Transportation Policy

L.A. Mass Transit About to Get Even Worse


The Times of New York does something the Times of Los Angeles appears not to have done since February 2006. The Grey Lady sends a reporter to ride mass transit in Los Angeles

But when he wrote this first-person comedy piece that had readers howling with laffter over their All-Bran back in the G.W. Bush Administration, the L.A. Times' Bullet Train Believer Dan Turner merely produced a rail-oriented travelogue. (The paper relieved itself of transit reporter Steve Hymon two years ago.) 

Walther Moore: Never forget.

America's newspaper of record, on the other hand, sends Jennifer Medina to ride a direct bus line that is slated to be shut down – the 305 from Watts to Westwood – and find out how riders feel about it. 

I reported on the service cuts when they were announced in March, and many of Medina's findings will be familiar to readers of my transit coverage. But with transit, the drama is always in the mundanity. L.A. MTA offers one-way rides for $1.50 – no transfers. If you have to switch from a direct route to a connecting route, you not only get the time-doubling effect that every bus rider learns to factor into his or her calculations but have to pay a second or third time. Also, though Medina doesn't mention it, MTA's very useful monthly pass has jumped in price from $62 to $75 since 2008 – a 21 percent increase during a period of only 5 percent CPI inflation and double-digit deflation in housing. A day pass costs a hefty $6 – and if Turner's LAT story above is to be believed (never guaranteed), that means the cost of a day pass has doubled since 2006. 

So the loss of the direct bus line (which MTA describes as an improvement) places the largest relative financial burden on ladies from Watts who commute to tonier parts of the county for sporadic work. In this excerpt from Medina's story, the real-world grievances of these customers are set off against a quote from an MTA official that is so abstract and math-maddened it would have shamed a clerk at the East India Company: 

"The hardest part is when we have to transfer — you stand there waiting, and it can feel like forever," said Silvia Canjura, who has taken the bus to work as a nanny in Santa Monica for the last 31 years. "Will I arrive at 8:30 or 9:30 in the morning? I never really know now, but changing will make it worse." 

Transit officials say they are trying to use new rail lines to turn the region's unwieldy system into a grid — a goal made all the more difficult by the facts that Los Angeles was hardly built with geometric precision and that the service area spreads over nearly 1,500 square miles. 

"We want to fill in the grid rather than rely on these customized zigzagging lines," said Conan Cheung, the transit authority's deputy executive officer for service planning. "We have to streamline the system to work for the highest number of people." 

But the Bus Riders Union complains that the transit agency continues to treat the bus lines as a "separate and unequal system." Under the new system, the 3,000 passengers who board the 305 each day, paying $1.50 for each trip, will instead have to take a series of buses or trains that could take twice as long and cost three times as much. (Unlike other cities, the patchwork system in Los Angeles does not allow free transfers.) 

"People are going to be paying more for less service," said Esperanza Martinez, an organizer for the union. "In the name of efficiency, they are going back to where we were years ago." 

For the most part, the bus riders are only vaguely aware that the route is scheduled to be cut this fall, and those who are have had little time to react. 

"I have no idea what I am going to do after — nobody does," said Antonio Hernandez, 26, who uses the bus to get to his job as a painter. "They had a hearing and we could have gone to complain, but nobody I know did. Who has time to go to those things?"

In Robert Aldritch's Hustle, Burt Reynolds disdains L.A. as "Guatemala with color television." But this is one case where the City of Angels could take something of value from the developing world: a relatively entrepreneurial transit economy in which the only thing you need to get into the bus business is a vehicle that (occasionally) starts. For all we know, deputy Conan Cheung may be right: Closing the 305 line may be the least-bad move for the MTA monopoly. But we can never find out what works best for customers if we don't have bus services that must please customers – not politicians or ecologists or new-urbanism visionaries or the editorial board of the local print monopoly, but customers – in order to stay in business.

NEXT: Celebrate the Freedom to Have Your Life Destroyed by County Busybodies

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  1. You corrected the spelling mistake in the headline before I got my snide remark in.

  2. I’m naming my kid conan cheung.

  3. Stop hating trains! Europe has them, which shows how progressive they are. Something you right wing, corporate shilling fascists wouldn’t understand.

    1. You know who else had trains?

      1. Sure, Sir Topham Hatt is authoritarian and a bit harsh in his disciplinary measures, but his trains run on schedule.

  4. “the Bus Riders Union”

    Very interesting concept. I’ll presume it’s something like the ‘Union of Those Who Demand Free Money’

    1. They are the people who pay the fares.The demand side of public transportation. In a free market private system they would have the say on where transport goes(by planning,lobbying and voting with their money). They are nothing but an annoyance to public transportation planners and other bureaucrats.

      1. “They are the people who pay the fares.”

        I know what you’re saying, but you might have better qualified it as:
        “They are the people who are getting subsidized transportation.”

        1. That’s questionable — the market for mass transit is so distorted that many riders might actually pay less if transit was private. At least here in PGH a big part of the fare increase (and service cuts) goes to pay the ridiculous pensions of retired bus drivers and mechanics. And of course the service is largely allocated on a political-favor basis rather than a ridership basis.

          1. When they cancelled the route from Cranberry to PGH, the free market solution was a private coach that cost $11 round trip compared to $6 round trip, and you had to pre-book and pre-pay it.

        2. Only if those prices are lower than they would be in a free transportation market. Otherwise, the beneficiaries of public transit subsidies are public transit workers.

          I rode BART in San Francisco, and a day’s commute cost $12.60, which for me meant somewhere around $3,500 a year. Yet BART only managed to cover half of its costs through fares. Now, I would have gladly moved to the City, but paying an extra $300 per month in rent would still lower my quality of housing substantially due to the huge housing supply-demand imbalance, itself caused by BS like rent control, building height restrictions, etc. And I could have driven, although then I’d have to pay a $6 admission fee to “pay for the Bay Bridge” plus a 35% parking fee and a near-national high $0.35/gal gas tax. I could have casual carpooled, but BART had set to ticketing those folks $250.

          Given those artificial restrictions, alongside the outrageous public transit salaries (over 700 people making over $100,000 a year in salary alone), in California’s case I’ll say with confidence that transit workers not riders capture the vast majority of government handouts.

          1. I could have casual carpooled, but BART had set to ticketing those folks $250.


            1. Serious as a heart attack. Casual carpoolers would often park in the back of BART lots because they were the largest parking lots around, but cops would periodically ticket casual carpoolers en masse. Parking violations weren’t that much, but moving violations were steep. Nowhere near as steep as the illegal ones South San Francisco issued, mind you, which were $446 apiece.

              Anyway, it didn’t happen that often, but it killed off casual carpool in my area.

              1. Boy, that’s completely short-sighted. “We can’t have competing ride sharing happening! Our overly large lots are for our limited rail service only!”

    2. While I think that people should pay what transportation costs, and that if there is to be a welfare subsidy it should be obvious and able to be discussed, I also think that bus riders (as well as everyone else) have every right to group together to make their complaints and wishes heard.

      Very often, bus riders are treated with utter contempt by transit planners, because they have no choice. Now, part of not having a choice is because they are poor and perhaps can’t afford the actual cost of transportation from A to B. But even then, their user experience rarely factors into transit planning. Routers want efficiency, and they want maximum numbers of people. They don’t really care if that efficiency makes everyone’s bus ride take twice as long, they don’t really factor in the value destroyed by making people wait longer, and they don’t really care if more people don’t actually use the system (one, since they’re all about sheer opportunity numbers and two because they’re losing money on the system anyway).

  5. High speed rail systems named after politicians is the answer to all of our problems. It will even save us from the certain living hell of climate change. The climate will never change again if we have high speed rail in every US city. Don’t be a Nazi. Support high speed rail (and Unions to run them). It’s the American way! This message brought to you by “Citizens for America”.

    1. Well, I certainly don’t want to be a Nazi. Where do I sign up to join you?

      1. but what about the cool uniform?

    2. Almighty, my kids just love polar bears. Will high-speed rail help or harm the polar bears?

  6. That would be nothing like Bud Shuster and the interstate highway system. Therefore, we must reject high-speed rail in favor of our current system.

    This message brought to you by the proud folks at Earmarks For Justice and Tax Fairness.

    1. I don’t get the criticism of I-99’s numbering. I mean, there’s simply no way to put it in the grid without screwing something up — it’s between I-79 and I-81, and there are no odd numbers in that range last I checked. Blame the idiots that put I-95 right up against the Atlantic and I-5 against the Pacific.

      1. Yeah, I don’t really know so much about the numbering as I know about Shuster’s diversion of federal funds for PA’s highways. Oh man, I used to take those, and they were always under construction. Any thought of traveling PA’s western or central highways elicits slumped shoulders and a groan from me.

        1. PA is the absolute worst for construction. I am now convinced that ‘construction’ is actually a highway life extension scheme, since they build a highway that’s two lanes, then close down one to prevent wear on it. Then when the other one gets worn out, they just switch sides and take umpteen years to fix it, 200 feet at a time. But you gotta make sure to put out 10 miles of cones…

          We had a joke page going around the office a few years ago about PA. Like the State Animal is the Road Closed Barrier Horse, the State Tree is the Road Construction diamond sign with flags out the top, and the State Joke is a ‘Men Working Ahead’ sign.

          1. That’s really funny. I can remember those one-lane stretches of cone with no visible work being done. It was…confusing.

      2. It makes more sense than I-64 in Chesapeake. At the end of the line I-64E is headed due West. Explain that.

        1. Every single inch of I64 sucks. Worst interstate in America*.

          That is your explanation.

          *I havent driven them all, but your pothole filled, bumper-bumper experience isnt worst. I64 is that soul sucking.

      3. It’s a trunk route and could have easily been assigned a three-digit interstate number, much like I-476 in eastern Pennsylvania.

        1. BTW, for us highway geeks, the other two big irritants besides I-99 are I-97 in Maryland and I-238 in Oakland, California.

          I-97 is about 20-miles long and connects Baltimore and Annapolis. It crosses no state lines. Since it is east of I-95, it technically does not violate the Interstate numbering system, but it is a waste of a two-digit primary number for no reason other than politics. It could have easily been given a trunk-route number like I-595 or I-995, but then the good citizens of Annapolis would not have have Their Very Own Major Interstate.

          I-238 is a different case. It’s about two miles long and connects two other Interstates in Oakland, as well as state highway 238. There weren’t anymore “I-x80” numbers left to use, so they just used the 238 number on an Interstate highway shield, since the highway receives federal funding. The number is completely wrong for the Interstate numbering system, but oh well.

  7. So?

    Hopefully, all of the bus lines shut down.

    This way, entrepreneurs can spring into action offering shuttle bus rides from places like Watts.

    1. Poor people organizing small businesses to efficiently meet their own needs? Bureaucratic SWAT teams will be all over that.

  8. Oooh, a good one.

    Guy goes to a cop’s 4th of July party, maybe steals some shit, gets tased and then shot. Seems fishy at best.

    1. *sighs*

      Yeah, at best. I once got in a fairly significant car accident with a drunk, off-duty cop and it was not a pretty scene afterward. There was nothing crazily out of line (and I am lucky) but when I pressed that he was drunk and had guns (and a bottle?) floating around his car, it immediately became clear that I was doing so at risk to my own well-being.

      He had let me use the phone in his car, as it was the mid-nineties when not everyone had a car or cell phone. They later told me he had mental problems. Nice.

    2. “”He confronted a suspect in this case and a struggle ensued and the suspect ended up getting shot,” explained Parma police Capt. Robert DeSimone.”

      How terrible! Are they going to figure out who shot him? Cause we sure can’t tell who it was from that statement.

    3. “No police officer ever wants to have to shoot someone, so I have to assume that if someone ends up firing on someone that he’s going to be justified in doing that,” said Capt. DeSimone.

      So they aren’t even trying to be impartial anymore?

      1. That language seems to apply equally to someone who shoots a cop, not just when a cop is doing the shooting.

        1. No, because cops are better than the rest of us.

    4. I see your shooting but raise you a man charged with abusing bath salts.

      Cleveland is a rough town.

  9. I got around by the buses and a private bus service–that operates like a hybrid bus/taxi service–all over Merida in Southern Mexico for about a year.

    The private van/bus-taxis were by far the most efficient way around.

    They ran the same routes as the city buses–but you don’t have to go to any particular bus-stop along the route. You just stand at the edge of the street, and when you see one go by, you hold your hand up and they stop! When you want to get off, you holler–easy as all get out.

    And the private companies go a lot more places than the buses do too.

    The bus service in southern Mexico is way better than it is in Los Angeles, that’s for sure.

    1. Re: Ken Shultz,

      The bus service in southern Mexico is way better than it is in Los Angeles, that’s for sure.

      Except those in Mexico City. Those buses have been expropriated-privatized-expropriated so many times, people prefer to ride the “peseras” (commercial vans with seats) which operate almost below the radar.

      By the way, the buses in Monterrey also cover almost the whole city, are private, dirt cheap and (if you pay a little more) have A/C.

    2. My wife and I got around the Inca valley in Peru one day by unofficial taxi/bus, and it was quite efficient and convenient. Basically, cab guy picks up fare (us, waiting at the bus stop), then while on the way, it became apparent that there was a kind of informal hitchhiking for small change kind of system going on. Works out great for everyone. Cheap and flexible, like carpooling on steroids. Everything people want out of public transit! Oh, except for those pesky licenses and fees, and the state deciding the routes! Dammit, I knew it was too good to be true.

  10. Most transit systems in the U.S. are more employment schemes for unionized workers than something that actually works. Most transit buses and trains in Houston, for instance, are almost always driving around with less passengers than available seats.

    1. with less passengers than available seats

      1. Ok, less passengers than total seats. Sorry about the confusion, mr. confused.

        1. should I look back into the time machine? I seem to recall your ‘correction’ Miss

        2. “Fewer” passengers.

    2. I’ve used the Metrorail a few times, and I’ve been surprised by how heavily used it is.

      That said, I’m pretty sure most Metro bus routes add more to traffic than they take away even assuming the people on them would drive.

  11. “We want to fill in the grid rather than rely on these customized zigzagging lines,” said Conan Cheung, the transit authority’s deputy executive officer for service planning.

    I’m always reminded of this article, where a slime mold builds an efficient distribution system for resources equal in complexity to Tokyo’s rail system (a patchwork of public and public-private partnerships that are all in direct competition). It turns out that, despite the lack of any centralized control, demand for resources efficiently directs construction of supply routes.

    Not that LA would ever take this approach.

    1. *private companies and public-private partnerships

      That is, after a bunch of scandals in the 80s or thereabouts, there was a massive privatization movement.

  12. What stops some rich dude from buying a fleet of buses and offering bus service?

    1. The guys with this in their fleet. You know, the ones who have a monopoly on force in the City of Angels.

  13. Many believe that the U.S. Government covered it up.

    I’m Bill Curtis.

  14. As usual, Tim, you nail the city of LA on their inability to properly execute anything greater than a nocturnal emission.

    Also, I’m not one to pick nits, but one exception I take is your calling the LAT a “local print monopoly,” when anyone with the inclination and the coin in their pocket is free to start another competing paper. There’s no need to embellish that, IMO.

    1. You needn’t be a coercive monopoly to be a monopoly. You just have to be the only game in town at any given time.

      1. Sloopy’s right. The Daily News is a legitimate competitor to the Times ? although the last time I can recall their actually competing was when they broke the Mirthala Salinas story.

        Never underestimate, however, the degree to which your print rags work the laws to its own advantage, and not just through getting favorable zoning. Often there are requirements that public offerings or announcements have to be made by a print publication with some specified distribution over a specified geographical area. I used to work for an eight-person daily paper that only existed because there was a law that some very narrowly tailored type of bond-issue ad had to be published in a newspaper that precisely fit our description. I believe a lot of those laws still exist, though it’s been years since anybody looked at a newspaper for that kind of information.

        1. work the laws to their own advantage…

          1. Fair enough, Tim, and thanks for the reply. I suppose rent-seeking can create a de facto monopoly of sorts in the ways you described.

        2. Ky state brewers license requires a newspaper ad announcing your intention.

  15. Kinda scary when you think about it. Wow.

  16. You just have to be the only game in town at any given time.

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