When trains start running on 11 new miles of Gold Line tracks this weekend stretching eastward to Azusa, will they carry any passengers? Ridership on Metro's buses and trains has been not just stagnant, but shrinking for nearly two years. At the start of 2014, there were on average 1.45 million bus and rail boardings on weekdays. A year later, it was 1.38 million. By January 2016, weekday boardings had further slipped to 1.27 million.
Even given transfers and round-trips, it would appear that upward of 130,000 Angeleno commuters have abandoned mass transit.
Maybe Metro can build its way out of the problem; maybe more stations — on the Gold Line and, soon, on the Expo Line to Santa Monica — will halt or reverse these trends. Or maybe not. Neither experts nor armchair urban planners can discern what's causing the decline.
Customer service isn't to blame. This may be startling to the car-centric supermajority in Los Angeles — to say nothing of those who remember the Bus Riders Union's 1990s rallying cry “No Somos Sardinas!” — but Metro rider surveys find 85% to 90% general satisfaction rates. Nor does there seem to be a relationship between ridership and gas prices or school enrollment.
Other theories don't really hold up either. Blame the 2014 fare overhaul? It came six months too late. The decline also was well underway before implementation of AB 60, the state law that allows immigrants who are in the country illegally to obtain a driver's license. The economy? A strengthening job market should have meant more commuters, not fewer.
Metro has a budget to balance and needs fares to start covering more than the current paltry 26% of its operating costs. Fares here are much lower than in other cities — a one-day pass is $7 in L.A., but $8 in Seattle, $10 in Chicago and $14.50 in Washington, D.C. But another fare hike is out of the question if ridership continues to decline.
For Metro, the dropoff is a serious problem. For the rest of us? Not so much. It might be worrying if all those tens of thousands of passengers had traded in their TAP card for a car commute, but that doesn't appear to be the case.
Although the transportation question in Los Angeles always has been framed as car versus not-car, that binary model is over. The whole nature of commuting — indeed, of personal mobility in general — is changing.
If we want to move about, our options are increasingly robust: Not just driving or public transit, but also car-sharing, on-demand ride services and, soon, bike-sharing. A long walk never hurt anyone, either — at least not in this climate. Even Ford, the company synonymous with the automobile, has been studying “multimodal transportation,” trying to figure out what role it will play when the daily commute may not involve grabbing the car keys on the way out the door.
Perhaps more crucial, it is increasingly easy to not move about.
One tech industry analyst says his conservative estimate is that by 2020, half of all U.S. households will have subscribed to the free-delivery service Amazon Prime. On the Westside, Google Express now delivers from Target, Staples, Costco, Walgreens and other stores for just $10 a month. Consider that one round-trip to the grocery via bus might cost $3.50, and it becomes obvious that such services are not a luxury, but a potential savings of money and time.
Labor statistics show telecommuting on the rise. In 2010 9.5% of employees worked from home at least once a week, and high-speed Internet connectivity has made that easier since then. (Ever wonder why traffic is the worst on Thursdays? That's the day people are least likely to work from home.) Even as gas prices plummeted, car driving (per capita vehicle miles traveled) remained flat. Transit systems nationally saw a 1.2% drop in use last year.
In short, America already hit peak mobility, and the broad trend is fewer trips, fewer miles, less motion. Even in sprawling Los Angeles we're seeing the shift. Metro is just the bellwether.
None of this is meant to suggest that Metro should abandon efforts to add Wi-Fi to subway cars or dedicated bus lanes to boulevards to make the trips we have to take more pleasant. Rather, we need to shift our perspective on the mobility issue in general.
Maybe Los Angeles shouldn't strive to move more people greater distances more quickly. Maybe we should be happy if people can move around less. In that framework, the best trip isn't by rail, bus or by car. It's the one you didn't have to take at all.
Robin Rauzi is a freelance editor and contributing editor to Opinion.