thought light rail was a good idea, and the voters agreed.
How could they be wrong? Moore claims it is bureaucracy and inertia (Moore 371-372). Richmond quoting a study from “the Transportation Systems Center, U.S. Department of Transportation… evaluated the performance of ten federally funded rail transit projects” found ridership to be dismally lower than predictions, leading him to conclude that over optimistic ridership projections led public officials to make poor policy decisions (Richmond 39-40). He also argues citing various studies that rail is only marginally less polluting than buses, and that realistically due to the amount of automobile traffic, the best way to reduce emissions or to reduce fuel consumption is to make cars cleaner and more energy efficient (65-66). Same with congestion, in fact he claims that if mass transit reduced congestion successfully more people would drive. He states to relieve congestion, tolls on highways, increased parking fees and controlling freeway access are needed to reduce congestion (62, 64).
Subsidies based on 2000 figures.
The justification for mass transit when only a small populace uses it must be based on bringing service to those who need it. Joe Grengs, Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, writes in his article “Community-Based Planning as a Source of Political Change The Transit Equity Movement of the Los Angeles’ Bus Riders Union” that the “community-based organization of bus riders in Los Angeles” was able to demand that the LAMTA improve bus service for inner city residents before focusing on rail transit before building expensive rail transit to the suburbs. The 1994 law suit, “a was the first to successfully challenge transit decisions based on discrimination, leading to the courts ordering improvements to the bus system and giving bus riders a role in the planning process (Grengs 165).
From July 2003.
Issues of cost overruns, unrealistic ridership expectations and the transfer of funding away from bus transportation to the light rail system are fundamental to this contention that the public suffers when funding is diverted from bus to rail. Examining the recent Measure R passed in 2008 which returned to half cent sales tax, has indicated that the public, increasingly frustrated with traffic congestion is willing to spend money on transportation. According to Christopher MacKechnie, with a Master’s Degree in Urban Planning and transit writer for About.com, “the reality of the California state budget situation has meant that Measure R funds dedicated to bus service improvements have instead been used to replace State Transit Assistance funding that was cut back in order to cut the state budget deficit. Metro’s bus service has taken an even bigger hit due to the fact that Measure R Transit Operations funding has had to be used to backfill operating deficits caused by the Bus Rider Union’s consent decree forcing Metro to pay for additional bus service it could not afford” (MacKechnie Los Angeles County’s Measure R).
Bus Riders Union protests cutbacks in Bus Service.
Is cutting bus service then reasonable? A report by Eric Romann and Sunyoung Yang “Transit Civil Rights And Economic Survival In Los Angeles A Case for Federal Intervention in LA Metro” indicates that since 2008 Metro bus service has been cut 12% as of 2011 (Romann and Yang 4-5). Junfeng Jiao and Maxwell Dillivan in their article “Transit Deserts: The Gap between Demand and Supply” argue “Transit deserts’ … areas that lack adequate public transit service [are] areas containing populations that are deemed transit dependent… a significant portion of mass transit riders are completely dependent upon the various forms of urban mass transportation” (Jiao, Dillivan 24). According to David Hensher in “A Bus-Based Transitway or Light Rail?,” three times as many persons can be moved by dedicated bus transit as by rail at the same cost (Hensher 5).
Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that the median income of mass transit riders is $16,423 with carpoolers making $26,978, and those who drove alone earning $36,258, as of 2012. This shows that low income users, as the Bus Riders Union argues, are heavier users of mass transit with some 29.8% of them having no vehicle at home compared to 4.4% of carpoolers and 1.2% of solitary drivers (U.S Census Bureau Means of Transport…Geography).
Mode of Transport from 2012 city data site.
In the 2012 budget for the Los Angeles County Transportation Authority, 28.8% of the entire budget went to the Bus system, 26.3% went to the Rail system. This reflects a decrease in expenditures on the buses since 2010 when 34.8% was spent on Bus transport and 18% was spent on Rail. For 2012 budgeted expenditures are $1,196.9 million on bus and $1,092.1 million on rail. Bus ridership is averaged at 100.05 million for 2012 and for rail 35.245 million for 2012 (METRO Budget 18). This would indicate much lower cost per rider on buses.
From 2012 article showing predominance of spending on rail over bus transit.
Pro-rail advocates have argued according to Grengs, “that rail is essential for the region’s future because it would restrict sprawl, reduce air pollution, save energy, and relieve the city’s notorious freeway congestion.” He goes on to site, former transit agency chair of the board of directors, Larry Zarian as saying that questioning rail spending is like former questions about spending on freeways and like the freeways will be ultimately seen as an important transport decision (Grengs 167). Thus they are stating that it is rail transit that will provide the answers for a future world. The bet seems to be that energy costs and reaching peak oil will force people into mass transit. “Much of the rationale for rail in Los Angeles will attract a new segment of the population to transit, who perceive the quality of rail to be faster, more comfortable, more reliable, more cost efficient, and with far fewer traffic jams. Moreover, new statistics from LACMTA indicate success: the average weekday boardings have increased more than 20%, from 300,000 in June 2011 to 363,000 in June 2012” (Mo Mapping Potential). Buses have lower capital costs, rail has lower operating cost based on the 2012 budget. Service changes in the bus and rail indicate increases of 16% for rail and a decrease of 5.1 percent for bus (METRO Ridership, METRO Budget 12). Cartographic analysis of the potential ridership of rail lines by Mo indicates that something in the order of 80-90% underutilization exists as of 2012. He recommends improved safety and easier transition into transit to help encourage car drivers into transit (Mo Mapping Potential).
Total integrated potential ridership of Metro Rail system in Los Angeles County. (Mo, Mapping Potential). Note: SAZ = Service area zone.
To sum up, due to traffic congestion, an attempt to mitigate air pollution, the needs of the population without a transportation alternative and a political will to build mass transit as Herman Boschken, says in “Social Class, Politics, And Urban Markets The Making of Bias in Policy Outcomes, “Los Angeles wanted desperately to make heavy-rail transit work as an effective, market worthy alternative to the automobile, but this was made impossible by the basin’s layout: the places where people work, play and live are to scattered” (Boschken 8).
Further Clifford Winston and Vikram Mahereshri’s paper “On the social desirability of urban rail transit systems” concludes “We find that with the single exception of BART in the San Francisco Bay area, every U.S. transit system actually reduces social welfare. Worse, we cannot identify an optimal pricing policy or physical restructuring of the rail network that would enhance any system’s social desirability” (Winston and Maheshri 363).
In conclusion, largely due to the dispersion allowed by a commitment to automobiles for almost a century, and the gradual decline of mass transit usage as the population spread across an area larger than some states, makes rail transit less viable. Hopes to encourage ridership unless backed by strong economic or regulatory incentives are not likely to work. Buses due to their less expensive start-up costs, available infrastructure, and easier access for low income people, are a more cost effective, and socially justifiable means to provide mass transit for the LA basin.
Boshkin, Herman L. Social Class, Politics, And Urban Markets The Making of Bias in Policy Outcomes. Stanford: Stanford U. Press. 2002. Print.
Grengs, Joe. Community-Based Planning as a source of Political Change The Transit Equity Movement of the Los Angeles’ Bus Riders Union.” Journal of the American Planning Association 68.2 (2002): 165-178. Proquest Research Library. Web. 22 Oct. 2013.
Hensher, David A. “A Bus-Based Transitway Or Light Rail? Continuing the Saga on Choice `versus blind commitment.” Road and Transport Research. 8.3 (1999): 3-21. ProQuest Research Library: Science and Technology. Web. 22 Oct. 2013.
Jiao, Junfeng, and Dillivan, Maxwell.“Transit Deserts: The Gap between Demand and Supply.” USF Journal of Public Transportation. 16. 3. 2013. 23-39. Transportation Research Board. 2013. Web. 25 Oct. 2013.
“Los Angeles Public Transit.” Discover Los Angeles. Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board. 2013. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.
Mackechnie, Christopher. “Los Angeles County’s Measure R.” About.com. Public Transport. (2013). Web. 28 Oct. 2013.
METRO. “Los Angeles Transit History.” Metro.net. (2013). Web. 10 Nov. 2013.
METRO. Office of Management and Budget. “Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority FY12 Budget.” metro.net. pdf. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.
METRO. “Ridership Statistics.” metro.net. (2013). Web. 27 Oct. 2013.
Mo, Bin (Owen). “Mapping Potential Metro Rail Ridership in Los Angeles County.” Cartographic Perspectives. 72 (2012). Cartographic Perspectives.org. Web. 27 Oct. 2013.
Moore, James E. “Transport of Delight: The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles.” Review. Journal of the American Planning Association.72.3 (Summer 2006): 371-372. ProQuest Research Library. Web. 27 Oct. 2013.
Richmond, Jonathan. Transport of Delight The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles. Akron. OH: U. of Akron Press. 2005. Print.
Romann, Eric, and Yang, Sunyoung.“Transit Civil Rights And Economic Survival In Los Angeles A Case for Federal Intervention in LA Metro.” Labor/Community Strategy Center. (2011). Labor/Community Strategy Center.org. Web. 27 Oct. 2013.
United States. Census Bureau. American Fact Finder. “Means Of Transportation To Work By Selected Characteristics For Workplace Geography 2012 American Community Survey 1- Year Estimates.” US Census Bureau American Community Survey. 2012. Web. 25 Oct. 2013.
United States. Census Bureau. State and County Quick Facts. “Los Angeles County, California.”
Winston, Clifford and Maheshri, Vikram. “On the social desirability of urban rail transit systems.” Journal of Urban Economics 62 (2007) 362–382. brookings.edu. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.