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For Bus Riders, Less is More for Some and Nothing for Others

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Metro (the name our regional transit agency prefers) has been accused of engineering a two-class transit system -- the first for riders of rail and the second for everyone else. But the true class divide isn't in the wheels on which riders roll. It's if they have a choice to ride or not.

If you have no choice, you're transit dependent.

Transit dependency, like other dependencies, is a relationship of power. Dependency forms -- or deforms -- both user and provider. Metro is continuing to change that relationship for dependent riders.

Metro has a skeletal but growing light rail and subway systems and elements of a "bus rapid transit" system. Metro has about 170 other bus lines. They account for 75 percent of all passenger boardings. Only a few of the bus lines are short and straight. Some are well over 30 miles long. And some of those, at least for now, serve as a sinuous thread that connects poor and working-class neighborhoods at one end of the county with jobs and services at the other end.

As a non-driver, my image of "no choice" transit is one of those wandering bus lines. I think of it as the night bus I sometimes ride. It takes two hours to traverse scruffy immigrant neighborhoods from Boyle Heights to North Long Beach. None of the night bus passengers is a young, car-indifferent, new-urbanite that Metro seems to prefer.

On the night bus, the dependency of the passengers is on display. The overhead lights turn bus windows into showcases and partial mirrors that reflect the faces of the riders like mirrors in a carnival fun house. In the glare and the surrounding night, in a crowd of their reflected images, the tired working people are the part of L.A. that does not drive but is driven.

I've seen my share of late, overcrowded, and inconvenient transit from my seat on the night bus. I've been afraid of standing at one of Metro's poorly kept and dark bus stops. I've been saddened. And I've defended public transit in Los Angeles as much as a school for civility as for any transportation purpose. I've defended the bus as a place where Angeleños might learn the habits of urban life as a moral imperative. But defense is hard.

It will become harder. A Blue Ribbon Committee of consultants, meeting for the past six months, was expected to submit to Metro's board of directors on Thursday a long list of changes in bus service. Although the service adjustments appear minor -- even beneficial -- when tabulated in a PowerPoint presentation, what those changes will feel like to dependent riders months from now cannot be known.

Parsing Metro-speak is an art that baffles me. But it seems that among the main points of the Blue Ribbon Committee's proposal are:

  • Service changes that will "minimize duplication and encourage transfers between modes." (Rail is the top of the transit hierarchy. Bus service will feed rail lines, requiring more transfers from bus to rail and from rail to bus at the beginning and ending of trips. The number of transfers in a trip is a principal reason why riders abandon public transit.
  • "More frequent service on a more sparsely configured network," but no increase in service hours due to budget restrictions. (Buses along "transit corridors" will run at metropolitan frequencies: 15 minutes or less between buses. In order to pay for greater frequency for those riders, service in other areas will be eliminated in some cases and reduced in others. In areas that Metro will marginalize, taking the bus will become more inconvenient. )
  • "Wider bus stop spacing to improve service speeds." (Bus stop thinning -- at least a 1/4 mile spacing between stops -- will require the elderly, the disabled, and riders with small children to walk further on sidewalks that require more than a billion dollars in repairs.)
  • "Adjust the bus loading standard from 1.3 to 1.4 passengers per seat at the peak load point." (Metro will find cost savings by crowding slightly more riders into fewer buses, although Metro will have a different formula for crowding on lines with longer trips. Metro argues that the application of the new loading formula won't increase the number of "worst possible" crowding instances, although the new formula will increase the frequency of overcrowded conditions.)
  • "Consider an area-based loading standard based on bus size." (Metro would take out seats on those overcrowded buses so that more standing riders can be squeezed into them. Riding those buses under peak loads will be more hellish.)
  • "Implement policy that redeploys resources from chronically underperforming routes and route segments to high performing routes." (Metro's imperative is a system that drives riders to preferred modes of transit along preferred corridors of dense development where, not coincidentally, developers, landlords, and the apparatus of the L.A. "growth machine" will profit the most.)

Like other transit providers, Metro's revenues are constrained by inconsistent federal funding, disappearing state support, voter fatigue, and political limits on fare increases. Metro's costs -- for rail and subway expansion, maintenance of a 25-year-old rail system, and employee wages -- are leading to structural deficits for which there are few remedies.

To be fair, Metro also functions under constraints other than revenue and expenditures. Metro is an agent of state laws (SB 375 and AB 32) and implementing policies that couple development entitlements and transit funding to achieve the state's goal of concentrating new housing in live/work/shop corridors where abundant transit is supposed to cut the daily use of private automobiles. Metro's funding more and more depends on serving that goal.

To deal with these constraints, while preserving service for dependent riders, some transit advocates argue that Metro should abandon the part of its budget that goes to highway improvements and concentrate on transit. Since highway spending benefits the voters who will approve future bond measures to pay for more light rail and subways, Metro has no incentive to adjust that priority.

Other advocates argue that Metro should reduce the disparity in funding between bus service and light rail and subway construction. Since L.A. voters prefer rail over buses (a preference federal transportation agencies share), Metro has no incentive to give bus operations a larger slice of a limited budget.

Some of those who favor the proposed re-alignment of bus service tend to lump all bus riders together -- the discretionary rider and the dependent rider, the rider for whom the fare is minor expense and the rider who must go without other necessities to pay, and the rider for whom the bus is a convenience and the rider who might be jobless otherwise.

Unfortunately, transit that is being configured to better serve the first kind of rider and further marginalize the second also serves the interests of politicians and their consultants, developers and their lobbyists, and Metro and its consultants and lobbyists and contractors.

Given the politics of transit in Los Angeles, it should be no surprise that the big money flows to big construction firms and their political fixers rather than to prosaic buses that generate none of the "juice" on which City Hall is so dependent.

It's also a given than Metro will continue to reconfigure bus operations to reduce operating expenses.

Bus service will increasingly become the first and last legs of commutes that will connect to rail. Fewer and more crowded buses will serve discretionary riders and fewer dependent ones. There will be real improvements for riders who will live in the new apartments and condos being built along L.A.'s "transit corridors," but with a catch for everyone else.

"Insufficient resources to sustain budgeted hours may force service reductions not reinvestments," Metro dryly notes. "Responding to 15 minute requirement may require added resources be reallocated."

For riders on the night bus, further immiseration is just ahead.

[Update: Consideration of bus service changes, expected today, has been put forward to a future board meeting.]

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