Opinion: Metro is doing a bad job making transit habit-forming for Angelenos

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If you build it, they will come. That’s a wonderfully fanciful idea about the public response to new services and products. But when it comes to transit, this is hardly the reality, even in a city like Los Angeles with an ethos that embraces change.

Los Angeles Metro has a budget of $7 billion this year. There’s lots of transit construction, but still relatively few residents use it. In fact, ridership is declining.

I am not alone in my hatred of local traffic or my concern about air quality and climate change. Los Angeles is generally progressive in approaching politics and life, and outsiders puzzle why we persist in driving. As a behavioral scientist who studies habit formation and change — and a regular user of Metro trains — I’ve come to understand why too few Angelenos have formed the transit habit despite traffic being a nightmare.


Quite simply, car driving continues to be the default in L.A. It is an exemplar of how habits form through consistent repetition and reward. Your car and the roads are always at the ready. You punch a destination into your GPS, listen to music or podcasts, and get to your destination. With a driving habit, you are literally on auto-pilot, unthinkingly repeating what you did in the past.

Once we have formed a driving habit, we don’t consider other options — even when Metro opens new transit lines in our neighborhoods. Moreover, our habits feel deceptively secure and reassuring. We overestimate their safety and overlook the dangers of driving.

Metro transit is thus up against our entrenched habits. And habit memory forms and fades only slowly. Some scientists believe that we never really forget old habits, we only learn to control them.

One way to control driving habits is by adding “friction,” or making them more difficult. But most people don’t want to restrict parking or increase fees and tolls — controls we know reduce driving.

A more politically acceptable option is to make transit available to more people. But even with expanded lines, why has Metro failed to help riders develop a transit habit? The answer is, it offers riders neither consistency in service (which encourages repetition) nor an enjoyable ride (a reward).

For instance, there are long, varying intervals between the trains on my home Metro line — the Expo Line that links Santa Monica with downtown L.A. Metro trains recently reduced their service by running trains less frequently. Because of service cuts and repairs, my train often runs every 18 minutes during non-peak hours (despite the listed 12 minutes), which makes it additionally complicated for riders to plan their rides to get to their destinations on time. Planning takes conscious attention and effort, and this high level of attention impedes habit formation.


Intermittent service is just one challenge. Then there’s the lack of signage. Sometimes there is no indication when the next train is leaving. And when there are multiple trains at the Santa Monica station, for example, all with doors open, a rider wouldn’t know which one to take. “Sorry, I got on the wrong train” isn’t convincing when it makes you late for work.

For people accustomed to driving, such inconveniences are too challenging to inspire them to break an old habit. Besides not providing consistency, many annoyances also deter riders from forming a Metro habit. Repeated loudspeaker announcements thanking us for “going Metro” can stop riders from doing anything while on the train.

The lack of cleanliness is an additional challenge for commuters accustomed to being in the private environment of their cars. And riding the trains means having to face the extent of L.A.’s homeless crisis. People without homes are forced to seek shelter wherever they can, and some use the trains to sleep, which has added to the public perception that the trains are unsafe.

I love the greater freedom I get from riding a train and the safety of not having to drive. Metro’s expansion has made mass transit an option for many Angelenos. Now it has to make some changes so that taking the train becomes a habitual choice for more of us.

An effective transit system is one that improves the quality of life for all of us in L.A. After all, my use of the train takes one car off the roads for those who continue to drive.

Wendy Wood is a professor of psychology and business at USC. She is the author of “Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick.”