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