Where did the riders go? Patrick Fallon/Reuters

The city is losing once-loyal lower-income patrons: They’re driving themselves.

Happy transit systems are all alike; every unhappy transit system may be unhappy in its own way. Case in point: Southern California.

Los Angeles County, the most populous in the country, has been dramatically expanding rail transit connections for its 10 million residents. Yet across L.A. and five other counties that make up the heavily urbanized Southern California region—Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, and Imperial—ridership on public transportation systems has mostly declined since 2007, and quite steadily since 2013. That’s counting passenger increases on some of the new rail lines.

Nationwide, Americans are commuting less by bus or rail, with transit ridership ticking down since 2014. That means more congestion, more smog, and more carbon emissions—a special concern in California, where statewide carbon reduction goals are pinned on getting more commuters on buses and trains.

But the causes of Southern California’s transit slump don’t necessarily match up with those of metros like New York City, Washington, D.C., or San Francisco. According to a new report by UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies, transit seems to be losing riders in L.A. County and its sprawling neighbors because of a dramatic increase in car ownership, especially among lower-income residents and immigrants, normally transit’s most loyal riders.  

“That exploding level of car ownership is incompatible with transit ridership,” Michael Manville, a professor of urban planning at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, said in a press call.

Even with the popularity of the newer Expo and Gold lines, L.A. rail transit and transit overall have experienced net losses in ridership since 2013. (UCLA ITS)  

To nail down the trend, Manville and co-authors Brian D. Taylor, the director of UCLA ITS, and Evelyn Blumenberg, a professor and chair of urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, sort through a raft of evidence. First, they identify who transit riders are in Southern California, a tiny share of commuters overall. Only two percent of the population rides transit very frequently; just about everyone else across the region ride less than once per month or not at all.

Historically, poorer people and especially poorer immigrants have been less likely to be able to afford to own cars. As in many other places, these groups make up the lion’s share of transit riders in Southern California. So even small changes in their households, communities, and transit systems can have a dramatic effect on the bigger picture.

The same goes for changes in public transit systems. Just a few operators in Southern California carry the vast majority of riders. Lost riders on L.A. Metro alone, which serves L.A. County, accounted for fully 72 percent of lost transit patronage across the entire state. Those losses are even further concentrated: Remarkably, just a dozen bus and rail routes in L.A. County account for nearly 40 percent of all the vanished ridership in California.

Why are loyal riders jumping ship? It doesn’t seem to be due to service cuts, which have generally followed, not preceded, downturns in passenger counts. (Not so in New York City, where minimized routes after 2010 help explain the MTA’s withering bus numbers.) It’s not fare increases, either—the cost of metro tickets has stayed remarkably flat regionwide, especially compared to elsewhere in the country. (Regular fare increases on San Francisco’s transit networks may be one driver of downward trends there.)

Note how fuel prices rise and fall far more sharply than ridership. (UCLA ITS)

Cheap gas tends to make driving more appealing, and declining fuel prices are likely part of the picture in Southern California. But they can’t account for everything, either: Transit patronage kept falling even as prices at the pump jumped up between 2009 and 2011. Likewise, Uber, Lyft, and other ride-hailing services may be cannibalizing passengers to an extent, as they seem to be in many other cities. But apps seem to play a relatively minor role in Southern California, since there hasn’t been much demographic overlap between app users and transit riders. That may change, though, as the reach of on-demand services keeps growing.  

Right now, the best explanation seems to be a staggering increase in cars on the road, owned and driven by the very people who used to ride buses, the report states. From 2000 to 2015, the population of the Southern California region grew by 2.3 million people, and the region added 2.1 million household vehicles—close to one new car for every person and a huge jump from the previous decade. In the same period, the proportion of immigrant households that own zero vehicles dropped 42 percent, and a whopping 66 percent among Mexican immigrant households specifically.

It’s not hard to understand what’s attractive about car ownership for newer, poorer Californians. Owning a car can mean the difference between keeping a job and losing it, especially in industries that drag workers from one location to another, such as construction, caregiving, or housecleaning. Even with growing rail and rapid bus connections, rising housing costs in already spread-out cities like Los Angles are forcing workers to make their homes further from their jobs. “Much of the region’s built environment is designed to accommodate the presence of private vehicles and to punish their absence,” the report states.

And, in the Golden State as much as anywhere in the U.S., vehicles are powerful symbols of social status—perhaps a uniquely important factor for recent arrivals hoping to assimilate. (Fears of deportation in public spaces may be another, more recent consideration.)

Are the same trends holding true for other cities? Transit usage by immigrant populations in the U.S. has been declining nationwide since 1990, though “we can’t assume the same underlying factors are driving this, because of differences in the immigrant population in L.A. relative to Chicago or Atlanta or other places that may have immigrants but at different levels,” Taylor said in the press call.  

Still, there may be lessons to draw here. In the report, the authors warn that, while the first reaction among cities and transit agencies may be to try and lure once loyal immigrant riders back onto the bus, that may not be the most effective approach. Instead, the authors recommend working to get the general population—the 77 percent of Southern Californians who almost never use transit—to occasionally ride instead of drive. “If one out of every four of those people replaced a single driving trip with a transit trip once every two weeks, annual ridership would grow by 96 million—more than compensating for the losses of recent years,” the report says.

That doesn’t just mean expanding rail and rapid bus connections, as L.A. County is working to do, with billions of dollars in new sales tax revenue. It would also mean, the report suggests, making it less easy and cheap to use a car—which inevitably means charging more for driving and parking. No one said it’d be easy.

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