History Repeats Itself In Bus Vs. Rail Protests

As you may have heard, Metro has approved plans to significantly rollback its bus service. 300,000 hours, or 4% of all bus routes, will be cut. This comes only a year after Metro already cut bus services by 8%. Prompted by low-income transit advocates, the Federal Transit Administration is investigating whether these proposed rollbacks violate the Civil Rights Act--as it can easily be argued they disproportionately affect poor, minority riders.

This wouldn't be the first time Metro faced federal sanctions for bus reductions in the face of rail expansion. Back in 1994, a group called the Bus Riders' Union sued Metro for reducing bus service while simultaneously constructing a multi-billion dollar rail line to Pasadena. The BRU won a Consent Decree in federal court, mandating Metro maintain certain levels of bus service. That mandate ended five years ago, and Metro, after getting its act together during the Decree to become nationally recognized for its service improvements, has been scaling back ever since. The current plan to the bus fleet to 1,900 means Metro's total fleet will be 200 smaller than the 2,100 buses that drove the Bus Rider's Union to sue back in the 90's.

With the Expo Line (hopefully) set to open in due time, there may indeed be a few lines that become redundant with the expanded rail service. But as my Spot.us colleague Alex Schmidt is currently investigating, many of the proposed cuts will take place in LA's poor working class communities, far away from new rail construction. As she puts it, "Students who commute from Watts to UCLA might not be able to make it. Domestic workers who take buses across the city will be out of options."

History appears to be repeating itself in Los Angeles.

Rail vs. bus shouldn't be a choice we need to make in Los Angeles. Everyone is excited for LA to finally get a world-class light rail network. But even if every line in Mayor Villaraigosa's 30/10 Initiative were built overnight, this city would still need both.

Maintaining the bus network takes up only 35 percent of Metro's operating budget. Not all that much, considering 80 percent of Metro's riders are on buses. The system is cheap and efficient. In 2007, Metro operated 191 bus routes with an average work-day ridership of just over 6,000. Each of those lines cost an average of just over $4.5 million to operate. The aforementioned $859 million Gold line, on the other hand, averages only 18,035 boarding per work day. Total annual cost to operate the line: $42 million. You do the math.

Granted, LA's bus system is not always convenient for riders stuck in traffic. This city is in obvious need of increased light rail options. But our expanding rail network needs to complement our existing bus system, not replace it, nor shortchange it.

The photo of a bus protest poster in Vancouver from 2007 is by Flickr user urbanwild. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

The L.A. Vitamin Report is a column about quality of life issues by Matthew Fleisher. It is brought to KCET's SoCal Focus blog in partnership with Spot.Us, which receives support from the Cailfornia Endowment.