Despite a growing population and a booming economy, the number of trips taken on Los Angeles County's bus and rail network last year fell to the lowest level in more than a decade.
Passengers on Metropolitan Transportation Authority buses and trains took 397.5 million trips in 2017, a decline of 15% over five years. Metro's workhorse bus system, which carries about three-quarters of the system's passengers, has seen a drop of nearly 21%.
Rail ridership increased 3.6% over five years, bolstered by significant ridership gains on the Expo Line on the new extension to Santa Monica. But trips on the Blue Line fell 21%, and trips on the Green Line dropped 26%.
The ridership decline plaguing Metro and other Southern California transit agencies provides a grim assessment of public officials' efforts to shift commuters from driving to public transit.
Experts and officials have no firm answers, but have attributed the decline to a combination of factors, including changes to immigration policy, competition from Uber and Lyft and more people buying cars — as well as perceived problems with existing transit service and security.
Nearly two-thirds of former Metro riders told the agency in a 2016 survey that they stopped riding because transit service was inefficient, inconvenient or difficult to reach. An additional 29% said they stopped riding because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable on buses and trains. The vast majority of those people now drive alone.
Metro officials, concerned by the decline, have commissioned a study on how to improve their service, which spans 170 lines and 15,000 stops. The results are expected in April 2019.
Metro officials say they have also taken steps to address riders' concerns about security. Since July, the transit system has been patrolled by a combination of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, and the Los Angeles and Long Beach police departments.
Still, some concerns persist. At a meeting of the Los Angeles City Council's public safety committee Wednesday, Councilwoman Nury Martinez said she will not take her 8-year-old daughter on the Metro Red Line, which runs between North Hollywood and Union Station downtown.
"I don't have to see the data collection to know that if I feel unsafe to ride the train with my kid, that I'm just simply not going to use it," Martinez said. "I know a lot of people who feel the same way, and it's simply not acceptable."
Experts have theorized that Metro has lost a relatively small number of riders who previously relied on the bus for all kinds of trips, including commuting and running errands. Their departure has had an outsize effect on overall ridership because they took multiple trips per day.
The region's shift away from the traditional 9-to-5 job structure makes Metro less convenient for people who now work from home, visit several job sites per week, or hold multiple part-time jobs, they say.
"The bulk of our system has been tailored toward commuters and students," Metro senior executive officer Conan Cheung said. "We need to evolve relative to what customers expect."
Other cities across the U.S., including New York and Chicago, have lost bus riders as well. But no region is poised to invest as aggressively in transit as Los Angeles County, where voters approved a sales tax increase in 2016 that will raise an estimated $120 billion over four decades for transit construction and operations.
The future success of the taxpayer-funded lines — including a rail tunnel through the Sepulveda Pass — will require a well-organized bus network that can carry riders to train stations and serve neighborhoods that won't receive a rail line.
As Southern California's economy and population have boomed, traffic has worsened. That has slowed buses down, pushing frustrated passengers toward driving.
"It's a vicious cycle," said Carter Rubin, a mobility and climate advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Buses need to be competitive with driving for them to be appealing."
One study prepared by UCLA for the Southern California Assn. of Governments suggests that the region simply has more cars available per resident than in the past, making driving easier and making traffic worse.
A strengthening economy has helped families afford a car, particularly used vehicles that are more reliable and fuel-efficient than in the past, said Metro spokeswoman Pauletta Tonilas. More than 8 million cars, trucks, trailers and motorcycles were registered in the county in 2016, an increase of more than 6% from a decade earlier, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Metro could improve bus performance with bus-only lanes, Rubin said. But cities control the markings on the streets where Metro buses run, and officials don't always agree on their implementation. The longest bus-only lane in the county, for example, runs for more than 7 miles along Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, but stops at the Beverly Hills city limits.
Another solution for lagging bus times, Rubin said, is allowing passengers to board buses at all doors, rather than boarding next to the driver. The strategy reduces the amount of time that buses idle at each stop and can help improve on-time performance.
Metro officials tested the strategy on the Wilshire Rapid bus in 2015, and found that all-door boarding could save seven seconds per stop when five people boarded the bus, and 42 seconds per stop when 30 people boarded. The strategy could help boost ridership on busy lines, staff members said in a report to agency directors.
Metro is considering adding more high-frequency service on the busiest corridors across the county, and will discuss painting more bus lanes as well, Cheung said. Officials will also be reevaluating Metro's fare pricing structure this year for one-way fares and passes.
A change in state immigration policy has also chipped away at another longtime group of Metro riders. A state law that took effect in 2015 allows immigrants in the country illegally to apply for California driver's licenses. The Department of Motor Vehicles has issued more than 850,000 such licenses statewide.
Metro is also facing stiff competition from ride-hailing companies such as Lyft and Uber. The car services are faster than most buses, and — thanks to subsidies from venture capital firms — cost just a few dollars more than a Metro trip.
That's attractive to riders such as Rasalyn Bowden, 43, who lives in South L.A.'s Westmont neighborhood and has been a semi-frequent Metro rider since she was a child.
"I like riding the bus," Bowden said. "It's my time to put on my headphones and read. I don't have the responsibility of driving. But it takes a long time."
To get from her home to the real estate office in Hollywood where she works as a bookkeeper, Bowden has to take three buses. The trip can take two hours.
A few years ago, Bowden would have had no other option. Now, when she's tired or it's late, she gets off the bus and takes a Lyft at her halfway point. That ride costs a few dollars more but saves her half an hour.
Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.
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11:30 a.m.: This article was updated with Councilman Nury Martinez's comments about Red Line safety, and additional statistics.