Not good enough

Comparatively rapid transit
Comparatively rapid transit | Photo by: Josh Shaw/Flickr/Creative Commons License.
Mark Twain's profane quip* about statistics applies to transit options in L.A.

SoCal Focus' Matthew Fleischer noted the other day that L.A. - by some measures - has one of the best public transit systems in the nation. Based on data compiled by the Brookings Institution:

  • 96 percent of residents of working age in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana Metropolitan Statistical Area have access to public transit. (About 12 million people live in the MSA.) The region ranks second nationally in the percentage of those who hav e to option to take a bus or train.
  • During peak hours of travel, the wait time for the next bus or train ("headway" in transit jargon) is slightly over six minutes.
  • L.A. has a smaller per capita carbon emission load compared with more car-dependent areas such as Nashville and Oklahoma City because of the region's relatively large number of transit users.
  • The L.A. region display a lesser degree of "job sprawl" than Chicago and ranks second in the nation for the number of jobs (about 1.5 million) that can be reached by transit in 90 minutes or less.

Good, but not really good enough:

  • Access doesn't mean convenience. It doesn't even mean likely. Less than 26 percent of workers in the region could get to their current job by public transit in less than 90 minutes (the report's idea of the outer limit for a commuter). Only about 230,000 jobs regionally are reachable within 45 minutes by transit; another 225,000 are reachable in under an hour. But twice as many - slightly more than one million - are at the 90-minute fringe.
  • As a result, the L.A region ranks a low 69th out of 100 metropolitan for ease of commuting by transit. Worse, the working poor and low-wage earners are those most likely to be inside that 90-minute window. Middle-income wage earners face an even longer and more frustrating commute.
  • The impressive statistic for frequency - under seven minutes during peak hours - also comes with caveats. L.A.'s 19 transit systems operate more than 500 bus routes, and their buses - not Metro rail - move the vast majority of riders during rush hours. But system operators - including Metro - have steadily reduced bus service over the past three years.

No matter how frequent they are, over-crowded buses make peak-hour trips a brutal endurance exercise. Fewer local routes require more transfers from bus to bus, longer waits at some stops, and longer walks to and from them. Wait times outside of peak hours have increased, too, making transit a poor choice for uses beyond home-to-job commuting.

(Bus riders are hurting in part because the bankrupt state has cut transit funding and in part because Metro has overcommitted to rail construction. Given the politics of transit in Los Angeles, it's no surprise that the big money flows to big construction firms, their lobbyists, and their political fixers rather than to prosaic buses that generate none of that "juice.")

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As a transit dependent person, I'm fortunate that I lucked into a middle-class job I could walk to. And like the statistic says, I'm one of the 96 percent that's close to public transit. Long Beach Transit's 192 line stops at the end of my block. It goes nowhere near my job (but does connect to the Metro Blue Line to downtown Los Angeles.) And the 192 is the only Long Beach line I don't have to walk more than a mile to reach.

The Metro 266 local bus stops about a half-mile from my front door, putting it at the theoretical edge of accessible. The 266 stops at the Metro Green Line (famously the train from "nowhere to nowhere") and after nearly two hours, at a Metro Gold Line station on the far eastern end of Pasadena. To connect to any other destination, I would have to a transfer at least once to another bus.

The Long Beach 192 bus runs about every 40 minutes on weekdays. The Metro 266 bus runs every 30 minutes - not the 6.2 minutes of "headway" Brookings statisticians calculated as the peak-time average for all the systems they surveyed. That statistic is true only in downtown cores, not at the edges of system service areas where wait times of an hour are not uncommon.

The Brookings report admits that its methodology has weakness. L.A. transit's good grade is based on really high marks in just two of the study's categories. That's the way of statistics. They describe averages and abstractions. But averages aren't what transit riders experience, and no part of our life is an abstraction.

*Mark Twain satirized the limits of statistics in Chapters from My Autobiography, published in the North American Review in 1906: "(T)he remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: 'There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.'"

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