Spanning 1,433 square miles across LA County, the 140 bus lines and six rail lines of LA Metro form a vast network that connects 93 rail stations from the San Fernando Valley to the coastal South Bay. With the third largest bus fleet in the nation as of 2019, LA Metro owns 2,320 buses and covers 97.6 miles of tracks. These numbers illuminate the depth of the challenge ahead of Metro as the nation emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Joshua Schank, the Chief Innovation Officer at LA Metro, the organization aims to learn from the challenges and changes from the year and enable millions of Angelenos to move more easily across this sprawling land.
The pandemic posed a serious challenge to Metro’s operations, according to Schank, who estimated that Metro lost 70 percent of its ridership in May 2020. While the revenue from fares was relatively minor, the reduction of sales tax revenue as economic activity dwindled during the pandemic represented a much greater loss. However, Schank said Metro lost less ridership during the pandemic than many comparably-sized transit systems in the country did, because many more of LA Metro’s riders were essential workers who still needed to get to their jobs. He said Metro is paying close attention to the ways LA changed during the pandemic and how they can use those changes to build a transit system that serves everyone.
“Before the pandemic, from a transportation perspective, [the system] was not all that great. We had a pretty polluted, congested and inequitable system,” Schank said. “So the way we’ve looked at recovery is, how can we come back in a better way?”
A variety of changes developed both organically and by design, according to Schank. For example, he said Metro reallocated the money that would have usually gone to street festivals in order to make streets more walkable and bike-friendly, and the switch to virtual meetings allowed for more engagement from members of the community who would not normally have had the time or the resources to attend an in-person meeting.
One of the most salient changes was the switch to fareless transit on the Metro buses at the beginning of the pandemic. Michael MacDonald, an architect and transit advocate in Eagle Rock, said buses began opening their rear doors to riders rather than their front doors in order to maintain social distance around the driver. Since not all buses are equipped with a TAP card reader in the rear of the vehicle, they stopped requiring fares. Brian Haas, a communications manager at Metro, said via email that the change has proven sustainable so far; however, it has not yet been determined whether it will continue after the pandemic ends. MacDonald said he and other transit activists are pushing for fareless bus transit to remain in place as it is a step towards equity.
“We saw a successful implementation of fareless transit during the pandemic,” MacDonald said. “And there’s no better way to build on that success than to implement it across the system.”
Schank said the pandemic brought many changes in people’s travel patterns. More people are traveling during the day during non-peak commute hours, and taking shorter trips. In response to these shifts, Metro implemented Metro Micro, a rideshare service that allows riders to use an app to call for a van on-demand within several defined service zones, according to Schank. The introductory fare is $1 and there are currently 7 service zones, but the fare amount could change in 2022 and the zones are still being expanded. Occidental students can use the service to travel around Eagle Rock, Highland Park — including the Gold Line station — and parts of Glendale.
“With Metro Micro, you’re going to be able to have more of a point-to-point type of service [than buses],” Schank said. “It’s much more like Uber or Lyft.”
Schank said one of the major goals of Metro Micro was to provide a service that is competitive with Uber and Lyft in terms of convenience, but more affordable, more accessible for disabled riders and more accommodating for riders who can pay only with cash.
Terry McGlynn ‘93*, a transit enthusiast and biology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, said Metro Micro is a solution to the “last mile problem” in public transportation: the problem of how a rider can get to their final destination from the transit stop closest to it. Sometimes people can walk or bike, but often their destination is too far for that to be convenient.
“Getting to the Gold Line from my house, there is a 45-minute walk, or a 10-minute bike ride downhill, or I have to wait for a bus that goes past every 40 minutes or something like that to get to the train,” McGlynn said. “That is an inefficiency in the system.”
When NELA resident Christina Collins was returning home from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), she said she took the Flyaway shuttle and Gold Line to avoid paying $80 or more for Uber or Lyft. Once at the Highland Park Gold Line station, she used Metro Micro to travel the “last mile.”
“I was planning on taking a rideshare app the rest of the way home, but saw a sign reminder about Metro Micro. I downloaded the app and got a referral code for a free ride,” Collins said via email. “The app was super easy to use and I was able to select my pick up time and stop by Triple Beam Pizza to grab dinner take out before my Metro Micro showed up! The ride home only had one other pickup and my drop off stop was only a 2-3 [minute] walk from home.”
Metro Micro was developed via an unsolicited proposal from a private company, according to Schank. Schank said the partnership combined the private sector’s expertise in creating an algorithm to maximize ridership with the public sector’s goal of making the service accessible and equitable. He said this innovation is just one of the ways that Metro is reimagining its services and Angelenos’ access to them.
Metro is also in the midst of implementing the NextGen bus plan, a realignment of bus routes approved in October 2020 that aims to make the bus system more reliable, faster and more accessible, Schank said. NextGen plans, among many other changes, to double the number of frequent bus routes, decrease headway, which is the wait time between buses and expand midday, weekend and evening service. For example, Line 28 between Olympic Boulevard and Eagle Rock Boulevard will have increased frequency, and underutilized stops will be consolidated to increase speed as well, according to the NextGen bus proposal document.
Many transit advocates spoke of a deep desire for a more sustainable and inclusive future, one in which anybody can travel anywhere and LA is brought closer together by its residents’ mobility within it. Vision 2028 is Metro’s large-scale strategic plan for increasing the scope and accessibility of public transit. One of its goals, Schank said, is doubling the number of people who travel using non-single occupancy vehicles, which are cars occupied by only the driver. MacDonald said this is an equity issue, as low-income Angelenos of color are the largest group within non-choice riders: people who use Metro out of necessity, often because they cannot afford a car.
“There’s the larger cultural switch that has to occur, because right now the non-driving-alone options are simply not competitive with driving. And so people don’t see them as viable options if they have the choice. And so part of what we need to do is by improving the service, the existing services for people who are using transit for the people who don’t have a choice,” Schank said. “[Doing so] reduces the equity gap between those who have cars and those who don’t by making the service for those who don’t have cars better.”
MacDonald also said low-income non-choice riders use buses more frequently than they use rails, which are favored by more affluent riders, so a focus on Metro buses specifically is a key component of the Vision 2028 plan. Reaching these milestones in the next seven years is not simply a matter of adding new programs and services, Schank said, but entirely rethinking the way transit fits into LA, a city built entirely for the use of cars.
“We’re essentially trying to take a metropolitan area that was designed around private automobiles — and has functioned with private automobiles at the center of its transportation universe for the last 50, 100 years — and change that,” Schank said.
According to Schank, LA used to have an extensive streetcar and rail system. All over the country, car companies were buying rail systems to convert them to buses, but LA voters decided in the 1940s and 1950s to spend the money on a freeway network rather than a subway system. Other major cities’ populations exploded in the 1920s while urban transit was still centered around rails, but LA did not grow that significantly until after World War II, by which time cars were already ubiquitous, according to Schank.
“I think that right now people don’t understand how much we subsidize driving,” MacDonald said. “A lot of our general funds go towards paying for roads that are for the exclusive use of drivers. Our planning is centered around subsidizing parking spaces and making sure that parking is free.”
McGlynn said California used to prevent people from building so-called “mother-in-law units,” or additional compounds on their property, since some people did not want high density of people in their neighborhoods. But density is key to making driving harder and public transit more viable, McGlynn said, and California is finally relaxing these rules, making it easier for people to add to their properties.
“There is the actual physical geography of it because essentially, right now, you have a lot of space that is dedicated to cars,” Schank said. “So it’s claiming back the space that’s dedicated to private automobiles to give more and more to mass transit.”
Schank said that despite the massive challenges ahead of LA, he is impressed by and optimistic about its commitment to redesigning its systems.
“We have the most ambitious infrastructure build out program in North America, maybe even beyond. I mean, we’re spending $120 billion over the next 40 years to build out a rail system, miles and miles of rail and BRT in the largest county in the United States,” Schank said. “It’s a huge sea change, and unlike anything that’s ever been attempted before. The systems that you see in the old transit system you see in the Northeast, those were built 100 years ago or more. This is an attempt to take an existing urban area that is centered around cars and remake it to be centered around public transit and other non-single occupancy vehicle uses. That is very ambitious, in my mind, very LA.”
Schank said part of what gives him hope is that voters themselves agreed to pay higher taxes to invest in LA Metro. Occidental voters, too, have proven willing to pay for the convenience and freedom of a comprehensive transit program. Occidental used student Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) funds to adopt the U-Pass program in Fall 2019 to allow students unlimited free rides on Metro, according to Linda Schraeder, ASOC’s finance manager. They put down a deposit of $46,132, of which students have currently used approximately $2,000 in rides. Schrader estimated that the current deposit will bring unlimited rides to Occidental students for the next five to 10 years.
MacDonald said the U-Pass program is a great step forward, not only for making transit more accessible but also for increasing students’ awareness of issues within public transit. He said many community members who weigh in on issues of local transportation do not have firsthand experience with Metro. Using Metro, he said, is the best way to know the mobility it brings and the problems in the system that need to be addressed.
“I think that the current zeitgeist is such that people want to fix [it]. Combine that with the fact that we’re seeing these climate events, the rising temperatures, and it’s becoming more and more urgent on that front,” Schank said. “I don’t think there’s ever been a time when people are more motivated to address the environmental challenges and the inequities in our society and transit is really at the center of that.”
Over at the York/Armadale station on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, a group of students and older adults lines up at the stop as Bus 182 pulls up along the curb. The rear doors open and they file in, no tap required. LA is theirs.
*McGlynn is a former staff writer for The Occidental.