Growing Transit Ridership

SHORTLY AFTER VOTERS overwhelmingly approved the Measure M sales tax for transit last November, news stories began surfacing about LA Metro’s declining ridership, which fell 6% in 2016 alone. Actually, a decline in bus ridership had begun in 2010, initially in response to service cuts and a fare increase that Metro adopted to cope with the dramatically decreased revenues during the Great Recession. Another fare increase in 2014 yielded another decline in ridership, which continued well after the effects of the increase in fares. Something else was happening.

Transit ridership has fallen all over the U.S. and a search for explanations is underway nationally. Many possible causes have been suggested: effects of the Great Recession; declining immigration; displacement of low-income residents in gentrifying neighborhoods; the 2015 California law allowing undocumented immigrants to get drivers licenses; declining gas prices;  and LA traffic congestion that slows bus service.  

LA Metro is working hard to rebuild bus ridership. We’d like to recommend two potentially powerful strategies: 1) better and better-targeted service, such as microtransit, for seniors and persons with disabilities and; 2) a smart universal student transit pass program.

LA Metro already provides discounts to seniors, people with disabilities, and to college students.  But we believe there are new opportunities for the agency to do this even more effectively.

LA Metro is pioneering a new public transportation service called “microtransit,” a service for short trips under 20 minutes with vehicles smaller than traditional transit vehicles.  This service will provide riders the ability to reserve and pay for a ride in real time through a software/technology platform.  Like a continuous vanpool, microtransit will save riders time and replace other vehicle trips.
Older adults often have compelling mobility challenges that can threaten their health and well-being as well as their quality of life.  Trips to the doctor, to local stores, or to cultural or educational experiences are not luxuries, but necessities. We believe that MicroTransit, if affordable and accessible, can meet these needs. However, such services will need to be designed in ways that fit the needs of specific populations, such as people who need lift-equipped vans. 

LA Metro has ramped up its efforts to market its current discounted student transit pass program with notable success.  However, some colleges and universities have pioneered a new model that has shown far greater ridership results.  To cite three examples, there’s 40% student transit ridership at the University of Washington in Seattle, 37% locally at Santa Monica College, and 31% at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 

Participation in these programs is higher because they are based on a new model:  Students pay a group rate when registering for classes, which spreads the cost of individual passes across the entire student body. Then all students receive a pass giving them full access to the transit system.  This model—much like “pooled insurance”—creates an economy of scale that dramatically reduces the cost to individual students.  At Santa Monica College, for example, students pay $10.50 per semester during registration and the college pays another $10.50—a real bargain when compared to the price of parking. This ensures that every student gets a pass—not just those who choose to buy one—making it likely that more students will ride. Some ride a lot, some a little. But the results show student transit ridership soars!

Metro is interested in this new model and we believe that after a pilot effort to work out the details, LA County may soon have the most expansive and universal student transit program in the country, with multiple colleges and multiple transit operators participating.

LA County has more than 1.3 million seniors. Of these, approximately 250,000 have a disability that makes it difficult for them to go outside of the house alone, for example shopping or visiting a doctor’s office. About 700,000 non-senior adults face the same limitations. Additionally, our county has more than one million college and university students. Providing new innovative services and discounted transit passes to as many seniors, persons with disabilities and students as possible would not only seriously boost ridership and reduce congestion, but also provide extremely important services.

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