a photo of a transit bus under a freeway in Los Angeles, California.
A transit bus makes its way under a freeway in Los Angeles, California. Mike Blake/Reuters

Voters who supported L.A.’s Measure M may like transit, but they don’t seem to want a city that’s built for it.

In November 2016, Los Angeles County made history. A whopping 72 percent of voters approved Measure M, a sales tax measure set to generate $120 billion over 40 years to expand rail, rapid bus, and bike networks. With it, the L.A. Metropolitan Transportation Authority promised to “ease traffic congestion” and “transform transportation” across the region.

But that promise is likely to remain unmet, judging by history. Between 1980 and 2016, L.A. passed three major transit sales tax measures and built 110 miles of rail. Yet ridership on L.A.’s transit system has been slipping for years, while the number of miles traveled in private cars is rising. Other American cities that have passed major transit measures are facing the same conundrum.

Which is? Voters might love transit, but that doesn’t mean they plan to ride it. And transit agencies that appeal to voters with pledges to solve traffic woes might be digging themselves into a hole.

Those basic disconnects at the heart of a landmark sales tax measure are the subject of new research by Michael Manville, an urban planning professor at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. His research is full of wisdom and warnings for other cities keen to replicate L.A.’s superficial success.

Trends in transit ridership, rail ridership, traffic congestion and ballot successes in Los Angeles County, 1980-2016. The brief spike in transit ridership in the 1980s was driven by significant, temporary fare cuts. (Michael Manville/Institute of Transportation Studies, UCLA)

When Measure M hit the ballots, Manville suspected that there’d be divergence between Angelenos’ choices at the ballots and on their commutes. He wanted to find out who actually planned to ride L.A.’s shiny new rail system, now that the money was there to expand it. “What I was trying to get at is, how invested are people in the idea of moving around differently?” he told me.  

So Manville surveyed 1,450 adults online and by phone one week after election day. The questions touched on attitudes towards transit, congestion, and Measure M, along with a host of other policies that could affect transportation in the region. In particular, he wanted to know who respondents imagined would be most affected by the success of the transit measure.

The survey also wove demographic and socioeconomic indicators throughout. Anticipating that the first survey skewed towards white, affluent, and non-immigrant individuals—a slice of the population least likely to ride transit in Los Angeles—Manville followed up a few months later with an shorter survey that intercepted transit users at busy Metro stations.

The results? The outcome of the election itself made clear that L.A. voters want more trains and buses. But there seemed to be little expectation among most voters that they’d necessarily use them, Manville found. Demographically, the average Measure M supporter resembled someone with a very high likelihood of driving: They owned cars, enjoyed free parking at home and work, and had higher incomes. Voters who reported wishing to drive less were no more likely to vote for the transit tax, and nor were people who thought they lived closer to a station.

Instead, the top predictors of whether a voter supported Measure M were their political party and their frustration with congestion. Liberals and especially Democrats were more apt to cast a pro-transit ballot than conservatives and Republicans; the more strongly a respondent identified as a Democrat, the more likely she was to vote for Measure M. This isn’t surprising: The demographics of left-leaning voters more closely align with riders, who generally live in urban areas and fall under a certain income bracket. And the modern GOP’s antipathy toward public transportation is legendary. But in Manville was surprised to find that, in his analysis, “when you control for all of those factors, it’s the partisanship that stands out,” he said.

So party identity strongly swayed voters. Support for the sales tax measure (which was strongly tied to positive feelings about public transit in general) was also driven by the belief that building trains and buses would help address congestion and emissions, just as the campaign promised. Almost 70 percent of Measure M supporters saw solving either of these problems as transit’s main objectives.

In truth, taming traffic isn’t what transit does best—done right, it brings low-cost, efficient mobility to the masses, even when the roads are jammed. But only 20 percent of L.A. voters believed that the point of Measure M was to improve mobility for lower-income Angelenos. That was striking, but not necessarily unexpected, since ads and political rhetoric around the sales tax increase had barely mentioned the benefits to people who currently ride the system.

Moreover, when Manville surveyed folks at train and bus stops, he found a lot of unhappy captives: 70 percent of riders did not own a vehicle to make their trip; 40 percent would have chosen to drive if they could have. This was consistent with Manville’s last piece of headline-grabbing research for UCLA: Part of the reason transit use has been steadily declining in L.A. seems to be that lower-income immigrants—historically, the people who have been L.A.’s transit riders—are buying and driving more cars.

Thus, few Angelenos viewed transit as an amenity that directly benefited them. People voted for Measure M as an expression of their political beliefs, and in support of a broader social good—someone else will use this public service and improve congestion, just not me. There’s nothing wrong with that winning a $120 billion sales tax measure on the basis of that mentality, Manville told me, if the goal is to achieve political victory. But L.A.’s transportation presiders are also hoping people will ride the trains they’re spending billions to build. That’s where the problem lies: “The campaign strategy that delivers funding doesn’t offer an obvious path to the transportation outcomes you actually want,” Manville said. “You have the money, but it’s not clear how that gets you more ridership.”

Or even less congestion. Measure M’s central promise to reduce L.A.’s infamous traffic delays contained a contradiction, Manville notes. “People who vote for transit because they believe it reduces congestion are often voting for transit because they want driving to be easier,” he writes in the analysis. “But transit works best in places where driving is harder.”

And, in a final set of survey questions, Manville found that Measure M proponents weren’t nearly as keen on the types of land-use and structural changes that could actually make driving less appealing in L.A., such as more paid parking, highway tolls, increased housing density, and narrower streets for bus and bike lanes. L.A. voters like the idea of transit, but they don’t seem to want a city that’s actually built for it.

The lesson should be a sobering one for transit agencies around the country, many of which have banged the gong of traffic relief to rally car-driving voters for transit plans. (Denver comes to mind.) This tactic may be politically expedient, but it fails to map a clear path towards increased ridership. On the other hand, Manville said, the recipe for transit success is not mysterious: Build good service, and make driving hard. The second part is politically difficult. But failing to rise to the challenge is limiting L.A.’s potential as a real transit town.

Transportation agencies should learn from L.A. and pick their fights now to take the necessary steps to price driving and make room for buses and bikes, Manville told me. In sprawling, congested, liberal-leaning cities, he said, “getting voters to the polls is the easy part.” Breaking old habits: much tougher.

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