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Angelenos Opt for Traffic, Not Transit: Ridership Down 10%

Angelenos Opt for Traffic, Not Transit: Ridership Down 10%

Angelenos choose to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic, basking in a smoggy cloud of exhaust on the way to work, to meet a friend, or to hit the beach. We just enjoy hit-and-run collisions (that account for 44% of all traffic collisions) and stressing out about parking and tickets. Angelenos cherish their cars, knowingly or unknowingly

Los Angeles Traffic, I-5, LA, CA, USA

Angelenos choose to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic, basking in a smoggy cloud of exhaust on the way to work, to meet a friend, or to hit the beach. We just enjoy hit-and-run collisions (that account for 44% of all traffic collisions) and stressing out about parking and tickets. Angelenos cherish their cars, knowingly or unknowingly contributing to L.A.’s smog - ranked the worst ozone pollution in the country - every time they get behind the wheel.

While other major cities like New York, Beijing, and Sao Paulo each serve over a billion riders every year, Los Angeles has been criticized for its transportation network that sees only about 34 million riders each year - a number that continues to decline. The L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) has invested over $9 billion in subway and light rail since 2006, yet ridership has declined by 10% in that same time period, according to the L.A. Times. Congestion on freeways and side streets continues to build. Yet, the frustration of L.A.’s infamous traffic is not enough to compel Angelenos to take car-alternative transit options.

Hollywood/Vine Metro Station, Hollywood, Los Angeles, CA, USA

In an effort to re-imagine transportation in the City of Angels, Metro has expanded its reach considerably in the past decade. It has built lines from the downtown area to Culver City, with plans to build all the way to Santa Monica. It has developed a plan to connect UCLA to Union Station. It has linked East Pasadena to Azusa. Expansion of rail lines, new bus-only lanes, bicycle lanes and other “traffic calming” measures are part of L.A.’s new sweeping transportation policy, Mobility Plan 2035. As stated in the Plan, its purpose is to outline goals and objectives that “further development of a citywide transportation system, which provides for the efficient movement of people and goods.” L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti joins Metro and City Council in the public transit push, also emphasizing the need for accessible and efficient public transit to transform L.A. into a sustainable city.

So why is it that we still cling to our car keys when our political leaders and government agencies are tirelessly working to get us to do the opposite?

Los Angeles Car VS Alternative Transportation Infographic by Alyssa Curran

In my personal experience, leaving my car at home and opting for my bike helmet and TAP card instead has consistently worked in my favor (see infographic for car vs. alternative time/cost/energy comparison). I’ve had my fair share of frustrations waiting twenty minutes for the bus on a cold day and missing the connecting train to make it to my destination on time, but then again, I’ve also had numerous occasions held up in traffic. I may be considered the exception, as many people see the following as deterrents for taking alternative forms of transportation:

  • Safety – drivers feel more comfortable in the privacy and security of their own car or cab;
  • Comfort – personal vehicles or cabs often beat the look, smell and feel of L.A. subways and busses (though new light rail options are new, comfortable and clean);
  • Convenience – transit planning can take some extra thinking in figuring out stations, timetables, and getting to and from stations. Drivers also say Metro doesn't have a station close enough to where they want to go. Plus, there is no wait time for a bus or train when you can simply hop in your car and go (though you do have to factor in time to find a place to park, or pay for a convenient spot).

Metro and the City of L.A. are certainly aware of these popular complaints of public transit. Much focus has been on developing solutions to address issues like chronically late trains and busses, accessibility, and affordability to get people to actually ride the rails and busses Metro has invested so much money in. Some transportation solutions include:

  • Go Metro App: provides trip planner, timetables, maps and Metro news;
  • Ongoing construction for expanding the system, which currently includes over 80 miles of rail service and 2,200 busses on an average weekday (see Metro Project Tracker for current project details);
  • Space for public art at stations and along routes;
  • Bike Metro program to make it easier for cyclists to combine biking with riding Metro rail and busses;
  • Development of water and fuel use efficiency as part of Metro's sustainability program.

If Metro can provide a safer, more comfortable, and more convenient transportation system, will that be enough to work against our ingrained car culture and shift to a truly mobile and sustainable city? The move toward a sustainable transportation system is one that requires a shift in behavior. A shift that small numbers of Angelenos are beginning to accept and wholeheartedly commit to. The City’s CicLAvia is one example that demonstrates commitment of communities and businesses to advocate for sustainable transportation and active lifestyles. One thing is for sure: Rome was not built in a day. The inverted correlation between ridership and investment may seem like an indication something isn’t working. However, it may just be that change simply takes time. With infrastructure in place, L.A. can continue promoting events like CicLAvia to target behavior to work toward achieving success in improving L.A. mobility.

CicLAvia, Los Angeles, CA, USA

It is critical for planners to understand potential reasons as to why ridership continues to decline despite years of infrastructure investment. At the same time, taking note as to what is working and the actions the community is already starting to take is also essential in transportation planning. It is only then that L.A. will be able to successfully implement Mobility Plan 2035 and evolve into a sustainable city.

What is holding you back from taking public transportation? What transit options have been working for you? Share your thoughts and you city's stories in the comments area below. 

Credits: Images by Alyssa Curran. Data linked to sources.

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A UCLA Geographer by training and current Harvard Graduate School of Design Urban Planning student, Alyssa is most passionate about environmental systems. Her upbringing in Buffalo, NY and travels throughout the world have shaped her outlook on the p...

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  • Allen carter

    As a driver in LA since 2005, I’ve just recently changed my transportation habits when I moved from the mostly suburban and car-oriented Canoga Park to the more walkable and transit-friendly North Hollywood, between two Red Line Stations. I also work just seven miles from home in Glendale. Due to the increased transit options, and the fact that I have to rely on scarce street parking, I’ve gone from driving 7 days a week living in the west valley and working in thousand oaks, to now driving only two to three times a week. I save on gas, maintenance, and the general stress of driving by using the new 501 express bus once or twice a week to work. I also mostly take metro rail on the weekends to certain events, only driving if I have to transport something or someone. I’ll even take lyft to a friend’s house where public transit takes a little longer, and any event that involves alcohol must involve either bus, train, or lyft for me to get to and from there. Even for those who can’t use public transit to work or school, give it a try on the weekends to a sporting event, concert. or block party.