Searching for Solutions: Expanding LA County's Transit Ridership in the Near Term

The decline in LA County transit ridership has prompted many theories about the reasons why—from Lyft and Uber to cheaper gas prices to an increase in car ownership among new immigrants. We, however, have a different take on why ridership has declined, and explain our rationale HERE, with numbers to back up our POV. But as importantly, we have some ideas about how we can rebuild ridership while also serving populations that would really benefit from more, better service.

LA Metro has undertaken a comprehensive assessment of its bus system to identify ways to better serve and expand its ridership base. As a member of the NextGen Advisory Group, Move LA is helping identify the ways to do this without compromising the needs of people who now ride the bus system. It would be an injustice if these riders find the quality and frequency of service reduced in order to serve new riders.

This is of special concern because Measures R and M set aside a significant share of funding for bus operations with the expectation that funds would be used to expand service, not simply maintain it.

We are eager to learn what LA Metro CEO Phil Washington has in mind when he talks about marrying congestion pricing and free transit with the goal of reducing traffic congestion and increasing transit ridership—a laudable goal as long as low-income people do not become victims of the process.

Since 2007 the average weekday ridership on Metro's bus and rail lines has declined by about 300,000 riders. We believe a robust student transit pass program could restore half that ridership if implemented at all colleges and universities in LA County. But this would require that new programs are modeled on successful programs that have resulted in significant ridership increases at several schools in LA County and around the country including: Santa Monica College; Rio Hondo College; Pasadena City College; and at UC-Berkeley.

Most colleges do provide some kind of discounted student transit pass program, but these are largely inconsequential in terms of increasing ridership because of their design. The requirements for success are fairly simple: All students receive discounted transit passes for a small fee when registering for classes, allowing all students to ride any bus or rail system, any line, any time. Some students will ride frequently, some occasionally, and some not at all, but overall ridership will be significantly greater.

We call these successful programs "universal" because everyone gets a pass, and "fee-based" because students pay a small fee at registration.

This program design typically results in 20%-40% of all students riding transit. If just 20% of the more than 1.4 million college and university students in LA County ride transit (about half attend class on any given day since classes tend to meet only 2-3 days a week) their combined ridership would equal ridership on the Red Line—140,000 riders/day—but without the $5 billion cost of building a Red Line. This increase could restore half of the ridership lost this past decade. 

The biggest barrier to the implementation of fee-based universal programs is that transit operators and schools worry about the costs, which in the programs cited above are typically shared by the transit agency, the school and the students. Student fees typically average about $30 per student per semester. At Santa Monica College’s “Any Line, Any Time” program the college pays half the students’ fees because the program has proven to be so successful in recruiting new students. The city’s Big Blue Bus acknowledges that student riders have become a very important part of their ridership base, and that their presence deters crime and helps reduce security costs. 

Move LA is working to get funding from the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund to create a statewide fee-based universal student transit pass program, though we believe that Measures R and M provided LA Metro with additional operating funds that could be used for a countywide program with the goal of growing ridership as well as reducing vehicle miles traveled and traffic congestion. 

LA County, due to its sprawl and reliance on the personal vehicle as the primary transportation mode, presents significant obstacles to mobility: trips to work, to the doctor, to local stores, to see friends and family, and to participate in religious observances, cultural activities or educational experiences are not luxuries, they are necessities. These obstacles are magnified for low-income adults and people with disabilities. By 2030, one of out every five residents in LA County will be over the age of 65 and the number of people with disabilities will total more than 1 million.   

The transportation system will be challenged to provide the level of service for these population groups. This is why the involvement of older adults and people with disabilities became a critical part of the alliance that passed Measure M in November 2016, which allocated 2% of revenues annually to expand funding to address the needs of these groups.

As Metro grapples with declining ridership, the agency needs to consider ways to improve service to older adults and people with disabilities. This requires thoughtful changes to programs and policies.   

That is why, at the initiation of Move LA, organizational leaders from AARP, St. Barnabas Senior Services and leading independent living centers met in early 2016 to strategize on addressing the transportation needs of older adults and people with disabilities. The shared concerns became the basis of a motion passed by the Metro Board in June 2016. Specific issues in the motion included first mile/last mile accessibility, education and outreach opportunities, development of an annual report to serve as a baseline for change, and a forum to increase community input.The board motion and the Measure M funding led to the formation of a coalition— the Aging and Disability Transportation Network (ADTN). The ADTN shaped the draft Annual Report that will provide a baseline and the establishment of yearly performance indicators that can be used to hold Metro accountable and measure its responsiveness to the concerns of these stakeholders. In addition, the ADTN is helping plan a forum to be held in May 2019 intended to expand participation and identify opportunities for changes, improvements and enhancement in transportation policies and programs for older adults and people with disabilities.  


First, we should protect existing affordable housing:  
If we are to remedy the housing affordability challenge, as well as the crisis of homelessness and the decline in ridership, we must encourage cities to protect current renters and affordable housing stock—especially in neighborhoods near transit. 

The development of market-rate housing has an upside and a downside. Households with more money to spend will attract goods and services to neighborhoods, which can be enjoyed by everyone. But as neighborhoods attract more investments and improvements they will also attract more new residents and the low-income residents who currently live in these places—and who are much more likely to be transit riders than the new higher-income residents—might be displaced. One thing is certain: Market-rate development does not generate transit riders. 

This suggests that we must work together to protect the remaining stock of affordable housing at the same time that we encourage new development that allows low-income residents to live near the transit services they depend on.      

Second, cities in LA County should proactively develop new affordable housing near transit: 
One smart way to achieve this objective is the inclusion of
a significant share (15%-25%) of affordable housing units in multifamily housing projects that are otherwise market-rate, i.e., an inclusionary housing program that encourages a mix of incomes.

However, if we are serious about meeting the needs of low-income people there is no substitute for a robust program of direct public investment in affordable housing. This means we must find new ways to generate significant new public funding, perhaps through:
•  The re-creation of tax increment financing districts, like redevelopment, with a sizable set-aside for affordable housing.  
•  The adoption of new taxes or fees that can generate significant new revenue dedicated to affordable housing.  
•  Creating flexible density and parking standards, and permitting streamlining for the kinds of development we want. This can help encourage both new and affordable development, but there is no substitute for public funds. 

Move LA has pursued these objectives in several important ways. We worked with the social justice community in 2018 to oppose SB 827 (Wiener), which we believed would have encouraged the demolition of existing housing and the displacement of current residents. Fortunately, the bill was defeated.

Move LA sponsored SB 961 (Allen) to create a new form of tax increment financing districts near transit stations and frequent transit service that would include a significant commitment to affordable housing and urban greening. The bill was signed into law by Governor Brown, but needs to be revised under our new governor to remove procedural hurdles.

We continue active discussions with allies about potential new sources of funding for affordable housing that if approved would generate very significant new resources.

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