For five years, pundits, planners, and policy-makers have scratched their heads at Los Angeles' steep public transit ridership decline: a 21% decrease on buses,15% in total. To explain it, they cite ride-sharing, cheap gas, even the law that lets undocumented immigrants get licenses to drive. But another answer should be obvious: We lose transit riders when we displace the low-income families who rely on it.
Data from Policy Link/PERE shows that L.A.'s transit riders are mostly low-income black and Latinos: 88% of Metro bus riders are people of color, and more than 50% have annual family incomes under $15,000. When they lose housing near bus or rail lines, they lose access to transit.
Metro's No. 2 bus is a good example. In July 2009, 22,000 passengers rode the line, which travels up Sunset Boulevard from downtown to Pacific Palisades and back again. Now, only 14,300 people take the route.
Where did the riders go?
One neighborhood served by the No. 2 is Echo Park. According to Zillow, in September 2011, the median home value there was $427,000, and the median rent was around $2,000. Five years later, those figures were $779,000 and $2,840, respectively, an increase of 90% and 42%. But as housing costs rose, the neighborhood's population shrank — by about 12% between 2000 and 2014, according to census data analyzed by USC's Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration. During that time, more than 5,000 Latinos and 2,000 Asian Angelenos were pushed out.
This story has repeated itself across the city. In those same years, rent and home prices spiked in Koreatown and Hollywood as dense new developments were built near busy transit lines. But the population in these areas fell, especially among people of color. Koreatown lost 12,000 Latinos and 1,000 black residents. In Hollywood — also served by the No. 2 — the Latino community shrank by 13,000.
We have a name for this kind of displacement: Gentrification. It pushes out low-income residents of color, the same populations most likely to take public transportation.
But transit in Los Angeles isn't just suffering because of gentrification, it's causing gentrification. According to a recent UCLA/Berkeley study, transit-adjacent L.A. neighborhoods gentrify at higher rates than other neighborhoods. It's part of the plan.
Mayor Eric Garcetti links Metro with what he calls "economic revitalization," articulating Metro's role not as an agency that merely "runs the buses," but as a source of new "development corridors." To encourage developers to build new housing near rail lines, the county offers incentives including zoning variances for height, tax breaks on construction and a swifter permitting process.
On its surface, the idea makes sense: We should reward new housing near public transportation if we want to increase density and bolster rides. But rather than expanding ridership, new development is pushing riders away.
The Vermont, a 464-unit building constructed in Koreatown in 2013, is a stark example. It sits at the junction of the Metro's Purple line subway, the No. 720 bus and the Red line subway (which lost around 3 million riders between 2013 and 2016). The Vermont's cheapest apartment now costs $2,550, more than double what the average L.A. renter can afford; two bedrooms run to $4,500. It has three floors of parking — enough spaces for every apartment to have at least one car.
The Vermont is not an outlier. When the Expo Line was unveiled, new luxury and market-rate development sprang up to meet it, and, as tracked by RadPad, rents in areas around the route went up 45% in a year. UCLA's Will Dominie correlated the arrival of higher-income households to L.A.'s transit-adjacent neighborhoods with the loss of transit riders. A report by the Center for Urban and Regional Policy warns this is a national trend.
Without adequate protections to keep low-income tenants in their homes, transit-oriented development might as well be called transit-rider displacement. Attempts to build densely along transportation routes will actually lead to population declines. And, by the way, the city's definition of "affordable housing" means most of the few new below-market units we are building go to families making between $45,000 and $72,000 a year.
If we want to stave off further transit ridership losses — not to mention meet our obligations as human beings to each other — we need to establish a new common-sense planning policy. We must prioritize tenants, not the supply of housing units. Stable housing should be a human right. With universal rent control and more public housing, we would link the well-being of low-income Angelenos of color to a greener future for our city of cars.
The cure to the displacement and ridership crises won't come from more of the cause.
Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal is a member of the L.A. Tenants Union.