Spoiler alert- this is about Los Angeles, and it’s about buses, but it’s not really about either of those things. Read on, and you might stand to walk away with some questions about the city you live in, and some tools to think critically about how we move, and how we sometimes don’t.
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority, or Metro as most Angelenos know it, knows how to tell a story. They even published a guide to how they and other cities might recreate the stunning success story that are the billions of dollars in annual funding for transit infrastructure construction that Metro sold to voters in a series of ballot measures. Their most recent ad campaign is entitled Join the Movement, and it brought up something I’ve been meaning to discuss for quite awhile, but we’ll get to that.
One Tuesday afternoon, I’d just finished a swim and a workout at the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center in Pasadena, and decided to head to a cafe in nearby Eagle Rock- a walk up the hill and about a 15-minute bus ride away- to get some work done. I checked the Transit app to see if I would make the next bus, and noticed something strange. On the schedule, the bus was running every twenty-two-and-a-half minutes, but I could’ve swore that it ran every 20. As in, as recently as the past week I was pretty sure it ran every 20 minutes. Its a gaslighting-ly subtle change, but a noticeable one. If a bus runs every 20 minutes, you can pretty much know when it’ll be there and when it won’t. Every 22.5 minutes, and all I was pretty sure of was that I was going to have to wait at the top of the hill.
Just a few days prior, I had been to a community meeting about a BRT (bus rapid transit) project meant to connect Pasadena to North Hollywood- no, not Hollywood, they’re different- along the nearby freeway corridor. Pasadena is separated from the rest of LA by a variety of geographic and demographic walls, such as the Arroyo valley that separates it from Los Angeles’ inner suburbs (like Hollywood) and outer suburbs (like North Hollywood and ‘the valley’). As soon as the first bridge opened, cross-town traffic quickly outpaced demand to downtown Los Angeles, where the streetcars and the old roads went, such that a bigger crossing and an even bigger freeway would soon open.
Fast forward 65 years, and that freeway crossing is still one of the busiest in the city. Just last year, LA Metro began running an express bus along the freeway, but it isn’t well-used- transit carries about 1% of traffic across the Arroyo- and one of Measure M’s high-priority infrastructure projects is a $270 million upgrade of this bus route into a full-fledged bus rapid transit corridor.
At least, that was (and still is) my reaction. According to the presentation materials from LA Metro, all of the options under consideration will take longer than the current route, although they’ll feature nice stations, bike racks, and buses that look like trains. The existing bus runs every 30–45 minutes outside of rush hours, so I went to the meeting to ask a question that was conspicuously absent from all of the slide decks- how often would this expensive new bus run?
“That’ll be determined in later stages of the study,”
or something to that effect.
I pressed on-
“The route map looks broadly like the existing bus route, but with an extra stop, right?”
We were in agreement, more or less.
“So then what is stopping Metro from running more buses, tomorrow? Next month?” I asked.
Other audience members seemed to clue in, chiming in
“it would be like a real-world trial…”
We weren’t here to talk about that.
Lets take a step back, before we dive in. I’m not entirely sure public transit even exists in Los Angeles. Here’s a map of the Greater Toronto area, showing frequent public transit services (every 10 minutes or less, all day every day.) Red lines are local, green lines are faster, thick lines run every 5 minutes or less until the early morning.
Now here’s a map of Los Angeles County, at the same scale, showing the same thing.
Notice anything? Not really, right?
Okay, so that’s an admittedly high standard, but I’d broadly define transit in two ways. First, it only runs as often as when it runs the least. That is to say that a bus that runs every 15 minutes at rush hour, and once an hour after 8 PM, runs once an hour in my mind. The human brain is a pattern-seeking machine, and human spatial cognition searches desperately for structure in the world. How does this work? The most broadly useful generalization is the one that is most often correct- it runs only as often as when it runs the least.
Second, a bus that runs once-an-hour, in an urbanized area, doesn’t really exist. It doesn’t exist for any traveler that values their time and can’t make planning decisions based on bus schedules. I don’t know where the reasonable bar lies, but 30 minutes has always seemed fair to me for middle-density North American cities. If we use that as a standard, lets see where you can catch a bus every 30 minutes or less, until at least 10 pm, every day. I think that’s still a low bar, but go figure.
Here’s Greater Toronto. There are noticeable gaps, and you can probably tell exactly where the City of Toronto ends, and its outer suburbs begin.
And here’s Los Angeles county (at the same scale).
In Toronto, you can see city, suburban, and even express buses running across the inner city and the entire region. They exist- all day, every day. In Los Angeles, you can see the metrorail network, inner-city bus routes and a scattered handful of suburban corridors. If we looked at service that runs every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day, most main streets in urban Toronto would still be on the map. Los Angeles would be down to just three routes. It’s pretty grim.
These are the places that you could reliably get to without a long or unpredictable wait. If you rely on public transit, this is your world. Thanks to Measure M, Los Angeles is spending billions of dollars every year for the foreseeable future building infrastructure that will certainly add some lines to this map, yet if that community meeting was any indication, by 2050 the map of Los Angeles accessible by frequent transit will likely still look just as bare.
In Toronto, the broad expectation exists that nearly every major bus and train route will run more often than it did last year.
Something is clearly not working the way it should.
What if Los Angeles isn’t in the transportation business at all?
Lets talk about the transportation network companies (TNCs)- Uber and Lyft. My first instinct when I hear someone say disruption, is to read that what they really mean is deregulation. There is increasingly concrete evidence that Uber increases traffic congestion, vehicle-miles and particularly empty miles, in every American city that we have sufficient data to study. There is increasingly concrete evidence that a lot of TNC trips replace public transit and active travel, and study after study shows that these companies do not pay their drivers a living wage. But we’re not here to talk about any of that.
Whatever your opinion of startups like Uber, they are in the transportation business. Every innovation they’ve rolled out has been aimed at moving people. You can tell the markets that they have developed and the neighborhoods where they do a lot of business, because there is always a car nearby. One of the first maps published about Uber’s ridership in Los Angeles showed wait times for a ride across the region, and how they had progressively decreased over time, to the point that today throughout the entire Los Angeles conurbation, you will likely never wait more than 15 minutes for a ride- ever.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Uber’s usage- not just in LA but lets talk about LA- peaks late at night, when the majority of Metro’s, and many cities’ fleets are sleeping.
This is a caricature of LA Metro’s system map, but is it really? It’s what I see when I look at the real map. None of the colors or line weights tell you much about how the services operate; the red ones run express but generally only a couple minutes faster than the local bus; the grey lines are non-Metro routes but many run later and more frequently than the orange ‘official’ Metro lines.
This is what I remember from it. None of these maps tell you much about where you could go- after all, most of these buses don’t run very often and many of them don’t run all day. What they are telling you, however, is where you could wait.
Remember that ad campaign? Join the movement? What if Los Angeles isn’t really in the business of movement at all?
What if they’re in the business of waiting?
In fairness, Metro is completely redesigning their bus network this year. As part of the supporting materials explaining the current context to the public you can view this heatmap online. But it isn’t a heat map of service, or ridership. It’s a heat map of bus stops.
You can wait just about anywhere in the county, and oh boy will you ever wait. Metrorail trains run every 20 minutes in the evenings, so it’s not unusual to spend more than half of your transit time waiting. Maybe it’s by design- not literally, but almost literally.
Lets step back into that community meeting, and think carefully about the things that were being discussed. Where should the fast buses stop? What kind of amenities should be at the stations?
Where would you like to wait?
What things would make it more pleasant for you while you wait?
We weren’t really talking about moving. We weren’t talking about how often the buses would run, and we certainly weren’t talking about where connecting lines might take you once you get to North Hollywood. In talking to the community outreach co-ordinator that night, it occurred to me almost in real-time as I said it-
I’ve never seen the San Fernando valley (communities beyond North Hollywood). I bet it’s lovely, and I’d like to explore it some time. Yet in all honesty, to me (as a transit rider), it doesn’t really exist…
Many of the buses in the valley run once an hour if at all, and very few of them connect to North Hollywood station, where the only bus from Pasadena goes (and is likely to be the only bus for the foreseeable future). This infrastructure project is an opportunity to create new horizons for transit riders- well for people really- to make them able to go to places that they really couldn’t before- and yet we were sitting in a hall talking about stations.
Does this all sound hopeless? Or even a bit mean? I promise it isn’t intended as either. You might have guessed by now that I’m a Canadian ex-pat. I was born and raised in Toronto, and I’ve spent the past two years in Los Angeles. In those two years, I’ve listened to people tell stories about the good old streetcars (they weren’t), how General Motors plundered the city (they didn’t), and more generally how exceptional the problems that face Los Angeles are and yet how meaningful it would be to the rest of the world to solve them. Do you see the contradiction?
I believe that what ails Los Angeles is a failure of imagination.
Here’s the thing- I’m not sure that public transit ever worked in LA the way it does in Toronto and in many Canadian cities. An honest recollection of the Pacific-Electric streetcar system would reveal that it ran infrequently, often late and even more often stuck in traffic. A bit of digging reveals that the most frequent bus route in the history of Los Angeles ran every few minutes during the daytime but only every 15-20 minutes at night.
Planning in Los Angeles has admirable goals- to get more people to more places, faster, more comfortably and more reliably. It seems that one of the inbuilt assumptions is that those people will wait. They may wait longer for a nicer service and they may wait longer to do something they really want or need to do, but they will necessarily wait.
These are all places in Toronto where you can expect to never wait more than five minutes for public transit until 1 in the morning. Do all of them look like you thought they would? Most of these corridors see a bus or train or streetcar every minute or two during rush hours. It’s actually quite hard in some locations to take a Google Streetview screen-grab without a bus in it.
These aren’t the products of grand plans, but rather they are a feature of a social contract that broadly says that your city ought to be accessible to you. There are problems- there are gaps, there are late buses and trains, there are sprawling suburbs (though many have decent transit too) and there is traffic, but one of the basic tenets of a place like Toronto is that you should be able to always go everywhere. That’s why frequent transit covers so much of the city, and that’s why occasionally waiting seven minutes for a train is cause for strangers to curse at the sky.
This isn’t just a lesson on public transit- its an accounting of what transportation is and does- it moves people. When that happens, it’s powerful. In a city like Los Angeles that is so accustomed to waiting, whether in traffic or at a bus or train station, it can seem otherworldly to ask this simple question-
What if you didn’t have to wait?
Measure M in Los Angeles is a 40-year, $120-billion capital program for infrastructure. It’s not the only tax measure currently on the books, and your city has probably voted on a similar program. Only one of the projects is a subway line, while most of the infrastructure will be in the form of light rail and bus rapid transit on local streets and boulevards. It’s not just that these projects may take decades to complete, but rather that many of them offer 10–15 minutes of travel-time savings in places where the bus may only run every 15–20 minutes at best. So, what if you didn’t have to wait 20 years to not have to wait 20 minutes?
It can even seem beside the point to ask- maybe it’s the second-hand car market that’s hurting transit. Maybe its Uber, and maybe its a complex web of demographic trends, immigrant naturalization and changing realities of who we are. But maybe they all just don’t like to wait.
So where do we go from here?
On the left is a station proposed for the Pasadena BRT. It looks like a nice place to spend time, in 2024. On the right is what counts as a bus stop in San Francisco. That painted pole has frequent service throughout the day, and express service at rush hours. It probably took ten minutes to paint. What does an Uber stop look like? They don’t really have physical stops at all. They just have service- cars that move people. Isn’t that kind of the point?
The moral of the story here is that public transit works, just like any other transportation system, when it’s moving people. Infrastructure for waiting- stops and stations- can send an unmistakable message that you’re going to wait before you get to go. Physical infrastructure designed to reduce waiting (by taking buses and trains out of traffic, for example) can be effective, but physical infrastructure that doesn’t might be missing the core concept- that we’re in the business of moving people, whether in buses, or trains, or cars, or pods, or bikes, or scooters. If you want more people moving, you need to give those people more opportunities to move, which generally means that you need more things that move people. Which things you choose, well that’s your prerogative (or your city’s). But we can all learn a valuable lesson from places where transit works, like Canada, and even places where Uber is growing, like many American cities.
What those organizations in those places understand, is that they can make those changes tomorrow. Not figuratively tomorrow, literally tomorrow. Startups like Uber, Bird and Lime know this intrinsically, and some transit agencies do too. Now, think about your city. When they talk to you about mobility, do they talk to you about where you could go, or how you could wait?
This much I can tell you: one in four Americans who stopped using public transit in the past four years live in Los Angeles. It turns out that waiting just isn’t a growth industry anymore, if it ever was.