Why Angelenos Should Start Taking the Bus More Often

A Metro bus arrives as NextBus technology tells a cell phone user that buses will be arriving in 1 and 32 minutes | Photo by Zach Behrens/KCET
A Metro bus arrives as NextBus technology tells a cell phone user that buses will be arriving in 1 and 32 minutes | Photo by Zach Behrens/KCET

The arrival of yet another economic gas pump influx could mean bigger numbers of commuters going Metro again. The last time a gallon of gas spiked in the summer of 2008, Los Angeles County's primary transit agency saw boardings soar--over 43 million just in July of that year--before prices dropped and cars hit the road again.

These days, numbers are lower, in part thanks to unemployment. Metro last month recorded an estimated 35 million boardings systemwide, but as a barrel of oil tops $105 the agency is currently preparing for another surge by adding more bus and train service as needed.

Unlike 2008, Metro is slightly different and for the better, meaning a ridership uptick could be somewhat sustained even if gas prices go down. Just a few years ago, on-time performance for buses was a dismal 60%. Now it stands at 77%, a greatly improved number, but still nothing to brag about.

Metro will need continue to improve on-time performance--its next goal is 80%, and so on--if it wants to be taken seriously by new users. At least that's part of what researchers have found in studies about perceptions of using public transit.

A Los Angeles-based study published last year in the Journal of Public Transportation found that apart from feeling safe and secure, transit users prefer short and predictable waits. "The more satisfied transit users are with their waiting, walking, and transferring experiences, the more likely they are to take transit," wrote authors Hiroyuki Iseki of the University of New Orleans and Brian D. Taylor of UCLA.

Interestingly, Metro just launched its beta version of NexTrip, a mobile web tool that tells you when the next bus will be arriving at your stop. As Iseki and Taylor wrote:

Based on personal experience NexTrip has been big time saver. Instead of using printed schedules for buses running down Ventura Boulevard every morning, I check in online. When it says the next bus will arrive in 5 minutes, I walk out my door and a bus is usually arriving at the corner shortly after. Unlike before when waiting for the bus was wildly unpredictable, my wait is now short and predictable.

The implementation of this could not have better timing. As budgets, thus bus service, are slated for belt tightening, decreasing negative perceptions of public transit are all the more important. Allison Yoh, the Associate Director at UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies, says that transit managers often focus on customers' time spent in vehicles, but studies clearly show that the full door-to-door travel times is what counts, most importantly the time spent outside buses and trains.

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She points to a European study that found real-time displays reduce perceived wait times by about 20 percent. If a transit agency increased service to achieve an actual 20% reduction in wait times, it would prohibitively cost more. Additionally, a majority of respondents in the study said real-time information reduced their anxiety.

Another perception Metro is going to play with is its day pass price. The agency plans on lowering its $6 cost, which will make for catchy marketing to drivers: "$5 for a gallon of gas or $5 for a day pass."

Bart Reed a transit lobbyist who heads up the local Transit Coalition thinks things are headed in the right direction, thanks to Metro's CEO Art Leahy who has been on the job for less than two years.

"We have these two guys that actually understand transit and how it works and how it supposed to work," he said, also giving kudos to Metrolink's new CEO John Fenton, who will soon launch express service on his agency's trains. "When it doesn't work you've got two guys who are right on top of getting it fixed. They issue orders and instructions on fixing and changing service issues for the customers, not for agency convenience."

For Metro, that seems to be working. Last December, the agency recorded the lowest number of complaints in its history.

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