L.A. Expo Line Opens Two More Rail Stations; Ridership Still Very Low

The May ridership numbers are in for L.A.’s new Expo line, and they’re still woefully low compared to the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s (MTA) projections.

Reason's Tim Cavanaugh and I rode the Expo train during its first week of operation and noted its poor ridership, for which we were excoriated in our alleged rush to judgment. After a month of operation, the train line has picked up another 2,000 daily weekday boardings, for a grand total of 11,000 boardings per weekday. The MTA had projected 27,000 daily weekday boardings during its first phase of construction, so it’s not even hitting half its early projections.

Two more stations opened Wednesday for the line, which currently connects downtown Los Angeles with Culver City. When the full $2.43 billion line is completed, it will connect downtown with Santa Monica. The MTA projects 64,000 weekday boardings when fully functional, a figure that perhaps should be viewed with some skepticism.

Baruch Feigenbaum, transportation policy analyst for the Reason Foundation, recently sat down with Brian Taylor, UCLA professor of urban planning and department chair, to talk about the professor’s preference for bus rapid transit (BRT) over light rail:

BRT projects are much cheaper to build than rail projects. As a result more funding is available for maintenance and operations (O&M). O&M is not sexy and many transit operators neglect it. No matter how attractive the train is, if the service breaks down and the train suffers major delays people are not going to use it. Well-designed BRT can be just as successful as rail. Ridership numbers in comparable BRT and rail corridors are very similar. Finally, BRT is a better compliment to local bus.

Operational issues with the Expo line prompted a light rail supporter to write a commentary for the Los Angeles Times Wednesday describing her less-than-stellar experience. Southwestern Law School Adjunct Professor Molly Selvin attempted to use the Expo Line to get to an event but ended up bailing after a 45-minute wait due to mechanical problems. (During one trip the first week it opened, I ended up stuck on an unmoving Expo train for 30 minutes due to problems). She wrote that she hopes the Expo line can get its act together so that she and her husband will use it. She laughably advised, “Simply, make it easy – easier than fighting traffic.” It’s just that simple!

Selvin’s commentary unintentionally highlighted a significant problem with light rail: It’s not really for poor people actually dependent on mass transit. The Expo line in particular seems routed for leisure and recreational activities. It stops at the Staples Center and by the museums next to University of Southern California, and now the Helm’s Bakery District, full of trendy furniture stores. The marketing for the Expo line revolves around these recreational and commercial destinations -- there isn't a residence to be seen. Selvin, also an associate dean at Southwestern Law School, mentions only the commercial destinations available at the new Culver City stop. Bluntly put, she talks about light rail from the bubble of middle- to upper-class users looking for mass transit that is convenient to her occasional needs, not from the perspective of a daily user.

For poor people, bus-based transit systems are undeniably better. They provide more options, reach more places, and are simply much more flexible. If a bus route isn’t meeting its riders’ needs, it can be altered. As Cavanaugh has written frequently for Reason.com, money spent on building light rail in Los Angeles has taken money away from its bus systems, resulting in an overall loss of mass transit ridership. (Check out Cavanaugh’s column, titled “How Rail Screws the Poor,” in the upcoming August-September issue of Reason, for a more detailed analysis.)

But such logic will not stop Los Angeles leaders from trying to New Yorkify the city against its will. On Tuesday, Los Angeles City Council approved new zoning guidelines for Hollywood to try to foster denser construction and taller buildings, particularly around mass transit stops. (Cavanaugh ripped this proposal apart back in March). Baylor rejected rail proponents’ claim that rail hubs will help foster economic development in the city:

So far there is no proof that rail has promoted development. There is also no proof that rail is better than bus at promoting such development. What rail often does is move development from one jurisdiction to another. Los Angeles is the densest region in the country. It has the second lowest number of highway miles per capita of any region in the country after Honolulu. However, unlike New York City, which has very high densities in the core and much lower densities in suburban areas, Los Angeles has medium densities throughout. The Los Angeles development pattern makes rail relatively unsuccessful. One reason that many cities including suburban Santa Monica promote rail is because their roads are very congested and the cities see rail as a way to increase development. However, while rail by itself can mitigate congestion, new development makes congestion worse. While some of the new commuters to the area as well as some of the existing commuters will use rail, far more will drive. New development combined with new rail will increase congestion. Whether or not new transit lines in L.A., particularly rail, increase overall development levels is not conclusive. New transit investments are much more effective in low-income areas with transit-dependent riders.

Furthermore:

Unfortunately, these developments often tear down existing housing used by low-income individuals. While residents who move to [transit-oriented] developments use transit more in these developments than in their previous homes, they use transit less than the displaced residents.

So, light rail doesn’t actually help poor people get around, takes money away from mass transportation that actually does help poor people, and even has the potential to displace poor people from their homes in favor of folks like Selvin, who use mass transit for leisure convenience.

So I guess the big question is: Do light rail proponents see these as flaws or benefits?

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  • Mr. FIFY||

    I can't wait for this to fail, just to see the yummy, yummy ham tears of its supporters.

  • ||

    Won't happen. Intentions matter, results don't.

  • BigT||

    You won't see those ham tears until an awful lot of begging and borrowing from the Feds has gone on. I'm guessing that taxpayers in other parts of the country could prop up this monstrosity for years before any of the supporters admitted it was a mistake.

  • R C Dean||

    I can't wait for this to fail,

    Hasn't already? If being hugely overbudget, running chronic deficits, and failing dismally to reach its ridership goals isn't failure, what would be?

  • okcomputer||

    I'm not sure why you want it to fail. Do you want the reality to fit your ideology or your ideology to fit the reality?

    Anyway, the average weekday boarding for January 2013 was 24,175. Not bad for its first year.

  • fish||

    Unfortunately, these developments often tear down existing housing used by low-income individuals.

    It's okay....we'll give them a voucher...........

  • Killazontherun||

    When I think of the future, I imagine quantum teleportation, cybernetic, organic diamond body replacement, group marriages, 7/13 riffs in 24 tone harmonic scales, etc. When the 'progressives' think of the future they imagine the same ride available to Samuel Clemens one hundred and fifty years ago, yet who gets the big funding?

  • Pro Libertate||

    Steamboats?

  • Killazontherun||

    Not Green enough. A raft on the Mississippi.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Ever see that bit where Dr. Zaius does "Mark Twain Tonight"?

  • Killazontherun||

    That sounds fun. I'll have to look it up after supper.

  • Pro Libertate||

    No, wait, I posted it at Urkobold once. [Rummages around a bit.]

    Here it is.

  • Killazontherun||

    The stutter in the new Flash update is ridiculous though it may be compatibility in Firefox, will try Chrome when i get back.

  • Mo' $parky||

    If you guys aren't careful you might get stuck there with poor old Charlie.

  • Reformed Republican||

    As a Floridian, I really do not care much for Rick Scott, but I was glad that had the balls to turn down federal funds for a light rail here.

  • Matthew Brown||

    Correction: University of Southern California, not South. And the museums aren't theirs, though they are across the street from it.

    TBH, I'm not sure how they're counting ridership anyway; there are no turnstiles or any other obvious passenger-counting equipment between the Red/Purple line platforms downstairs and the Blue/Expo line platforms upstairs. This means they can't distinguish ridership; all they know is the total who enter the station from outside.

    I ride it every day, because its stop is closer than the bus stop and they killed the bus route anyway. I can confirm that ridership is light, though the endless delays could mean that people don't realize it's now open.

    LA's Red, Green and Blue lines have reasonable ridership; not this one so far. I measure this by how easy it is to get a seat at rush hour; trivially easy on the Expo, hard on the others.

  • Scott S.||

    corrected!

  • eric711||

    You should make a correction that show the ridership number of 27,000 is for 2020 not 2012. Also you should make the correction that the ridership of 11,000 a day isn't correct. I think the number was more like 11,350. Look forward to that update.

  • Invisible Finger||

    Is that reasonable ridership or poor level of service?

    In Chicago they used to add cars or subtract cars on train sets to the appropriate level of ridership (there are some physical limitations of course). Then they decided to stop doing that because they didn't want to pay people to take cars on and off. The suburban lines have done that forever, they just leave some cars locked and dark when they aren't in use. So you have the occasional perverse situation where a train has empty cars while a dozen people have to stand in another.

  • Matthew Brown||

    In that circumstance, I'm not sure what point there is to locking up some of the cars. Reduce cleaning time cost? But I doubt they clean the things more than once a day anyway, so I'm not sure it'd save much.

    Every light rail / subway system I've known is relatively full at peak times, except the Expo. Granted, it's early days yet and the first-stage terminus at culver city only just opened; that's a fairly large bus transfer point thus may encourage more people to ride.

    I got on an eastbound train toward Downtown LA at Jefferson/USC at just before 3pm today and there were 21 people in my car —it's a six-car train, so if it was evenly occupied that'd be approximately 120 people in the train. However, it'd been at least a fifteen minute wait since the previous one.

    They do appear to be closing down bus lines that parallel the route; they definitely stopped the one that ran down Broadway from LA Union Station.

  • Matthew Brown||

    Oh, and also: the Blue Line already stopped at Staples Center, so that part isn't a benefit to the new line. The two share tracks until past that station.

  • The Derider||

    It's a benefit if you're coming from West LA, rather than Long Beach, as the blue line serves the latter and not the former.

  • Scott S.||

    Interesting though (and not included in the blog), I hung out at the Staples Center station before a Lakers playoff game last month to see if any Expo riders used it. Nearly all of them were from the blue line and they didn't even realize the Expo line also stopped at the station.

  • eric711||

    Your only partly correct. Yes the blue line did go there, but there was no service to that area from the west which is where the expo line travels.

  • BakedPenguin||

    It’s not really for poor people actually dependent on mass transit.

    If they had it go through Compton or East LA, it might get all tagged up, and they won't have the money to repaint it.

  • Matthew Brown||

    The Green Line goes through Compton, though it's kinda hard to get to being in the middle of the 105 freeway. The Blue Line goes through Watts and a few other unsavory neighborhoods.

    Exterior train tagging tends to happen at depots when the trains are out of service, anyway. Even taggers need longer than they get at stations.

  • wareagle||

    shocking that projected ridership and actual ridership are different numbers.

  • hrsdty||

    Everything you write is correct, but I'm pretty stoked. I've used the new line since it opened and can't wait for it to get to Santa Monica.

    And you don't even have to pay!

  • Suki||

    If the government didn't make cars so expensive to buy and operate, the poor would not need crazy government schemes like this. It would probably be cheaper to put the poor in cabs, even cheaper if the government was not regulating cabs so much.

  • CE||

    What about high end bike one way bike rentals?

  • CE||

    It's clearly a marketing problem. They should name it the John Galt Line, so free market types will ride it. Sort of like they put Andrew Jackson the primary Federal Reserve Note, after he was safely in the grave.

  • Tulpa the White||

    BRT is awesome. Never experienced it before moving to Pgh.

  • Matthew Brown||

    LA has BRT; it's the Orange Line, out in the San Fernando Valley. Dedicated roadway with a fleet of pretty nice articulated buses.

    Thing is, they only put it in because public referendums forbade them from building rail.

  • eric711||

    The ridership projections of 27,000 a day ridership are estimated for the year 2020. Here are some quotes from the environmental impact statement where those numbers come from:
    "Moving from 2001 existing service to 2020...Earlier ridership estimates in the Draft EIS/EIR reported 27,200 fixed guideway boardings for the Mid- City/Exposition LRT to Venice/Robertson Boulevards. These estimates were generated from the Metro travel demand model, using a minimal feeder bus network and no rapid bus service beyond the two rapid bus lines that were being demonstrated at that time (on Wilshire Boulevard and Ventura Boulevard). The updated transportation model runs provide an upper limit to the estimated ridership, so that daily fixed guideway boardings are anticipated to be in the range of 27,200..." The point is ridership will increase with time and it's 2012 not 2020 yet. Looks like you missed the fundamentals here. Once again reason seems to have no reason or done any level of research for this article. It took me five minutes to look this up from the EIS report. The first week the expo line opened it had apx. 9,000, a day ridership, and now about a month and a half later before these two new stations opened to complete the first phase the ridership is apx. 11,500 a day. That's around 2,500 trip growth per day before the line even fully opened. I expect now that the line is fully open those numbers will jump up.

  • Scott S.||

    The EIS we consulted says those numbers should come by 2015 at the latest. It is absurd to believe that the ridership will more than double on the basis of opening two stops, but you're welcome to your beliefs.

  • Matthew Brown||

    I'm pretty sure it will improve somewhat because Culver City is a major transportation hub -- if nothing else, closing parallel bus lines will drive traffic onto the rail.

  • eric711||

    I didn't say it would more than double. I did say it would increase. If you look at the gold line it has slowly increased over time. Where in your article do you mention that the 27,000 number should be by 2020 or 2015? You make the assertion that it should be 27,000 right now. You need to fix this article and make some corrections. You can do better than this. You have written two articles proclaiming the this project is already a failure when it has just only a few days ago fully opened and even the EIS you said you looked at was talking about reaching 27,000 by 2015. Again you need to make some corrections.

  • eric711||

    Still think the ridership is low:

    Here is ridership information for June and the Culver city station was only open for part of June.

    "Expo already at 16,569. Culver City and its bus connections seem extremly popular. Really need to see July to have a sense of ridership for the line since CC was only open for a portion of June.

    All time high for rail ridership at 362k per weekday (of course we didn't have Expo before) and June-July seem to be the peak."

  • CZmacure||

    Daily ridership is now at 26,000, when it was not expected to hit 27,000 until 2020.

    http://www.neontommy.com/news/.....-expo-line

    The Expo line is an abysmal failure.

  • Fnarf||

    The 27,000 projection was for 2020, not 2015, not 2013. And guess what? They're already there in 2013, seven years early: 27,280 average weekday boardings in August, 760,000 total for the month, up more than 200,000 from a year ago. The Expo line is a smashing success. People love it. Your credibility is zero on this issue, thanks in part to your incessant and deliberate publishing of erroneous or misleading statistics.

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