METRO’s Left Hand Knoweth not what its Right Hand Doeth

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-Curbed LA reported this week that METRO’s transit ridership has continued to decline. METRO not only has long-term declining bus ridership, but also declining rail ridership. These trends are not good, but METRO’s assessment of this situation makes partial sense, even if it continues to ignore its own policies, while promoting LA City land use policies that further undermine ridership.  

More specifically, METRO offered LA City Planning a grant to plan for the Purple Line Extension in the Greater Miracle Mile area. If adopted, this plan would incentivize more expensive, upscale apartment buildings in the Miracle Mile, Beverly Fairfax, Little Ethiopia, and LaBrea and San Vicente corridors. Like other neighborhoods in LA, this type of residential construction is antithetical to transit ridership because its tenants drive their own cars. They rarely take a bus and seldom use the subway, even when they are nearby. This approach also displaces lower income residents, the group most likely to use transit, and it flouts the approach that METRO’s spokesperson, Dave Sotero, states will increase transit ridership: improve service.  

This is what we know about METRO’s declining ridership: 

  • METRO Bus ridership has been in decline for the past five years. 
  • Even though METRO has invested $2.5 billion on new rail service and built 18 miles of track and 13 new stations, rail ridership has declined since 2017. 
  • The decline in rail passengers applies to the Blue, Green, Gold, Red, and Purple rail lines. 
  • The Red Line had a startling ridership decline of 1,500,000 trips from 2017 to 2018. This is telling because the Red and Purple Lines are also the location of substantial amounts of new development. A glance at the Los Angeles Development Map reveals that these interconnected lines are surrounded by new apartment buildings. This includes downtown Los Angeles, the Wilshire Corridor, Koreatown, Hollywood, and North Hollywood. According to the perpetually hyped transit oriented development theory, if developers are encouraged to build large apartment building near transit stations, the new tenants will hop on board buses and subways. But exactly the opposite happened on the Red and Purple Lines, with no reversal in sight. 

How can we explain this gap between the theory and the data? Why are the METRO rail lines with the most amount of new housing surrounding them also the same lines with the greatest of amounts of declining ridership? The Red and Purple Lines should have experienced soaring, not declining, ridership, and there is no evidence that this trend will change.  

The answer is simple. The new apartments are expensive. Los Angeles has accommodated developers by upzoning their transit-adjacent properties through ordinances and pay-to-play deals. The developers, however, build to maximize their profits and expect a return on investment of 15 to 20 percent per year. The only apartments that fill this bill are expensive ones, typically $3,000 or more per month for studio apartments and over $4,000 per month for one-bedroom apartments. 

According to a recent UCLA study on declining METRO ridership, the hard data reveals two things.  First, upscale tenants seldom ditch their cars and take a subway or bus to go to work, shop, or visit friends.  Second, many former low-income transit users have recently bought cars and use them instead of buses and trains. 

How will METRO respond to these trends and findings? According to Dave Sotero, it will extensively rework its bus system in 2020. He also told Curbed LA that METRO will improve the customer experience and quality of the ride by remodeling the Blue Line stations and installing interactive trip planners that will reduce overall travel time by ten minutes. 

Many other programs to improve the customer experience are presented on METRO’s and LA City Planning’s websites. But there is no evidence that either METRO or LA City Planning are about to follow their own policies of: 

  • Fixing sidewalks
  • Locating bicycle and scooter lanes and parking near subway stations
  • Improving intersections
  • Planting shade trees
  • Constructing bicycle infrastructure
  • Installing bus shelters and street furniture
  • Creating real time cell phone apps. 

Unfortunately, these approaches, carefully presented in METRO’s Transit Oriented Communities document and its First-Last Mile Strategic Plan have not been included in METRO’s three new Purple Line subway stations, at LaBrea/Wilshire, Fairfax/Wilsire, and LaCienega Wilshire. They exclude any interface for cars, busses, bicycle, taxis and ubers, and pedestrians.  These expensive stations also do not offer kiss ‘n ride and park ‘n ride, and the surrounding areas in LA City’s proposed Transit Neighborhood Plan do not contain any sidewalk or intersection improvements, street furniture, landscaping, or bicycle and scooter lanes or parking. 

Big surprise! These no brainers somehow slipped through the cracks of a transit project that will eventually cost nearly a billion dollars per mile to build and operate. With so much money to spend, it hard to think of everything.  

What METRO should realize is that the transit oriented development it has encouraged through grants for the City of Los Angeles to adopt up-zoning ordinances to benefit property owners do not increase transit ridership. They certainly can accelerate the construction of expensive apartments, but they replace low-income transit riders with high-income car drivers.  

By deliberately encouraging gentrification, METRO and Los Angeles have cooked their own transit goose. They have succeeded in increasing the number of people who live near bus and rail lines, but they are the wrong people.  

This makes METRO’s decision to fund LA’s five Transit Neighborhood Plans, especially the Purple Line Transit Neighborhood Plan, dumbfounding. It is based on the same approach that has reduced ridership on the existing Red and Purple Lines. Yet METRO and LA City Planning imagine that they can repeat this mistake and somehow obtain exactly opposite results. The imagine well-off tenants moving into future apartments in Little Ethiopia, Beverly Fairfax, Miracle Mile, and the San Vicente, Wilshire, LaBrea, and Pico corridors will ride buses and subways. Remember what you read here in CityWatch: It ain’t gonna happen. 

One option that could, however, bring this turnaround is for City Planning to listen to the residents of the Purple Line area.  When asked, they said they wanted street furniture, improved sidewalks and intersections, social services, affordable housing, local amenities, and landscaping.  Without knowing it, these residents recreated the wisdom residing in City Planning’s own website documents: Mobility Hubs and Complete Street Design Guide.  

A final, closely related option is for City Planning to prioritize its impending update of the Wilshire Community Plan. This is their baby, and when this Community Plan carefully examines and addresses local land use and transportation questions, it would result in specific proposals, based on the METRO and City Planning policy documents listed above, to increase, not decrease, transit ridership.  

For anyone truly interested in promoting transit, not real estate speculation, these options are at his or her beck and call.

 

(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on planning issues for CityWatch. Please send your comments, corrections, and questions to rhplatkin@gmail.com.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.