Photo by Olenka Kotyk on Unsplash
The stay-at-home orders have shown us what blue skies, singing birds, and clean air can look like in Southern California. But this is only a temporary side-effect of these extraordinary times. Will all this change when we return to a "new normal"?
We have to put this all into perspective. Two months ago we were embarking on an effort to change the tide on declining transit ridership. The decline began in 2010, just after voter approval of Measure R. During a historic recession, the LA County Metro Board of Directors voted to increase fares and reduce Revenue Service Hours (RSH) for LA's bus network. Since then the demographic data shows LA County has experienced a dramatic loss of its low-income workforce, likely displaced by rising rents (more on that later). The low-income workforce is a large share of the transit user base here and in nearly every American city. Lose 20% of your base, lose 20% of your riders.
But, since that time, Metro operating revenues have soared. In 2016, LA County voters supported Measure M with 25% of its revenue dedicated to bus and rail operations. Then, California voters rejected Proposition 6, and preserved the gas tax in SB 1 that provided additional funds for public transit operations. Then the State of California committed cap-and-trade funds to transit operations. As such, Metro has seen its transit operations budget increase by at least $400 Million since 2015 with new revenue for transit operations.
Despite this increase in operating revenue, budgeted bus Revenue Service Hours has remained constant at 7 million hours per year.
We know that the current pandemic has had its own devastating effects on transit ridership, and is having a devastating impact on our regional economy and the sales taxes that fund Metro operations. But we also expect that the Federal government will provide several hundred million dollars in relief for operating expenses incurred during the pandemic.
Add to this the contraction of global oil markets and the respite from smog, traffic congestion, and climate change-forcing emissions, we may have a unique opportunity as well as challenge to change the course of history by building and re-building a "new mobility normal.”
But, let’s be clear: ensuring the health and safety of both operators and riders needs to be paramount if we are to succeed in the “new normal.”
In the short term, Metro has taken extraordinary efforts to protect Metro customers, operators, and the system itself by maintaining service and keeping bus operators fully employed. The new normal includes daily deep cleanings (sometimes even twice a day) of every Metro bus and rail car in service. This also includes social distancing measures such as back-door only boarding, masks and other protective gear for operators, and much more.
But as other countries have shown us, social distancing will likely need to continue long after the stay-at-home orders are lifted. Therefore, Move LA is working to build momentum around the notion that Metro can be a haven for those seeking safe, frequent, fast, reliable, and affordable transportation without the use of a single-occupancy vehicle in this new transportation normal.
Some of our ideas include:
Lastly, Metro is already playing a leading role in planning for recovery. Metro CEO Washington is chairing the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Task Force on the national recovery for transportation systems. Locally he is creating a recovery task force with Metro staff who we believe will integrate sustainability and equity into their recommendations.
Done right, our recovery can build the Metro system and re-build the economy with clean mobility options and sustainable traffic reduction.
This pandemic has impacted low-income households and people of color disproportionately—both in who is dying from the disease and who is being affected by the economic impacts. As such, a recovery package should prioritize local money towards the systems and people who need it now by:
- Increasing Metro bus Revenue Service Hours by at least 10% to increase reliability and frequency of the bus network;
- Making a commitment and a plan to fund and implement $1 Billion over 5 years in bus infrastructure (as proposed in the NextGen Bus Plan) to increase speed and access to the bus network;
- Providing assistance for riders with the new bus routes to create a welcome and safe experience especially for women, families, seniors, and persons with disabilities to improve the customer experience;
- Implementing a robust discounted or free student and senior transit pass program to increase access to the system;
- Making a commitment to not increase fares but rather to keep fares affordable for the 90% of Metro's ridership that makes less than $30,000 per household;
- Ensuring real and robust engagement of community-based organizations (like ours) in the budget process and a commitment to the Equity Platform;
- Focusing on investing in resiliency for public health challenges that we face from climate change, drought, or global pandemics;
- Assuring a zero-emission bus fleet by 2030, potentially including battery-electric and fuel cell technologies; and
- Champion strategies and support new resources to build affordable housing along transit heavy corridors, especially where BRT is planned as in Move LA’s program Boulevards of Equity and Opportunity.
We believe that these policies will help Metro plan for the long-term future after the coronavirus pandemic by ensuring the public knows that Priority #1 is Metro’s commitment to the health and safety of both operators and riders, while ensuring greater frequency and reliability of service. This will have significant impacts on the Metro system and result in future budgets that consider safe, fast, frequent, reliable, and accessible transit as a priority for the agency.