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."