Light Rail

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

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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.

If you build it, they will shrug.

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?