Move LA Speaks with Metro Chief of Staff Nadine Lee: Fareless Transit and Much More!@

Move LA spoke with Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (Metro) Chief of Staff Nadine Lee in October 2020 about the state of public transportation in Los Angeles County. We spoke about fareless transit, recovery of public transit and public transit funding, the NextGen Bus Plan, Bus Rapid Transit, and active transportation. The interview lasted close to an hour! 

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Question 1: Metro CEO Phil Washington has proposed a fareless system and set up a Fareless System Initiative Task Force to explore options. This is a shift from the thinking of Metro just a few months ago. What do you attribute this shift in thinking to?

First, we believe we have a moral obligation to LA residents to pursue a fareless system to help our region recover from the pandemic and the increasing lack of affordability in the region. For example, 69% of Metro riders are low or extremely low income, and fare evasion penalties disproportionately impact low-income riders. Housing and transportation are the two biggest expenses for most households. If we can eliminate one of those big expenses, imagine how much that would help low-income families. A fareless system will help promote social equity and expand economic opportunities, especially for our low-income riders.

In terms of the change in thinking, several things have happened over the last few years. One, we have started to think more broadly about what we're trying to accomplish as an agency and a community, rather than just delivering the status quo. We've also been asked to provide discounts or free fares for a variety of different populations. So, instead of approaching this fareless concept as “death by a thousand cuts,” we think there is value in looking more comprehensively at what it would take to go fareless in the context of everything else we are trying to do. We also have so many people out there trying to hold on economically, while fear of COVID keeps people from conducting normal business in the course of their daily lives.

To put things in perspective, Metro collected on the order of $300 million annually in fare revenue, pre-COVID. Now, with rear-door boarding on our buses to protect everyone during the pandemic, we aren’t collecting much farebox revenue at all. We already make fares free on Election Day and Earth Day. Combined with all of the discounts we offer to specific populations, the entire approach becomes very piecemeal and reactionary. Instead, in the last few years, we've really tried to focus on making policy decisions based on the broader outcomes we are trying to achieve and not just piecemealing things together. We want to be more thoughtful about what we're trying to accomplish and use outcomes-based thinking as our guide to how we set policy and implement our programs. 

Part of the Fareless System Initiative Task Force’s mission is to look at all of the costs and factors we need to consider if we go to a fareless system. For example, even if the system is fareless, there will be increasing pressure to improve and expand bus service. We also have a number of rail and bus rapid transit (BRT) corridors coming online over the next 40 years, and there will be costs associated with operating a much larger network of transit. If we're not collecting money at the fare box, where's that money going to come from? How are we going to pay for the high quality of service that people want, while they also want it to be fareless? There's a big equation that has to be figured out in order for us to deliver on that idea. We don't want the quality of service to deteriorate as a result of being fareless. So now we are figuring out what would it take to go fareless, whether it make sense for us to do it, and if so, how we would actually implement it.

Question 2: How does Metro ensure that all riders feel welcome, they feel safe, they feel comfortable on Metro buses and trains and we help those who are unhoused find the services they need?

First, I think it's really important for people to understand the difference between being unhoused and exhibiting undesirable behaviors, on the transit system or anywhere else. There are a lot of unhoused individuals who are riding the system completely unnoticed – they’re just people trying to make ends meet like everyone else. Also, many people who exhibit erratic behaviors and create unhygienic conditions are not homeless. Our focus should be preventing the conditions and behaviors that negatively impact other riders.

Specific to the unhoused, we absolutely want to help them find assistance. However, Metro is not solely responsible for the unhoused population in LA County. Everyone owns this issue in some part, and that includes LA County, the 88 cities within the County, and every individual in the County. It's going to take everybody at the table to care for the unhoused. We need all hands on-deck to help solve the unhoused crisis in the County. So, we are going to invoke support from all of our government partners, all of our advocacy partners, every single person, and every single organization in this county who have an interest in making sure that the Metro system remains comfortable for all riders. That's what we're looking for. So yeah, there's a lot of work that has to be done, but we first have to get everybody to realize we all own this crisis.

Question 3: At the last Metro regular Board Meeting, there were several dozens of folks who came out to oppose the budget because they felt it belied an increase in service promised in the NextGen Bus Plan. Move LA has been advocating for years that we should be increasing bus service and as part of the NextGen Bus Plan we were looking to see expanded levels of service. So what will it take to restore additional hours to return to those pre-COVID-19 levels of service or even beyond?

Pre-COVID, as all of the speakers at the September Metro Board Meeting pointed out, we were operating somewhere around 7 million revenue service hours in the Fiscal Year 2020. We had every reason to believe that we were going to continue on that path with the NextGen Bus Plan. And then in March, safer-at-home orders took hold and, because of the pandemic, our ridership dropped. Overall system ridership went from 1.2 million a day to somewhere on the order of 300,000 a day -  about 25% of what we were used to.

For all intents and purposes, at that point in time we reset the baseline. So regardless of whether we provided seven million hours in Fiscal Year 2020, those pre-COVID revenue service hours are almost irrelevant because our ridership dropped so low, and our revenues concurrently plummeted due to the economic downturn. As a result, we had to adjust service levels.

At this point, we are building from that 300,000 riders a day. Right now, we're running a little over 600,000 riders a day, so we're more than double our lowest ridership from March, which is a good sign. That means that people are coming back to the system – they're feeling comfortable enough to ride. In the early days of the pandemic, everyone was pushing essential travel only, and people were unfortunately encouraged not to take transit, even though studies have since shown nearly no evidence directly linking transit rides to COVID outbreaks.

We are building the service back up a little bit here and there, based on demand and where we see crowding. I think that it's really important for everyone to understand that we are working to get back to where we were before COVID, but there's a tension between ridership demand and budget in the development of bus and rail services levels. You have to optimize the service levels to the budget available and the capacity needed to meet ridership demand. That doesn't mean that the NextGen Bus Plan and the NextGen vision have been thrown out the door. It means that, because we're starting from a different baseline, the implementation of our plans for NextGen are going to lag a little bit because of our funding constraints. Whereas we had planned to have seven and a half minute headways on our Tier 1 routes with the December shake-up, we're starting with 10-minute headways first.

NextGen comprises a network redesign – making sure that our routes are running where people want to go and at their optimum speed by straightening out some of the lines, consolidating some of the bus stops, etc. In addition, NextGen set a vision for desired service levels on the redesigned network. For the first phase of implementation, we’re putting the new network in place, and we will build service levels from there. As the ridership grows, we will have even more reason to add service.

NextGen will provide faster and better service to the places people want to go to. Historically we've provided more service in the rush hours and less in the off-peak. Through NextGen, we realized that a lot of travel happens during the midday, and if we boost some of the service levels during that time, we can make transit a more attractive option for those trips. In addition, due to COVID, everyone now understands the concept of flattening the curve. By providing better service outside of the peak periods, we could see a shift in the times that people travel for work trips, and this will help manage the travel demand that is historically so concentrated during the rush hours, thus flattening the travel demand curve. This will help tremendously to mitigate congestion.

The plan for NextGen is still intact; the vision is still intact. All of the ideas and service levels are still part of the plan. Right now, the funding levels drive our ability to deliver more service. We just got the approval from the Metro Board to begin the implementation of NextGen starting in December. Once the network is in place, we will build the service levels back with the NextGen goals in mind.

Question 4: You say Metro has set a new baseline with COVID, but there is also a new baseline in terms of bus capacity due to social distancing guidelines from LA County Health and the CDC. Isn’t there a tension between increased ridership and social distancing guidelines?

Sometime in the future, assuming that we can grow the ridership back to pre-COVID levels and beyond, there will be a point when we no longer have enough capacity for distancing because we don't have enough buses, trains, or operators. You've likely heard Metro CEO Phil Washington say that public transportation cannot be held to a higher standard than the airlines. Right now, while the County public health orders are still in place, we will continue to provide distancing when possible. We know that about 99% of our riders are using masks. So, we feel like riders are taking their own precautions to protect themselves.

We are tracking data and social media to identify patterns of crowding so that we can add buses where needed. Transit app is also a way for people to tell us if their buses are crowded. We're trying to monitor the crowding levels for trends. It's not effective to randomly send a bus out in real-time to relieve a single crowded bus, but if data shows that a particular route tends to get crowded on a regular basis during certain times every day, then we can strategically add capacity to alleviate crowding on that route.

Question 5: Would you say that Metro is doing enough outreach to people riding the bus in the general public, particularly on what's going to be upcoming with NextGen?

Whenever we have a shakeup there are very tried and true processes in place to notify people. NextGen makes changes on a bigger scale because, remember, the network hasn't really changed over the last 25 years. Throughout the development of the NextGen concepts, there was extensive public and stakeholder engagement, and prior to bringing the NextGen plan before the Metro Board for approval in October, staff did a ton of work to get the proposed changes approved through the subregional Service Councils. Now that NextGen has been approved, we have about six or seven weeks to post all of the information in advance of pushing the button on December 13.

Going forward, Metro intends to continue our engagement with bus riders on all things related to the bus system. More on that to come in early 2021…

Question 6: While we expressed reservations about the Metro Fiscal Year 2021 Operations budget at the last meeting, we saw the commitment to $140 million in this year's budget for bus capital infrastructure investments as a positive sign. What do you anticipate being the most effective in terms of facilitating efficiencies that really will make a material difference for riders in terms of more frequent and reliable service?

We talk a lot internally about what it takes to get transit, and in this case, bus, into an individual’s consideration set as it relates to his/her/their transportation choices. We want to address the core needs that people have when it comes to transportation. Right now, buses aren't really meeting those core needs – things like being fast, being reliable, and feeling safe and comfortable for our riders. Having certainty about your travel or your trip is extraordinarily important. We have all kinds of reasons why we're not necessarily reliable all the time. A lot of things are out of our control, but I think it's time for Metro, bus advocates, and all of our city partners to say, "You know what? All hands-on-deck – everybody is responsible for this problem."

There's a people-throughput equation here that we need to consider. As a community, our priority must be to facilitate more people traveling as efficiently as possible by rewarding or incentivizing people to take less space on the road. There is a price to be paid for the space that people occupy, especially during congested times. That price currently comes in the form of time and delays to your journey. If you choose to drive alone, you are taking up more space for one person than the 40 people on the bus next to you. I don't think it's fair for the 40 people on the bus to be delayed by the 40 people driving alone who take up a lot more space on the street. I think it's fair for us to say, "Okay, we're going to give the bus riders their own special lane because they're sharing the ride and they take less space."

To your question, what kinds of improvements do we need? Well, certainly bus lanes along the most congested corridors in the county. We should identify locations where we experience the most delay and congestion on our bus routes so that we can actually focus our efforts on unclogging those areas first. The solution will not always be a bus lane; it could involve a traffic signal timing change. But again, we have to get all of our partners to say, "We agree that getting buses through our city streets is a high priority. It's in fact a higher priority than getting single-occupant vehicles through the streets." Moving buses faster is absolutely critical and I hope that the cities find this to be a priority too.

Question 7: There is about $1.2 billion in Measure M for bus rapid transit (BRT), and BRT costs about tens of millions of dollars per mile versus hundreds of millions for light rail and billions for heavy rail. So with the Fiscal Year 2021 Budget, which is $1.2 billion lower than last year, do you see BRT becoming a higher priority investment as the economy recovers and sales tax revenue recovers back?

That's a great question. And I'll give you my opinion on this because I think that having a BRT investment in Measure M is phenomenal. It's a really wonderful thing. With buses, we can realize benefits incrementally – we don’t have to have everything in place all at once as we do on rail, which is an all or nothing investment. With BRT, things like exclusive lanes can be put in place before you get all of the other BRT infrastructure in place.

We also don’t have to wait until all of our BRT vision is funded and built before we start providing high level, rapid service on buses. There's an opportunity for us to think about how we might invest early to make incremental improvements with the money that we have right now. Instead of looking at BRT corridor by corridor, maybe there's a concept where we could say, "Let's take the first $10 million and implement the exclusive bus lanes on all five corridors at once." And then while we're working on the rest of the BRT infrastructure we could already operate faster, more reliable bus service in all five corridors. We should put our thinking caps on and figure out how we might be able to more effectively use that money and deliver benefits sooner rather than later.

Question 8: Metro CEO Phil Washington spoke about more funding for active transportation or microtransit connections to stations. What is the plan for that?

Metro is always looking at how we can make access easier for people. Identifying new ways to easily access transit, like active transportation and microtransit, are always on the radar. We will launch the microtransit pilot in January, and we have a number of active transportation projects in the works. Our progress is only constrained by available funding.

We know that if transit is not within easy walking distance, it's harder to incorporate a connecting mode into the trip. Because of this, we try to look at the “total journey experience,” which is a term we got from Singapore’s Land Transport Authority. From point A to point B, what does that entire trip look like for the customer? How do we remove uncertainty during that trip and make the travel as seamless and convenient as possible? How do we make that total journey experience the best it can be?

If we can start removing uncertainties and create opportunities for people to enjoy their trips on Metro, we will remove the mental hurdles that people have about leaving their cars behind. We can get into the consideration set when a person is deciding how to get from point A to point B. Right now, if you have to make a transfer, particularly if it involves a bus of any sort, the uncertainty about the wait time and whether or not the bus actually shows up is a huge deterrent. When I think about the total journey experience, this is what I imagine: a grid of high-frequency bus service all over the County, where you get off of your first bus and your transfer time is less than 5 minutes, and you know the bus will come on time because they have an exclusive lane. The best part is that you also have an app that tells you exactly where the bus is and when it will arrive. And, it's a real bus, not a ghost bus. Likewise, I could ride my bike or take a microtransit ride to catch my bus or train, and the transfer is fast, convenient, and stress-free.

When Metro successfully delivers this total journey experience, the uncertainty will go away, and ideally, it works so well that it will all become invisible to you. That's what we're shooting for.

Question 9: What funding or projects has the equity platform changed in order to prioritize particular Black, Brown, Asian Pacific Islander, other people of color, and low-income communities, have you seen the equity platform really direct funding in new ways?

Our Executive Officer for Equity and Race, KeAndra Cylear Dodds, is exploring ways to evaluate our funding allocations. We're going to have to take a pretty hard look at where our resources go, especially in terms of which communities benefit the most from our investments. We currently have funding spread out all over the County, but depending on the outcome of her analysis, we may have some pretty interesting conversations coming before us. Every region in the County has communities of color and disenfranchised and disadvantaged populations. The onus is on us to identify where the biggest needs are and find ways to meet those needs while not delaying investments that are already committed. There may be hard decisions ahead of us, but I think our overall goal is that we really want the County to be a better place that provides a variety of high-quality transportation options that are more accessible to everyone.

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