Public transportation

L.A.'s Bus Riders Are Suffering. Rail Spending Is to Blame.

L.A. politicians' continued preference for rail projects is screwing over the bus riders who depend on transit the most.


While Democrats spar over busing policy from the 1970s on the debate stage, transit riders in contemporary America are seeing their bus service slashed to pay for light rail they don't use. Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times ran a story on the transportation woes of transit users in Los Angeles County, who are spending more and more of their time riding or waiting for the bus.

"On the bus, I just can't get from Point A to Point B whenever I need to go. I hate it," said one 23-year-old commuter to the Times, saying she can spend up to five hours a day commuting by bus to and from school.

Another woman told the Times that she spends three hours a day on the bus getting to her job as a house cleaner. She says she and her husband are saving to buy a car.

L.A.'s bus problems are more than anecdotal. Over the past decade, ridership and service levels have dropped dramatically.

Since a recent 2007 peak, Los Angeles' transit agency, Metro, has cut bus service by 21 percent (as measured by revenue-miles, the distance covered by buses while they're out picking up passengers), while simultaneously raising fares, according to a report published by the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that also publishes Reason). Trips taken on buses have fallen in the same period by 32 percent.

The Times, citing data analyzed by UCLA, reports that average bus speeds have fallen 12.5 percent over the last 25 years.

The reason for the decline is Metro's prioritization of rail transit over buses, says Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation policy expert with the Reason Foundation.

"The board members, who are political creatures, of L.A. Metro are very interested in building rail lines, and not particularly interested in building bus service," says Feigenbaum. "Even though by many, many metrics, the bus service outperforms the rail, they are building rail and cutting bus service."

Since 1985, Metro has spent $25 billion building a rail transit system that now performs 110 million trips a year. At the same time bus ridership has fallen by nearly 220 million trips a year, dragging down overall transit ridership by 21 percent since 1985.

As of last year, even rail ridership has been declining despite Metro continuing to open new rail line extensions. The aforementioned Reason Foundation report notes how Metro has consistently shuffled discretionary money it could have spent on its bus service to fund the construction of new rail lines.

Metro's cutting of bus service and prioritization of rail is not new. Indeed, it was the subject of a major anti-discrimination lawsuit filed by aggrieved bus riders against the transit agency back in the 1990s.

The result of that lawsuit was a 1996 consent decree that required Metro to increase bus service and cut fares. Metro ridership increased 36 percent during the 11 years the consent decree was in effect. Nearly 60 percent of that increased ridership was on buses.

However, in 2007 the consent decree lapsed. Metro subsequently raised fares and bus cut service, resulting in the hellish commutes bus riders in yesterday's Times must suffer through.

Metro's preference for rail doesn't just harm bus riders. Taxpayers are also being thrown under the late, overcrowded bus. It costs the transit agency $4.54 in subsidies for each unlinked trip taken on a bus, compared to the $25.74 Metro spends subsidizing each unlinked rail trip.

Far from learning from its past mistakes of prioritizing rail over bus service, Metro and Los Angeles politicians appear to be doubling down on this failed approach. Metro's '28 by 28′ plan to finish 28 transit projects by the start of the 2028 Olympics includes 13 rail transit expansions, compared to 5 bus-related projects.

Metro's prioritization of new rail lines over old buses is even catching criticism from transit advocates.

"When Metro marshals its might to build shiny new capital projects, it sucks the remaining air out of the room. In turn, buses get older, less reliable, less frequent," wrote Joe Linton of Streetsblog in reference to the 28 by 28 plan.

Unlike bus service, which is efficient but boring, rail offers politicians unbeatable ribbon-cutting opportunities, says Feigenbaum.

"A new light rail project is something sexy you can point to and say constituents I delivered this to you," he says, adding that rail also dovetails with other policy objections officials might have, like attracting tech workers or spurring economic growth.

Randal O'Toole, a transportation scholar at the Cato Institute, has offered a more cynical explanation for politicians' preference for expensive rail projects.

"For many politicians, of course, the cost is the benefit," writes O'Toole in his 2018 book Romance of the Rails. "It means more money to hand out to contractors and suppliers."

It's not unheard of in Los Angeles—or any number of other cities—for engineering firms to donate generously to rail transit ballot initiatives, and then ink the contract to build the rail projects authorized by those ballot measures.

Regardless of motivations, the cost of taking money away from buses to subsidize rail is that transit works less well for those who need it the most.

"What this policy does it eliminates mobility for people who need it most," says Feigenbaum. "Instead of spending resources on folks who have no other way of getting around, we're spending resources who might like to live near a rail line but who are not going to take it."

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  1. Yeah, buses are actually the fastest growing source of mass transit in the US, but politicians keep rubbing themselves off to rail BS.

  2. This is a good example of why munis should not be in the business of operating ANY transit system. They should provide infrastructure only.

    Just looking at LA’s bus system. They have 14,000 bus stops in a 1500 sq mile area. That’s probably reasonable enough infrastructure. Maintaining those bus stops prob costs damn near nothing. They COULD stop there – and just lease or auction loading slots to private companies (who would then have do all the competitive stuff of figuring out profitable routes, best vehicle type for those routes, collect fares/etc). If they did limit themselves to that, they would prob get a HELL of a lot more than 165 bus routes from those 14,000 nodes. They wouldn’t be incentivized to minimize those bus routes cuz of the cost of operating the routes. They would be incentivized to maximize the number of routes limited only by the entrepreneurial ideas of everyone with an idea for running a shuttle serve or a commuter ride share or etc. More routes means lots more passengers which means less private traffic congestion too.

    And instead of sinking capital into buses and bus driver contracts and such, they could use the profits from operating those bus stops to fund the build out of a rather crappy rail infrastructure (93 stations in presumably that same 1500 square mile area) – and do the same thing with the rail stations and control systems (though my guess is that rail would do better with intra-city freight stuff than with passengers) as with the bus stops. Helping to take some local trucks off the road – which would also reduce private traffic congestion.

    1. Uh, sorry. One more swing and a miss.
      If Munis didn’t do mass transit, there wouldn’t be any.
      If it were profitable to run a bus system, I guarantee some entrepreneur would already be on it. No mass-transit system gets closed to covering costs.
      And then you’re joking about urban light rail used for freight, right? Or were you hoping for UP to build new lines through the cities? I know SF has just loads of spare space for that!
      Oh, and Safeways ain’t always built on the flatlands, in case you hadn’t noticed.
      Are you drunk when you post here?

      1. Why is bus transit unprofitable?

        1. “Why is bus transit unprofitable?”

          People won’t pay what it takes to make a profit to ride in a cattle car.

      2. If it were profitable to run a bus system, I guarantee some entrepreneur would already be on it

        You mean like Uber Express Pool or Lyft Line or Weelio or MiCommute or UCLA VanPool or DiDi Bus or Bolt or Careem? Going from ad hoc sedan/taxi to scheduled van/bus ain’t rocket science. They would be ecstatic to flood into any muni that opened its muni transport infrastructure to the market rather than monopolizing it for stuff like scheduled drop-off/pickup slots, inserting schedules into the ‘muni’ system to reach a broader market, mobility/transport data, ‘depot’ type services (like charging or battery swapping, etc). And they’d PAY for that value because while they can leverage existing infrastructure, they can’t afford to build it themselves.

        1. I mean what I posted regardless of your anecdotes.

          1. Santiago, Chile had a profitable bus system for decades, with 1400 bus companies operating everything from 50 year old jalopies (for really cheap) to sleek high speed buses with breakfast service (for wealthy office professionals living outside of town.

            After a government change, officials concluded that since there were profits it must not be operating efficiently, so they banned private companies and implemented their own system.

            Result: prices went up and average transit times tripled.

            So yes, you can have a profitable mass transit system, you just have to allow it to exist.

          2. No you don’t ‘mean what you posted’. You are just ignorant of history cuz you’re an ideologue.

            The REASON we have municipally-owned/operated transit is because it was TOO profitable as a monopoly and that created normal monopoly 101 problems when that monopoly/cartel was private. Mayors like Hazen Pingree in 1890’s Detroit (and a decade late Tom Johnson of Cleveland who had himself been a streetcar monopolist) realized that the 1860’s federal model re private railroads and monopoly land grants couldn’t work. It just created private rentiers and didn’t solve the transport problems of the original owners in the first place.

            Back then, a muni-owned corporation (where the muni itself would develop the infrastructure and be the rentier and operator – but managed primarily to improve transit rather than profits) was the right solution. But that was because rails/tracks/electrified power create a natural land monopoly re routes. It was specific to the circumstances then – not some perpetually always best option.

            Transportation tech (esp internal combustion) nowadays creates a different natural monopoly or rentier point – at the access slot rather than the route itself. The model that works today for that would be airports. Two airports competing right next to each other will only result in airplane crashes. But there’s no reason why airlines can’t do their own route stuff. So the airport (muni) limits itself to leasing the slots and ‘ground’ operations.

            1. “Two airports competing right next to each other will only result in airplane crashes. ”

              What!? It’s entirely possible for a city or region to have two or more competing airport without crashes.

              “Transportation tech (esp internal combustion) nowadays creates a different natural monopoly or rentier point – at the access slot rather than the route itself. ”

              There don’t need to be any ‘slots’ on a transit system. Uber and Lyft don’t need muni-provided ‘slots’, nor do NYC’s ‘dollar vans’. There’s no reason a system has to consist of big 60-passenger municipal buses rather than 13-seat vans.

              1. It’s entirely possible for a city or region to have two or more competing airport without crashes.

                It’s entirely possible for a muni/county to have 2+ sites for muni-owned airports. Just like they ALL have multiple bus stops. That doesn’t mean the sites themselves are competing for the same approach/takeoff space/time. Because LAND is different than labor and capital. When two parties enter the same space at the same time, we call that a ‘crash’. And they can’t own the same space at the same time either. In economics, we call that ‘competition’. One is bad – one is great.

                There don’t need to be any ‘slots’ on a transit system. There’s no reason a system has to consist of big 60-passenger municipal buses rather than 13-seat vans.

                You didn’t even read my post did you. And yeah – there have to be ‘slots’ – the same way an airport has ‘gates’ and ‘takeoff times’. So people can know where/when they can access transit – and get/wait there safely. And yeah – Uber/Lyft WILL start causing accidents/congestion if they start treating their dropoffs/pickup points as merely ‘commons’ as they grow into scheduled service. Same as those ‘dockless bikes’ which become trash blocking sidewalks. Bay Area VC’s/cos will NEVER understand this – cuz they live in a place where ‘sidewalk’=’place for shitting and disposing of needles’.

                1. I hate those bikes and scooters blocking the sidewalk so I have to walk around them.

                  If a city wanted to create “bike/scooter share parking areas” where each rider unlocked/locked them (sort of like Citi Bike I believe) and “parking areas” may be as simple, in low volume areas, as light pole with a sign saying “Parking for only for bikes/scooters with this city permit. No more than ONE bike/scooter per pole”) I’d be okay with that. The city could charge for the permit for each bike/scooter to cover the costs.

                  Enforcement personnel would pick up any shared bike/scooter left on public land in an unauthorized place and the bike/scooter share company could pick it up from an storage yard within 72 hours after paying $200 (or whatever) for a bike and $100 for a scooter. If left more than 72 hours anyone could buy it by paying the the $200 or $100 – first come, first serve. It would be up to the bike/scooter share service to figure out how to ding their customer (the last one using the bike/scooter presumably) to recoup their fines/retrieval fees.

                  Enforcement personnel would take (cutting the lock if needed) any bike/scooter not part of a permitted share program but taking up space at a “bike/scooter share parking area”. The owner could retrieve it within 120 hours from a storage yard by paying a fine (perhaps $300 for a bike, $150 for a scooter). If left more than 72 hours anyone could buy it by paying the $300 or $150 – first come, first serve.

                  Any bikes/scooters not retrieved would be scrapped or given to charities if their auction value is appraised to be so low as to not recoup additional storage expenses. The rest, like all unclaimed property, would be auctioned off at periodic auctions.

                  An excellent private/public partnership that meets everyone needs.

      3. “If Munis didn’t do mass transit, there wouldn’t be any.”


        “If it were profitable to run a bus system, I guarantee some entrepreneur would already be on it. ”

        Countless entrepreneurs already ARE on it. Profitable, private transit systems exist everywhere government does not actively try to shut them down through regulations and licensing schemes, and even sometimes in spite of government suppression efforts:

        “Stand for ten minutes on any corner of Flatbush Avenue and you’ll see a stream of dollar vans with Haitian flags tied to their antennae, Bible scriptures in colorful decals across their windshields, advertisements for local reggae concerts pasted on their side windows, and forests of rainbow-colored air fresheners dangling from their rearview mirrors. The vans are a big part of life in Brooklyn, especially among people with Caribbean roots; they’ve even inspired reggae tributes and a series of in-van concerts by local hip-hop artists called Dollar Van Demos.”

  3. Well, after they make a billion dollars on the olympics, maybe then?

    1. Make bus commuting an olympic sport. Maybe combine it with break dancing.

  4. “It means more money to hand out to contractors and suppliers.”

    How dare you besmirch.

    1. “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.”

  5. Romance of the Rails explains in wonderful detail how light rail shoved buses aside for political vote-pandering, and is a lousy real-world choice. It’s fun too.

  6. Have mercy!
    Been waitin’ for the bus all day…
    I got my brown paper bag
    And my take-home pay…

  7. That’s incredible, the book Empresa de Limpieza en Cádiz works a similar topic very well

    1. fucking spam

  8. Nice bike rack on the nose of that bus.

    1. Why does every story have a “nice rack” comment?

      1. “Nice rack” is the new Godwin.

  9. Bus riders suffer every time they get on the bus.
    Trains are much cooler. Too bad the LA trains don’t go anywhere people want to go. LAX? Transfer to a bus. Dodger Stadium? Take an Uber. The Valley? Who lives in the Valley?

  10. From the Times article you link to, it appears the decline in bus speeds is largely do to worse traffic, which is probably due to increased population and people preferring cars over mass transit. That is the primary reason for the decline in ridership. Not sure how reducing the investment in rail helps that. Seems like you have to do both to make mass transit competitive. But they need to be systems designed to work with each other rather than compete.

    Rail is used extensively to great affect with large riderships in many large cities. You can get around DC on the metro with ease. So not sure Los Angeles problems say anything about the larger picture nationally or the efficacy of rail vs buses in general.

    And I really don’t appreciate all the conspiratorial language against advocates or rail in this article. Can you please make your case without all the baseless innuendo?

    1. Perhaos we should go over the comparative advantages of private autos versus mass transit.

  11. Meanwhile, I’ve not seen a Sheriff or Metro security officer on the bus in well over a year, so I get to put up with ill-mannered people each and every day. Hobos and bums, the mentally ill, drug addicts, etc. And these people mostly ride for free, with impunity, subsidized by me. They’re loud, obnoxious, dirty, stinky, and diseased. And they often occupy 2 and 3 seats with their garbage. Way to go MTA.

    I’m retiring in a few months and I can not wait to leave this state.

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