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Learning from Los Angeles: Rail And Transportation Equity

By Thomas A. Rubin

From 1911 to 1978, there were at least eighteen separate attempts to initiate a rail transit system in Los Angeles County. All failed. Then, in 1980, voters passed Proposition A, providing a one-half cent local sales tax to reduce bus fares for a limited time and to construct a new rail system, with the purpose of attracting significant new ridership to transit. Today, Los Angeles has either built or is nearing completion on almost 60 miles of new urban rail transit including the 22-mile Blue Line light rail from Long Beach to downtown LA; the 20-mile Green Line light rail from Norwalk to El Segundo; and the 16-mile Red Line (heavy-rail) from Union Station to North Hollywood, the last segment of which is scheduled to open in mid-2000. However, during the same time period, bus ridership declined steadily until a lawsuit stopped the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) from actions that would have propped up rail by shifting funding away from those who depend on the bus system. Prop A's passage was motivated by citizens' desire to unclog the roads by getting more people to ride buses and trains. Now after two decades trying to make this happen, it's time to ask, "Has mobility in Los Angeles County been improved, either for those who depend on transit (mostly bus transit) for their transportation needs, or for those who have a choice between transit and their private cars?" Or were those who believed Los Angeles isn't a rail sort of town actually right?

This is a complex story. It involves flawed transit planning analysis, the economics and politics of transit fare subsidies, the difference between rail and bus, and the interplay of equity and mobility vs. the politics of transportation.

First, a little background on rail and bus planning.

A railroad is a physically fixed linear system. To be successful, rail must carry a lot of passengers between point A to point B, making it "productive" and "cost efficient." The measures of success for bus systems are also "productivity" and "cost efficiency." However, unlike rail systems, bus routes are easily changed, expanded, or eliminated to match rider demand and evolving land use patterns. Buses being smaller than railroad cars also require fewer passengers to be individually "productive." Conventional wisdom holds that only buses can work in spread-out low-density areas with stops at places like schools, hospitals, or a factory; while railroads can only work best in compact high population density corridors dotted with very large centers of activity and at least one end in a very dense place like a downtown. At its simplest, planning a cost-effective transit system is a matter of figuring out where enough people are going to be coming from to fill up the bus or train.

Transit Planning in Los Angeles

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Los Angeles County is not an area of spread-out, low-density land use and population well served by endless roads and freeways. In fact, the greater Los Angeles Urbanized Area (UZA) is spread out, but it is also the most densely populated UZA in the country. It has one-third more residents per square mile than greater New York City. Also, it has the second lowest number of roadway miles per capita of the nation's 64 largest UZAs. Little wonder that greater LA leads the nation in freeway congestion. Some sort of transit should be successful in Los Angeles.

But Los Angeles's unique combination of high population density with a massively overloaded surface transportation network is not the ideal situation for the introduction of rail transit. Urban rail transit systems are very expensive to build. Rail capital costs are justifiable only when they can be amortized over very high travel demand. Unfortunately for Los Angeles, it's not population density that determines potential demand for rail; it's trip density within the corridor. And trip density is a function of the number of what modelers call "trip generators" in the corridor. Virtually every successful urban rail transit line in the United States has one end of its route system at the largest trip generator of all: the downtown central business district, or CBD. Chicago's Loop, mid-town Manhattan, and Center City Philadelphia are all large centers of employment, government, commerce, sport, and culture. Rail needs to serve this kind of center to be productive and cost effective. For smaller centers of activity, buses work best.

One way to size up a CBD as a trip generator is to sum the square footage of built space within a walkable area. Using this measure, Los Angeles has by far the smallest CBD relative to its UZA population of any major US city. In 1980, when Prop A passed, LA's CBD was less than one quarter the size one would expect for its population. It should have looked like trouble for rail.

Transit Equity

So why the push for rail in Los Angeles? Because of another popular urban myth about Los Angeles: that there is no mass transit there at all. Or at least, there hasn't been since the demise of the Red Cars. In fact, Los Angeles has for decades operated the third largest transit system in the U.S. (and the second largest bus system) in terms of passenger trips, after New York and Chicago. Indeed, according to the Federal Transit Administration, average passenger loads on buses, a key measure of both transit use and overcrowding, has been the highest in LA for the top 20 U.S. systems since these data started to be collected in the late 1990's. People in Los Angeles have long used the buses, and they still do.

Why, then, this misconception about "no transit" in Los Angeles? I submit it's about race and poverty. More than almost any other major transit system in the country, the Los Angeles bus system serves the poor, minorities, and other voiceless groups of residents. In the mid-1990's, 60 percent of the population of Los Angeles was classified as "minority," and close to 90 percent of MTA ridership was "non-white." Rider surveys revealed that 69 percent of all riders had household incomes under $15,000 a year and 40 percent of all riders had household incomes under $7,500. Most of these are people without cars are the so-called transit dependent population.

These data, of course, are reflective of what has been happening in Los Angeles. Over the past twenty years, Los Angeles has seen one of the most remarkable demographic shifts in recent U.S. history (Figure 1).

L A County Population by Ethnicity

The county population is growing very rapidly; at the same time its ethnic makeup is changing both in terms of real numbers and percent of population. The major story, of course, is the huge increase in Hispanic residents, from 15 percent of the population in 1970 to about 46 percent today and a projected 58 percent in 2020. The "other" population (mainly Asian groups, but also Native Americans) is also growing rapidly, from 3 percent in 1970 to a projected 11 percent in 2020, a quadrupling. Blacks are expected to remain constant in absolute numbers but to decrease as a percent of total population. And Whites, who accounted for 72 percent of LA's population in 1970, account for just 33 percent of the population today, dropping to 22 percent in 2020. Primary users of the bus transit system, now and in the foreseeable future, are recent Hispanic and Asian immigrants, particularly those with few economic resources.

Much of the rationale for rail in Los Angeles came from the desire to attract a new segment of the population to transit. The existing bus system already served the poorer, non-White population; the "new" segment would by simple contrast be more affluent, White, and not transit-dependent. But attracting the so-called "choice rider" to transit would require the higher perceived quality of rail: faster, more comfortable, more dependable because not caught in street traffic...and more costly.

But just how fair is this thinking?

Transit surveys show very few real differences between what kind of services or features transit dependent and so-called choice riders want. It's just that when choice riders don't get what they want, they climb into their cars; transit-dependent riders don't have that option. And then there's the cost issue. Building and operating a new rail service for Los Angeles in terms of public subsidy per passenger is more expensive than upgrading and expanding existing bus service (Figure 2). Yet that is exactly what Los Angeles chose to do, defying principles of equity, efficiency, and even mobility.

MTA Subsidies per Passenger 2000, estimated

The Politics of Transit Subsidy

The Blue Line has a per passenger public sector subsidy almost four and a half times greater than the per passenger subsidy for the bus system. But it's actually worse than that, because to improve the apparent productivity of the new rail system, the MTA shifted riders off the bus system and onto rail. They did this primarily by simply discontinuing bus lines that competed for riders with the new rail system.

The second thing to note when considering the per passenger subsidy figures, is that bus data are averaged across the system. Hence the actual subsidy on routes with the highest ridership, the routes most comparable to an urban rail line, is actually far lower than the data might suggest. Shifting these riders from buses to rail is a slight of hand: it makes the bus data look worse and the rail data look better. In reality nothing is being done to improve mobility for either the riders themselves or for the jammed up freeways.

The third thing MTA did to increase ridership for its rail system was to offer rail riders, unlike bus riders, a flat fare. This means that the longer you ride, the cheaper, relatively speaking, your ride is. A 22-mile trip on the Blue Line costs just $1.35 cash, or 90 cents with a token. The 456 Express Bus, which was terminated to shift passengers over to rail, and which had zoned fares, would have cost $2.85/$2.40 for a comparable ride. Transit dependent riders, who take generally shorter trips than the suburban riders, now ride the rails-their out of pocket cost is about the same. But overall subsidy by the public has been substantially increased by modal shift and fare changes.

A better understanding of why the MTA got sued for discrimination on this issue is gained from a look at what happened to bus fares since passage of Pros A. It's a lesson in what is meant by public policies promoting transportation equity. After Prop A, bus fares went down from 85 cents per ride to 50 cents from 1983-1985. Bus ridership went up by 40 percent. At the same time there was no significant increase in bus service. Los Angeles had the worst bus crowding of any U.S. system since World War II.

When the three-year fare reduction required by Prop A ended in mid-1985, bus fares went back up to 85 cents a ride, and then to $1.10 in 1988 as the dollars that had subsidized the fare reduction were shifted over to rail construction. Between 1985 and 1990, bus ridership dropped by 20 percent - 96 million rides - over the period, with the loss attributed primarily to the fare increase. The Long Beach Blue Line opened in 1990 (about 40 percent of its admitted construction costs had been covered by the bus fare subsidy shift). During its first few years of operation, ridership hung between 11-12 million annually. In 2000, ridership is expected to be about 17 million, less than one-fifth of the reduction of bus ridership from 1985 to 1990. Five years after it has opened, the Blue Line carries 17 million annually, while 96 million bus riders were lost between FY85 and FY90. By FY 96 bus ridership was down 161 million.

It was this kind of math, coupled with proposed new bus fare increases, that stimulated the landmark Federal Title VI (discrimination in the utilization of Federal funds) lawsuit (Labor/Community Strategy Centerv. MTA) in 1994. Settled by a Consent Decree in late 1996, the case put a stop to MTA's proposed elimination of the monthly pass program, which was heavily used by the transit-dependent. It also enforced significant increases in the level of bus service to relieve overcrowding, and expanded bus routes to new areas. These new measures all reversed MTA policy to support its rail system at the expense of the transit-dependent bus riders.

Today, MTA operates three rail lines, and, largely because of the Consent Decree, its bus ridership has started to rise again, up over 54 million in the first three years of the Consent Decree. To date, over 6 billion dollars have been spent to construct the new 58-mile rail system. In 1999, the system served 406 million riders, an increase of nearly 12 percent (42 million) over 1998. Two-thirds of this increase has been on the bus system. MTA's cuts to expand service and start new bus routes came from rails share of the transit subsidies from the nearly 70 percent in the early 1990's to slightly more than 50 percent in the year 2000. While MTA's busses are still the most overcrowded in the nation, they are less overcrowded then they were.

Unfortunately, while the relative performance of bus and rail are now clear to many in the transit industry, the MTA board is currently appealing rulings of both the Special Master appointed to oversee the Consent Decree and the Chief Judge of the US District Court, and it has refused to add the hundreds of buses needed to meet passenger load standards that MTA itself originally proposed. The Board has also approved the construction of another light rail line, the Pasadena line, and is proposing two more lines to replace those rejected by the Los Angeles County voters two-to-one.

Thomas A. Rubin is a consultant who has worked for more than 25 years in government transportation agencies as an auditor and senior executive. He formerly served as CFO of the Southern California Rapid Transit District. He holds degrees in accounting and finance from the University of Nebraska and an MBA from Indiana University.


This paper is largely drawn from Environmental Justice and Transportation Decisions - The Los Angeles Experience, presented by the author at the Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting, January 12, 2000.

Maria L. Green, "A History of Rail Setbacks", Mass Transit magazine, September 1985.

MTA has always described the Red Line as 17.4 miles, but the actual revenue track is 16.0 miles. MTA, National Transit Database reports to Federal Transit Administration, author's measurement of track length.

Federal Highway Administration, Highway Statistics 1997, Urbanized Area Summaries - Selected Characteristics, Table HM-72.

UZA population 1980 Census; CBD square footage from Urban Rail in America by Borris S. Pushkarev, Jeffrey M.Zupan and Rovert S. Cumella 1983.

This article expresses the opinions of one researcher. In our next issue, the MTA will author a companion piece which will present a different point of view. In this way our readership can see that there is sometimes more than one perspective on an issue.