How Rail Screws the Poor

As Los Angeles spends billions on light rail, transit use declines.


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. With a network stretching over 1,513 square miles, the MTA runs a fleet of 2,723 buses every weekday, operates trains over 87 miles of track, and carries more than 1 million passengers a day. 

The authority's newest service, the long-aborning light-rail Expo Line from downtown L.A. to Culver City, rides like a dream along its eight-mile route. Shortly after the Expo Line opened in late April, my colleague Scott Shackford and I found Expo Line riders unanimously enthusiastic about the train. 

Unfortunately, we also found very few riders. Based on our counts and calculations, we estimated total daily ridership could not exceed 13,000 people. A few days after we rode the rails, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky came up with an even smaller figure of 9,000 daily riders. 

Here you begin to see how the MTA is simultaneously increasing operating costs, reducing operating revenue, cutting service for working-class and poor customers, and dismantling a functioning mass transit system, all in the service of a fantasy that was pushed on an unwilling L.A. by wealthy liberals. 

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. 

Bus riders get screwed in another important way: We have to pay for a ride, while train riders don't. Every MTA bus has an enforcer, a driver who collects the standard fare of $1.50. Trains operate on an "honor system" in which fares are not collected. Although the MTA claims to conduct occasional spot checks and lay heavy fines on fare cheats, its rail revenue numbers suggest very few train riders pay. (The MTA is planning to add gating at rail platforms later this year.) 

Why would a public transit authority want to reduce its number of paying customers while adding costly, inflexible capacity that is destined to be severely underused? Part of the answer lies in the nation's light rail obsession. New trains are being added or planned in Austin, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, and other cities around the country. But L.A. train buffs have a special complex rooted in the legend of the Pacific Electric rail system. 

According to Bradford C. Snell's 1974 Senate Antitrust Committee report A Proposal for Restructuring the Automobile, Truck, Bus & Rail Industries, the evolution of modern car-friendly Los Angeles was not a matter of consumer choice or technological improvement but a plot by General Motors and Standard Oil to transform L.A. from a "beautiful city of lush palm trees, fragrant orange groves and ocean-clean air" into an "ecological wasteland" with "palm trees…dying from petrochemical smog" and air quality equal to that of "a septic tank." This remarkably popular if historically dubious anti-rail conspiracy theory informed the plot of the 1988 movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? 

Using transit policy to right alleged historical wrongs salves the consciences of well-heeled liberals, provides plenty of room for doling out political pork, and pleases planning utopians (including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa) who want to remake Angelenos into hub-centered, vertically living New Yorkers. But L.A.'s further left recognizes something the Democratic donor base does not: Poor people get the short end of these grand schemes. 

Bus riders are overwhelmingly poor and working class. As a regular rider I can attest that often the only English spoken on an L.A. bus is the robotic voice that announces upcoming stops. In 1996 a coalition led by the left-wing Bus Riders Union successfully sued the MTA, alleging discrimination in transit decision making. The action was based on the questionable idea that subsidized public transit is a human right, but it had a good effect: Under a 10-year consent decree, the authority beefed up its bus service and saw ridership increase. That ended in 2006, and bus service since then has been declining. So has overall use of mass transit. 

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) in April ordered the MTA to review its recent service cuts to find "unjustified disparate impacts, or justified disparate impacts that may be mitigated through an alternative." Bus Riders Union co-founder Eric Mann says the FTA instead should have ordered L.A. to undo its service cuts, adding that his group is launching "a national campaign to get President Obama to overturn the FTA and restore 1 million hours of bus service." 

I wish the Bus Riders Union well, but this civil rights bean counting wouldn't be necessary if the MTA were even minimally responsive to market stimuli. To spend billions on infrastructure and end up with fewer people using mass transit is an absurd result on its face. Light rail does not reduce smog, fight global warming, or serve the taxpayers. It does not, as rail buffs claim, "get people out of their cars." It is just another perverse dream from the ivory tower, one that vanishes when it hits the street. 

Tim Cavanaugh is managing editor of reason online.