Promising Moves for Public Transit in Los Angeles

Growing up in Southern California in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I can count on one hand the number of times I took the bus to school, work, the beach, or the mall.  SoCal’s “car culture” is a powerful thing, and for a long time I didn’t even know there was an alternative to jumping on the freeway and sitting in mind-numbing traffic.

But times are changing.  Fed up with rising gas prices and gridlocked traffic, people are turning to public transit in record numbers.  And two years ago, L.A. County voters passed Measure R, an extra half-cent in sales tax that will put billions of dollars into transportation upgrades – the vast majority of which will go toward public transit projects.

And now, even our local transit agencies are starting to see the light.  On Thursday, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) Board will consider three policies that could make L.A.’s regional public transit system much more efficient and equitable – without so much as changing a bus route.

EZ Pass

Many commuters need to ride more than just one transit system to get where they’re going. They move between Metrolink and the Downtown Dash, between the Big Blue Bus and the Culver City Bus, between Torrance Transit and Long Beach Transit. 

But the systems all have their own fares and ticketing structures, which prevents riders from moving seamlessly among them.  A new policy, though, would have Metro staff develop a chargeable EZ Pass that would work on all transit systems in L.A. County.  This common-sense proposal would take much of the hassle out of using public transit and could attract a host of new riders.

Share Real-Time Information

A second policy would have Metro create smart phone applications that would “enable patrons to receive rider information, schedule trips, etc.”  A handful of other transit agencies have already taken similar steps, according to a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal.

In 2009, for instance, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation began sharing raw data for bus lines, in a move modeled after daily data releases from the National Weather Service.  Programmers soon created applications that mapped real-time bus locations and pulled together real-time bus and train data. 

Metro should be equally generous with its data.  L.A. is the Creative Capital of the World, after all, and there is no doubt that our friends and neighbors will put the new information to brilliant and effective use.

Variable Fare Pricing

Right now, Metro charges a flat fare, which makes revenue forecasting simple and predictable.  But transportation policy experts have long criticized flat fares as inefficient and often unfair.

Metro is now following the lead of other transit agencies in thinking about moving away from flat fares.  Although Metro has yet to conduct a detailed study of the idea, a motion up for vote Thursday would have staff analyze scenarios under which fares would vary based on time or distance traveled.

As an example, London charges different prices for peak and off-peak transit, and New York has considered doing the same.  Such an approach would encourage some commuters to travel at slower times and would recognize that transit operating costs are higher during peak hours.  The Times described the New York proposal as perhaps the “biggest transportation revolution since the demise of the token.”

Similarly, distance-based fares reflect the greater cost of carrying a passenger a longer distance instead of a shorter distance.  Now, for instance, a rider could take the Blue Line from Metro Center in downtown Los Angeles to the Pico station, a distance of six blocks, or to downtown Long Beach, a distance of about 20 miles, and the cost would be the same.

In the Bay Area, by contrast, the BART train charges greater fees to riders who travel greater distances. If a rider starts at Montgomery station in downtown San Francisco and goes just one stop over to the Embarcadero, she pays $1.75.  If she instead goes all the way to suburban Walnut Creek, she has to pay $4.75.

The flat-fee pricing Metro now has is straightforward, but it forces riders who travel mostly in the urban core to pay too much and to subsidize the costs of longer-distance travelers.  Such free-riding raises issues of equity that could become more pronounced as Metro overhauls its transit network with the 30/10 plan and begins to capture a more affluent ridership. 

Given this, and the general inefficiency of flat fares, I’m encouraged that Metro is investigating new and more effective forms of pricing.  All three of these forward-thinking policies would go a long way toward increasing ridership levels, ensuring a fair and efficient pricing system, reducing air pollution and easing mobility throughout the region.  We’re not going to change L.A.’s car culture overnight, but sensible proposals like these are definitely a step in the right direction.