Fare Hike Expected to End RTD’s Ridership Bonanza
The unprecedented increase in bus ridership that made Los Angeles a national anomaly during the last three years is expected to end Monday as fares rise from 50 to 85 cents and bus officials prepare to lose riders pinched by the fare hike.
Anticipating fewer riders, the system is adjusting schedules and shaving service on half its bus lines beginning today.
Overall, the hours that buses are on the road will be reduced by only 2.4%. But more cuts may loom down the line if riders stay away in droves.
Additional service reductions--along with new fare hikes--would be triggered as early as October if federal subsidies now under consideration by Congress do not come through. Two years from now, local officials will consider yet another fare hike.
“It is the end of the 50-cent era,” said Nikolas Patsaouras, president of the Southern California Rapid Transit District. “I honestly don’t think we will see a 50-cent fare again.”
The discount fare ended because a subsidy from a half-cent sales tax lowering the fare from 85 to 50 cents three years ago now will be redirected partially to pay for commuter rail projects in the area. Those include the proposed Metro Rail subway and the Los Angeles-Long Beach light rail line.
But it was one whale of a bus ride while it lasted.
“We have been packing them in,” RTD General Manager John A. Dyer said.
Indeed, they have.
On March 20, the system set a new record for numbers of riders. About 1,736,000 got on the bus in the five Southland counties served by the RTD. That record lasted only 26 days. On Monday, April 15, 1,788,000 riders squeezed on, setting the current record.
Comparisons on a more sustained basis show a startling increase--unmatched in RTD history--that consistently bettered the bus system’s predictions. This spring, the ridership increase established Los Angeles as the nation’s first city in public bus service, edging out Chicago.
Ridership figures for the first four months of 1982 (just before the fare reduction to 50 cents) and for the same period in 1985 (the latest reporting period available) show a 46.3% increase.
Ridership on the nation’s urban buses, meanwhile, rose a meager 4.8%.
The increase is so lopsided in favor of Los Angeles that well over half (59.5%) of the national increase is in Los Angeles.
Nowhere else has there been a fare reduction, coupled with a subsidy, that put more buses on the road to carry more riders, Dyer said.
“The combination has made Los Angeles run totally counter to the national trends,” he said.
Officials predict that Monday’s fare increase will return Los Angeles during the next several years to the national trend of slowly increasing bus ridership. But in the last three years, a large number of residents were introduced to the bus, particularly students.
Sales of the $4 monthly pass to grade and high school students almost quadrupled since the fare reduction; pass sales to college and vocational students almost doubled.
Others Join Trend
But others began getting on the bus, too.
Mike Cassidy started a year ago.
In a well-tailored beige suit, trim leather briefcase in hand, crisply folded newspaper under arm, the 24-year-old Security Pacific National Bank commercial lending officer explained why he began riding the bus to work.
“It’s too good a deal,” he said as he boarded a bus to downtown at the El Monte bus station one morning last week.
Switchboard operator Lorraine DiMeglio, 28, of Monrovia began taking the bus because she didn’t like to fight congestion.
“This is crazy,” she told herself. “I’m sitting in traffic.”
Not any more.
DiMeglio was comfortably ensconced in a seat on Line 491 one morning last week as her fellow passengers read newspapers, chatted, daubed mascara on eyelashes or shut their eyes for a last nap before work.
Drivers Stuck in Traffic
Sailing along at 55 m.p.h. in the bus lane of the San Bernardino Freeway, DiMeglio glanced over at the regular lanes. Commuters were stuck in rush-hour traffic.
“I feel sorry for them,” she said.
To meet the increase in passengers, the bus system boosted the number of hours on the road by 9.7% and the number of miles driven by 7.5%.
The beefed-up service, which lagged behind the ridership increase, was not enough to prevent problems: more crowded buses, more complaints, more pickpockets, more stress for drivers, and more of that exasperating phenomenon--fully loaded buses passing by riders stranded at bus stops.
A total of 1,131 people complained about such “pass-ups” during the first five months of 1985-- more than double the number for the same period in 1982.
Schedule complaints--late buses, early buses or buses that never showed up at all--quadrupled. Complaints about driver discourtesy more than doubled. Pickpocketing incidents tripled.
“The most significant portion of the initial increase in complaints was associated with the heavy ridership--crowded buses, pass-ups, schedule problems,” said Scott Mugford, director of customer relations.
“Complaints also increased as more sophisticated passengers--who expected top-quality service and were familiar with the mechanism to present a complaint--became regular riders following the passage of Proposition A,” Mugford said.
Proposition A was the ballot measure establishing a half-cent sales tax for transportation. In its first three years, from July 1, 1982, until Monday, it provided subsidies totaling $404 million that allowed the bus system to lower fares to 50 cents.
After Monday, an increased portion of Proposition A revenues (35%) must be set aside for rail construction. As a result, the fare reduction subsidy will shrink by $43 million, leaving $80 million in the next fiscal year.
On Monday, officials are predicting, a traditional summer ridership decline will be augmented as a result of the rate increase and service changes on 126 of the system’s 253 lines. The system, using estimates based on past ridership declines after fare hikes, expects to lose 17.5% of its riders during the next year.
But uncertainty surrounds that prediction.
In a December telephone survey conducted for the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, 30% of the bus riders said they would quit if fares were doubled. (Monday’s fare increase is 70%, somewhat less than double.)
However, Lawrence Doxsey, the federal transportation expert analyzing the results, discounted the response in a telephone interview from Massachusetts. Doxsey said that some of the professed quitters may have been trying to use the poll to pressure officials not to raise the fare.
Some RTD officials, including Dyer, doubt that the falloff will reach the 17.5% projection.
For one thing, many riders have no other way of getting around, they said.
About 46% of the regular bus riders have family incomes under $15,000, according to the telephone survey.
And, the officials noted, the projected loss was made before a number of cities and the county stepped in to minimize the hardship of the fare hike. The various “buy-down” programs, in which local governments pay for part of the monthly passes for their handicapped, elderly and student residents, could preserve ridership, they said.
Those well-intentioned efforts, however, appear likely to generate confusion, at least initially, because of their patchwork nature.
For example, in Bell, elderly residents will be able to buy a monthly pass for $4 (the same price as before July 1) because the city government will pay the RTD for the $3 increase. But in La Puente, the same pass will cost only $1. And seniors in areas where local government is not pitching in will have to pay the full $7.
Participating in such “buy-down” programs are the cities of Los Angeles, Alhambra, Bell, Agoura Hills, Glendale, Huntington Park, Inglewood, La Puente, Pico Rivera, Temple City and West Hollywood. In addition, Beverly Hills, Baldwin Park, Burbank, Glendora, Hawaiian Gardens, Rosemead, San Fernando, Sierra Madre, South Gate and Temple City are considering the concept. Also participating is all of unincorporated Los Angeles County, except those areas represented by Supervisor Peter Schabarum, who opposed using his office’s discretionary funds to provide discounts.
Another complication for bus riders is figuring out exactly where and when the cuts in service will be made. No lines are being eliminated, but frequency of service will drop on many starting today.
For example, on Line 217, buses will run between Fairfax Avenue and Sunset Boulevard and the Hollywood area every 15 minutes instead of every eight minutes during daylight hours. And on Line 444 between Los Angeles, West Torrance and Rolling Hills, midday buses will roll every hour instead of every 45 minutes.
On more than 100 lines, riders will have to wait a few minutes longer only during rush hour, according to bus officials. All the changes are listed in a brochure available at bus stations.
The consensus among interviewed bus drivers, who have been listening to their riders talk about Monday’s fare increases for weeks, is that the hikes will not scare off many.
During the 4 a.m.-to-7 a.m. rollout at El Monte, the bus system’s biggest bus yard, drivers, a jocular lot over coffee and doughnuts, took a moment one morning last week to ponder the fare hike.
Dewey Roddrick, 55, a 26-year veteran of the bus system and a driver on Line 271 from Whittier to Hawaiian Gardens, spoke for many when he said:
“Personally, I don’t think the rise in the fare will make them go away. People are used to riding buses.”
RTD’S NEW FARES These are the new bus rates taking effect Monday, July 1:
CATEGORY CURRENT NEW Daily Monthly Daily Monthly Basic Cash Fare 50 -- 85 -- Basic Monthly Pass -- $20 -- $32 Freeway Express 75 $27 $1.20 $44 Freeway Park-Ride $1.75 $55 $2.60 $92 Seniors/Handicapped 20 $4 40 *$7 Students (K-12) 20 $4 85 $12 Students (College) 20 $4 85 $15
Transfers will continue to cost 10, shuttle bus fares downtown and in Westwood will remain at 25. * A number of localities have approved subsidies for seniors, the handicapped and students. Call 213-626-4455 for information.