Slate: L.A. Transit So Good It's Losing 8,000 Riders a Year

"The dirty secret of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is that it provides some of the finest public transit service in the country," I wrote in a print column a few months back. Although that was a preface to an argument the MTA is in the process of downgrading its service, I wasn't being sarcastic. If you are an actual mass transit user – which is to say, a bus rider – the MTA remains a good if deteriorating option. Having recently relocated to the DC beltway, where the transit system is lousy and overpriced, I particularly miss L.A.'s $75 all-mode, unlimited 30-day pass

Now Slate's Matt Yglesias has made a pit stop in the city (and county) of the angels, and he has high praise for the local transit system. But he chooses to praise the very changes that are making service worse and, not incidentally, causing more people to give up on the MTA entirely. 

The first sign of trouble: Yglesias' piece is almost entirely about the Authority's massive and costly investments in subway, light rail and (subject to a November referendum) streetcar infrastructure, yet he begins by informing readers, "I began my day in Claremont, where I’d spoken the previous evening at a Pomona College event." How did he get all the way out to the east end of the county during his "carless" LaLa Land sojourn? Did he take a helicopter from LAX, which is 50 miles away? (Maybe he can afford it; I get the impression Yglesias didn't exactly grow up in the hood.) Did he maybe fly into the airport in Ontario and grab a hovercraft from there? No way to tell. 

Though he sniffs that L.A. is "no New York and never will be," Yglesias says the city is at the forefront of a "transit revolution" and transforming itself into a "21st-century city that moves the idea of alternative transportation beyond nostalgia or Europhilia." And it's doing so because it "never stopped growing." 

Let's take that last point first. L.A. has in fact stopped growing, and the flatlining of population has coincided almost exactly with the mayoralty of Antonio Villaraigosa, whom Yglesias singles out for praise. Since 2004, the county's population has expanded by a mere 0.8 percent. Without mentioning this figure, Yglesias notes that by comparison, "San Mateo County between San Francisco and Silicon Valley managed to muster a measly 1.6 percent population growth in the past decade." So the actual story is that even the slow-growing wealth pockets of Northern California have been outpacing L.A. in population growth. 

To his credit, Yglesias does not entirely dismiss bus service as part of his newfangled urbanscape, but it's worth noting (as he doesn't) that Villaraigosa, who plans to shut down a full lane of the extremely busy Wilshire Blvd. to make room for a dedicated rapid bus lane, has found another way to increase traffic congestion. The rest of the solutions in the Slate article are familiar duds: the subway to the sea; the light-rail Expo Line (which, Scott Shackford and I discovered in May, is carrying a tiny fraction of its predicted ridership), rezoning Hollywood and Downtown to turn them into walkable, hub-centered, polycentric, smart-growth yuppie paradises; Measure R (which Yglesias describes as a "dedicated funding stream for new transit," though it was actually a general traffic and mobility initiative and was promoted, both in advertising and in its ballot title, as an all-options congestion- and pothole-fixing measure); and a raft of new rail building which Yglesias, citing an American Community Survey, claims has boosted the "share of the metro area’s population that relies on mass transit to get to work." 

The actual numbers, from the MTA itself, tell a grimmer story, and while I don't expect jet-setting pundits to get more than a cab-driver-wisdom level of familiarity with any local area, Yglesias could at least have looked them up. From my column: 

Since 2009 the MTA has added eight miles of train service, at a capital cost of about $2 billion. These new trains, the Expo Line and an extension of the east-county Gold Line, carry a total of about 39,000 people a day. 

In the meantime, the cash-strapped authority radically reduced bus service twice: It cut bus lines by 4 percent in 2010 and 12 percent in 2011. These cuts were made even though buses move more than four times as many Angelenos as trains do. In 2009 MTA buses carried about 1.2 million riders a day. Multiplying that by 16 percent, we can estimate more than 180,000 people had their service canceled while fewer than 40,000 had service introduced. 

Not surprisingly, the result is that fewer people are using mass transit overall in Los Angeles than in 2009 (about 5 percent fewer, according to MTA statistics). This is a continuation of a long-term trend. Since the MTA began rail construction in 1985, more than 80 miles of railroads have been built, but mass transit ridership as a percentage of county population is lower than it was in 1985. 

Now that the 99 percent have been downgraded to a mere 47 percent, it's probably inevitable that the smart media can't be bothered with the concerns of the poor people who actually use mass transit. Radical socialists, on the other hand, still occasionally make a gesture of solidarity. The left-wing Bus Riders Union recently held a big protest at Union Station against cuts to bus service. Apparently Yglesias missed them while passing through on his way to Silver Lake. But you'd think it would be of interest that fewer people are using mass transit in the city of tomorrow. To spend billions on infrastructure and end up with fewer people using mass transit is an absurd result on its face, and it should have been noted in an article about the revolutionary transformation of L.A.

Related: If trains can't get people out of their cars, maybe wild horses will

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  • ||

    Fuck trains. I'll be sticking with my fuel-intensive, fuck-Gaia-in-the-ass automobile until the day I die.

  • ||

    Buses, too. Fuck buses.

  • Cytotoxic||

    Yglesia. Fuck Yglesia.

  • ||

    We're racist monsters who hate public schools and poor Mexicans, or something. The Exalted Mr. Yglesias is just pointing out the praiseworthy projects we libertard trillionaires would condemn.

  • Archduke Pantsfan||

    I hate taking the bus. 10 minutes a day of standing next to smelly strangers

  • Hugh Akston||

    Though he sniffs that L.A. is "no New York and never will be,"

    We'll have to find a way to live with that tragedy.

  • Randian||

    Try to soldier through somehow, Hugh.

  • Ska||

    I took that to mean the transit system will not match the NYC subway system.

  • Randian||

    Amongst the coastal effete, that's a dog whistle if I ever heard one.

  • Ska||

    Or maybe the NYC subway system has high ridership, and is a reasonably cost effective way around the city for some commuters and residents.

  • John||

    If you read the article, sad pirate just wants to ride his bike. Tim it is really not fair to take Yglesias seriously. The poor guy is not all there.

  • ||

    If you won't say it, I will: The man's a gargantuan fucking retard, and there really isn't much more to it than that.

  • John||

    Yes he is. I think he is seriously retarded and probably some level of Aspy. My God, look at him. No way is that guy normal.

  • Cytotoxic||

    I think you're smearing Asps. They tend to be intelligent Yglesias is anything but.

  • ||

    Asps are a noble race of snakes. Please, do not malign them so.

  • SugarFree||

    Yglesias is not the worst, but he's up there. Despite Krugman's recent adventures in braindeadism, at least he was probably smart at some point, and Ezra Klein is just a rent-boy, whoring it out. Yglesias thinks he's some sort of thoughtful intellectual.

    "Sweet Clyde... laugh at him derisively."

  • ||

    Friedman has to be up there with the best of the best in the Lords of Dumbfuckistan Hall of Fame also.

  • John||

    Friedman is the Duke of Dumbfuckistan. But you could invite him to a party and not worry about him shitting in the flower bed or something. I seriously doubt you could say that about Ygelsias.

  • SugarFree||

    Friedman is genius at weaving together facile ideas into a resplendent blanket of horseshit that fools millions into believing he's a deep thinker. He's the Lady Gaga of the pundit world.

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    Lady Gaga's world is flat!!!!

  • MOFO.||

    Johnathan Chait. Just as clueless and special needs as Friedman, but not even able to crap out shit that people even read. Only thing worse than being a dimwit is being an unsuccessful dimwit.

  • Tman||

    "Now Slate's Matt Yglesias"

    Well, there's your problem.

  • H. Protagonist||

    This particular Yglesias article (shallow, insipid, completely bereft of any sort of rigor and at odds with the daily experience of most Angelenos) further confirms my opinion of his "journalism." I've never understood how he rose to prominence.

  • ||

    His last name is Yglesias. My guess would be affirmative action.

  • SugarFree||

    He's as ethnic as a Taco Bell vomit bowl.

  • ||

    I know, but his name's Yglesias. And that was probably enough for whatever cunt diversity officer hired his inane ass.

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    "Go stand next to that injun woman named Warren."

  • SKR||

    Way to link to page two of he article Tim.

  • mnarayan||

    rezoning Hollywood and Downtown to turn them into walkable, hub-centered, polycentric, smart-growth yuppie paradises

    Well only tangentially relevant to the article, this really is the kind of zoning the kills me. "Planners" spend decades forcing development to follow one pattern, then, when it turns out that pattern is really shitty, they conclude they need to come up with a new pattern to force development into. What they should actually conclude is "We suck at planning development".

  • R C Dean||

    walkable, hub-centered, polycentric, smart-growth

    Anything that strings together that many consultant buzzwords is ipso facto delusional.

  • Archduke Pantsfan||

    Buzzwords? Did someone say Buzzwords?
    http://palliser.com/export/sit.....opment.pdf (PDF)

  • Randian||

    Aren't strip malls "polycentric"?

    I believe they are.

  • rts||

    You guys haven't experienced fucked up transit authorities until you've had to deal with TransLink in Vancouver. Nearly 2 billion dollars in the hole, constantly begging local mayors to raise property taxes to cover the shortfalls, building bridges to nowhere. But the watermelons love it, so onward it marches.

  • Cytotoxic||

    Van's mass transit does work though. The rail is ridden and heavily. I've been there it was packed like a sardine can. Not that it's a good idea but I think it works better than many.

  • R C Dean||

    Van's mass transit does work though.

    For values of "work" that exclude "doesn't run a deficit", I guess.

  • rts||

    As well as "doesn't coerce non-users to pay for it".

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    "shut down a full lane of the extremely busy Wilshire Blvd. to make room for a dedicated rapid bus lane"

    First they restricted user access to common street right of ways to make cars more convenient for cars. Now they are restricting access to cars to make streets convenient for buses.

    Fuck that. I should be able to walk, ride a bike, ride a horse, drive a car, drive a go kart, ride a privately operated transit bus, ride an unlicensed taxi, or travel any way I want to on any public right of way. I don't care if anyone paves it either.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    First they restricted user access to common street right of ways to make cars them more convenient for cars.

  • Archduke Pantsfan||

    Apparently Your carbon spewing mcmansionmobile is not welcome on the Publik Roadz.

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    the light-rail Expo Line (which, Scott Shackford and I discovered in May, is carrying a tiny fraction of its predicted ridership

    Wow, who could have predicted this completely unpredictable occurence??! It was as unpredictable as the most recent employment numbers! Which is to say, "un".

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    This is the rightful state of existence for streets, except more people would be in motor vehicles and fewer horses and streetcars:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GG2h-bGjjlw

  • Harlequin||

    The irony is, LA was the city built by mass transit. The layout of the suburbs was dictated by the geography and the lines of the Pacific Electric. In its day, well into the 1940s, LA County had by far the largest streetcar system in the world.

  • Invisible Finger||

    And it lost money then, too.

  • ||

    "Gas prices are so high in LA that English can be heard on the buses." —Jay Leno

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