Los Angeles "bus stigma" - it's the service quality, stupid!
Two recent articles on The Atlantic Cities website dovetail with our recent post about the "transit network effect" (Transit network effect becomes visible - in Los Angeles).
The first article suggests that so-called "choice" consumers (also known as "discretionary riders") will ride "gentrified" modes such as "streetcars, subways and commuter railroads" - but not buses, which have a "stigma" based on income (or "class"), and race (i.e. only poor minorities ride buses).
The writer acknowledges that "City bus travel can be slow, unreliable, inconvenient, hot, uncomfortable, and confusing . . ."
She continues, quoting blogger Jacqueline Carr:
". . . there’s a more conceptual roadblock keeping well-to-do commuters from getting on board. 'I felt like I was too good for the bus . . . I think there’s a social understanding and a construction around that if you take the bus, you take it because you don’t have money. There’s a social standard. Obviously I had bought into that'."
The second article is a critique of the above. Transit planner, author and blogger Jarrett Walker writes:
"North American public transit has a lot of work to do, especially when it comes to buses, but telling transit agencies that they must defeat a 'stigma,' or break into a new 'class,' amounts to telling them to despair. It implies they must uproot supposedly deep-seated feelings in people's hearts, the sort of feelings that may change en masse only with the turning of generations. More disturbingly, it tells everyone that an incurious aversion toward buses is a normal part of being a successful person."
(Why We Should Stop Talking About 'Bus Stigma.' By Jarrett Walker. The Atlantic Cities, July 17, 2012. This is an expansion of Walker's critique of Hess' article: see The atlantic wonders if transit is failing white people, Human Transit, July 10, 2012.)
Those who check out Hess' article will see that a large majority of comment writers do not accept the "bus stigma" theory as outlined. However, there is a "bus stigma" in Los Angeles that has nothing to with "class" and race of passengers - and everything to do with service quality.
We emphasize that the following is not our contribution to the transit mode debate. We have made our position clear in previous posts and papers. In the U.S. today, there are - at most - several dozen urban- and suburban corridors with passenger traffic density sufficient to justify the investment for rail transit - whether "modern streetcar," light rail transit (LRT) or heavy rail transit (HRT, e.g. subways). By contrast, there are, at least, several hundred corridors where traffic density is sufficient to justify some level of investment for improved bus service. Walker describes buses as "indispensable;" we agree but add that much improvement is needed.
The phrase "Los Angeles Basin" describes an immense urbanized area that extends more than 60 km / 40 mi from west to east, and more than 75 km / 45 mi from northwest to southeast. Not even these dimensions include "everything" described as "greater Los Angeles." The region does not have a single dominant center, but several. Travel patterns within the region are similarly decentralized.
Another salient characteristic of parts of L.A. is high population density - a fact that surprises some not familiar with the area. At least one contiguous part of L.A. is about the same size as San Francisco (127 km2 / 49 sq. mi.) but houses significantly more people. This has been true since the late 1970s. In other words, if this part of L.A. were a separate municipality, then it would have the second-highest urban population density in the U.S., after New York City.
The largest transit operator in this area is the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority ("Metro"). This agency serves an area of 3,728 km2 / 1,433 sq. mi. with the third-largest public transit system in the U.S. (by ridership). The system averaged more than 1.1 million boardings per weekday at June 2012.
Surface bus routes in L.A. provide commercial speeds in the range of 15-25 km/h / 10-15 mph. This, in Los Angeles, is unacceptably slow to most residents - who, if they have access to automobiles, are very likely not to use transit (25 percent of Metro passengers are "choice" riders, according to Hess; Walker asserts that "choice" and "captive" are "endpoints of a spectrum where most people are in the middle").
Another characteristic of L.A. bus services well known to residents is lack of schedule adherence. Various overseas transport operators publish statistics on "punctuality," but U.S. operators do not. Nonetheless, consumer surveys (and comments to survey proctors) make clear: the service attribute most desired - "demanded" is a better choice of words - is schedule adherence.
In L.A., buses working long, busy lines accumulate significant delays, even during midday hours, because of loading, unloading, street congestion, traffic crashes and so forth. Among the ramifications of such delays is unreliable transfer connections. Missed connections are annoying when service is infrequent - and infuriating if the connecting bus is the "last" of the day.
L.A.'s rail transit revival, from 1990, has given rise to an interesting set of consumer behaviors that, we suspect, some writers would prefer to ignore. Some residents of the L.A. area will drive to the "nearest" rail station - even if this is 65-80 km / 40-50 mi distant - park their car and board a rail service which brings them reasonably close to their destination. This they will do even if the rail-transit trip is half the distance, or less, of the drive. They will also transfer between rail lines - if, from personal experience, the waiting time is not long and connections are reliable. But they will not, not, not get on a bus, except perhaps for a relatively short ride from rail station to final destination.
When asked why they refuse to ride a bus, such individuals reply that buses are too "slow" (this, in L.A., refers to low service frequency as well as low commercial speed) and unreliable.
A 2006 newspaper story described one such journey to work:
"To reach his ground operations job at Los Angeles International Airport, Terry Quiroz leaves home before sunrise. The Corona man starts each morning with a drive to Norwalk, where he picks up a Green Line train that brings him just close enough to his destination to see the hangars and hear the jets."
("Can Green Line make the train to plane connection?" By Dan Laidman, Copley News Service. South Bay Daily Breeze, June 4, 2006. This article is no longer available on the Daily Breeze website but is archived by The Transit Coalition in pdf format.)
The article does not provide details that might prove interesting - and intriguing - to readers not familiar with greater Los Angeles. The "drive to Norwalk" from Corona is roughly 55-65 km / 35-40 mi, much of it on the Riverside ("91") Freeway. The freeway segment that crosses the Santa Ana Mountains in Santa Ana Canyon is known as one of the region's most congested. A 16-km / 10-mi segment of the freeway within Orange County contains the 91 Express Lanes, a toll facility opened in 1995 1.
The distance from Norwalk to Aviation / LAX station via the LRT Green Line is 26.3 km / 16.3 mi - short enough, perhaps, to stir one's curiosity: having driven roughly 70 percent of the distance from home to work, why bother to stop and "get on a train?"
Consider first the commercial speed provided by the Green Line: 63 km/h / 39 mph. That is not a record for U.S. urban rail, but it's close - and it's actually faster than San Francisco's BART between Richmond and Fremont 2. The fastest commercial speed achieved by BART is about 70 km/h / 45 mph - which, we suspect, is the world record for anything reasonably described as "urban rail transit."
Now check the Green Line timetable. Service operates every 8-15 min throughout the day, and every 20 min from 8:00 p.m. (eastbound) to the close of service.
Now consider the service attribute ranked highest by transit consumers, actual and prospective: schedule adherence. For bus services, schedule adherence (or lack thereof) of one vehicle generally does not affect that of others. Exactly the opposite is true of rail systems. Rail schedule adherence is generally high because it has to be.
Yes, there is Metrolink commuter-rail service (marketed as the "91 Line") between Corona and Norwalk. However there is a three-km (two-mile) gap between the Metrolink station and the Green Line east terminal. Much more significant is that service is limited to a handful of services which operate only during weekday peak periods. All things considered, the configuration of this particular "journey to work" come as no surprise. The individual described in the "South Bay Daily Breeze" story is by no means the only person in the Los Angeles region who makes similar travel decisions.
We think that any "bus stigma" based on income (or "class") and race as labeled by Hess would disappear in an instant if the typical "surface" bus line in L.A. offered commercial speed in the range of 30-50 km/h / 20-30 mph, with high levels of schedule adherence. In fact, to borrow another label from Hess, "gentrification" of public transportation would quickly take place if the "typical" bus transit commercial speed were in the range of 55-65 km/h / 35-40 mph. Here we disagree with Walker, among others, who believe that service frequency should be emphasized over commercial speed. This might be true elsewhere but sheer geographic size requires large travel-time reductions in L.A. The region has a large "latent" or "hidden" market for longer transit trips -- particularly among transit-dependent residents.
Commercial speeds at the levels above would be very difficult to accomplish without large-scale construction of separated alignments. However, significant improvements could be accomplished through large-scale implementation of preferential lanes, as in Paris (see Paris: the street is ours! Human Transit, July 11, 2010), and traffic-signal priority.
L.A. implemented "grid" route structures (see: The power and pleasure of grids, Human Transit, February 23, 2010) on a large scale during the latter 1970s. Then, from 2000, limited-stop service on some busy routes was replaced by "Metro Rapid" service. This has reduced travel times for some passengers - but not to the extent that is clearly indicated. Schedule adherence has improved from the abysmal levels of the mid-1980s and , but much more remains to be done.
As described previously, opening of the new LRT Expo Line was followed by an interesting development: some San Fernando Valley residents began traveling via downtown L.A. to jobs in Culver City and the Westside - transferring en route and going a significant distance "out of their way."
(See "San Fernando Valley commuters flock to new Expo Line," by Dakota Smith, Los Angeles Daily News, July 15, 2012.)
We doubt very strongly that this would have occurred if the connection from North Hollywood and Universal City to downtown had the same commercial speed and schedule-adherence characteristics which remain typical of much of the L.A. surface bus system. Again: buses ara "indispensable" but much improvement is needed - particularly in Los Angeles.
 
References:
"Can Green Line make the train to plane connection?" By Dan Laidman, Copley News Service. South Bay Daily Breeze, June 4, 2006. This article is no longer available on the Daily Breeze website but is archived by The Transit Coalition in pdf format.
"San Fernando Valley commuters flock to new Expo Line," by Dakota Smith, Los Angeles Daily News, July 15, 2012. This story was picked up by other media outlets; e.g. Commuters Pack Bus, Rail Lines to Dodge Sepulveda Pass Congestion, by Chris Sedens, CBS Los Angeles, July 16, 2012.
 
For Further Reading:
CityRailTransit [Javier Martínez Cuevas]; see (Los Angeles Real Distance Metro Map).
Explaining Transit's Secret Language. By Eric Jaffe. The Atlantic Cities, March 8, 2012 (book review of Human Transit, by Jarrett Walker. 2012. Washington, D.C.: Island Press).
Human Transit [Jarrett Walker].
Metro Expo Line Schedule (pdf document).
The Source (Metro news blog).
Nycsubway.org; see Los Angeles page for links to photo galleries and this Metro / Light Rail Track Map [by Jonathan Kirby, dated 2006; it does not show the Gold Line extension to East Los Angeles or the Gold Line].
Riding the bus changes her view. By Ari B. Bloomekatz. Los Angeles Times, February 27, 2010.
Snob On a Bus [Jacqueline Carr; the most recent post at the time of writing was dated April 27, 2010].
"Transferring" can be good for you, and good for your city. Jarrett Walker, Human Transit, March 25, 2009.
UrbanRail.Net [Robert Schwandl]; see Los Angeles Metro Rail. This website has photo galleries for each line: Blue, Gold, Green and Red / Purple (but not yet for Expo at the time of writing).
 
1 The 91 Express Lanes do not extend into Riverside County, and therefore do not extend the entire distance through the canyon.
2 Richmond – Fremont is 58.2 km / 36.1 mi. Scheduled running time is 1 h. Resulting commercial speed is 58 km/h / 36 mph.