Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Los Angeles: where's the transfer?

This spring, I spent some time in Los Angeles—and most of the time I was there I spent without a car. I'd called off a planned hike of the Pacific Crest Trail and stayed with family and friends for most of a week (with an interlude to take the train out to the Grand Canyon) and explore Los Angeles, mostly by bus.

Los Angeles is, of course, synonymous with the freeway and the car. (And, of course, traffic.) While there is a coherent-and-growing network of commuter rail lines, they serve a small proportion of transit use. The rail network—a few light- and heavy-rail urban lines—see more use. However, the majority of Angelinos traveling by transit do so by bus. Of the 1.4 million daily riders, about three quarters—well more than a million—ride the bus, making it the second largest bus system in the country.

There's been a bit of news about the agency, too—namely, a New York Times article regarding the 305 bus route, which mostly ferries domestic staff from poorer neighborhoods south of downtown LA to wealthy suburbs to the city's west. The route is slated to be discontinued as the newest light rail line, the Expo Line, will open this fall. When fully completed, the Expo Line will allow for much faster east-west service from Downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica, a route which is currently heavily traveled and quite slow. And, as with most new transit lines, local bus service will change based on its opening.

In 2004, when I was but a budding student, the Hiawatha Line opened in Minneapolis from downtown to the airport. In Saint Paul, we'd had direct service on the 84 bus (2004 schedule pdf) line every half hour from our college campus to the airport. After the light rail opened, the buses were dramatically rerouted and the trip requires a transfer to the light rail, adding a bit of time but increasing options to get to the airport; the thrice-hourly 74 bus routes near the campus as well. In fact, the 84 was just about the only route whose airport service declined in service. Most buses now have faster and/or more frequent airport service.

And, thanks to free transfers, the fare remained the same. (It's since risen, but there's no surcharge to ride the train.)

This is a major problem in Los Angeles. There are no free transfers. If your destination happens to be on the same line as your starting point, the fare is $1.50. If it's at a right angle and you have to change, it's $3.00. Given the size of the LA area, it's quite possible to take a three-legged trip (say, east, north, and east) and pay $4.50. These fares are made up to some degree with the availability of a $6 daily unlimited fare (made up for by a round-trip with transfers). Still, the tacit discrimination against people with trips that don't fall on a straight line is unwarranted.

And this is the biggest issue with the 305 bus story. If you put the trip from one end of the 305 route to the other on Google Maps, say, from Watts to Cedars Sinai (I picked these simply because they were easily identifiable landmarks near each end of the 305) the map output shows several options:
  • 1:18: Take the Blue Line to the Green Line to 550 express bus. 
  • 1:16: Take the Blue Line to the Red Line to the 14/37 bus.
  • 1:17: Take the 305.
Three very different routes, all with travel times within two minutes. The 305, following Los Angeles's grid of streets, travels the same distance, but since it is on surface streets the whole way, it travels quite slowly. The rail lines attain much faster speeds which make up for the multiple transfers. (And many other destinations along the 305 benefit from the Metro Rapid system—limited buses which run frequently and only stop every half mile. They're not that fast, but certainly speedier than buses which stop every block of miles-long routes.) The Times, which states in the lede that "It will be more than an hour before they arrive at work, and soon the same journey may stretch to nearly two hours" supports its narrative with a falsification. It goes on to use the fear of the unknown (in this case, transferring) to posit an actual detriment to service, which it is not.

Then, there's frequency! Human Transit makes exactly that point: the 305 only runs once every 45 to 60 minutes, while the other services run every five or ten. So if the 305 happens to be about to run (and, yes, LA is on NextBus) it's faster to travel by other routes. These services—plus the Expo Line—should be able to absorb the 3,000 daily travelers on the 305 without any effect. It seems very reminiscent of the axing of the 26-Valencia bus in San Francisco, an infrequent bus which paralleled Mission buses one street over and which was much-loved by some of its riders but which didn't actually provide any meaningful transit service. Transit systems across the US are filled with these sorts of historical anachronisms which drain resources without providing any actual service.

The money saved from cutting this line will not adversely affect many travelers—the "community" cited by the NYT article notwithstanding—and will result in greater efficiencies for all …

… if LA better managed their non-existent transfer system.


  1. The NY Times article showed a fundamental lack of understanding about geometry anyway: The 305 isn't really a "diagonal" route -- it simply makes several turns of about 90 degrees. On a gridded street system, a vehicle travels the same distance whether they go straight north, then make one turn west or if they repeatedly turn to go north, west, north, west, north, west, etc. The extra turns would actually slow things down compared to what could be accomplished with just one or two turns. Buses should typically make as few turns as possible.

    I recently wrote on my blog about potentially getting rid of transfers in the Twin Cities, though I was mostly just thinking out loud. Transit funding was slashed by the legislature, then vetoed by the governor, so I was just looking for ways to gather more money through fares, and changing the transfer policy is one way to do that. It'd generally be more palatable to simply shrink the current 2.5-hour transfer window, however.

    Allowing transfers in LA would probably require an increase in fares. Conversely, Metro Transit here in Minnesota could probably reduce their fare prices if they got rid of transfers or make them more limited.

    Is it more fair to pay low fares per trip segment, or more fair to have everyone pay a higher fare but be able to get anywhere? Is it more or less fair to charge based on distance or fare zones versus using simple per-ride fares? I don't know what the right answer is. Someone is always going to get the short end of the stick.

    I'm a bit curious how many riders are going the whole distance anyway. It might be higher in LA, but the average transit rider in the U.S. goes about 5 miles, which would typically mean spending 15-20 minutes on a bus or train. Should a rider who's going 4x the typical distance pay the same as someone who's only going 2 or 3 miles anyway?

    I generally think that paying per trip segment is a reasonable proxy for distance-based fares, but without all of the mess. Some people will be forced to pay more than their fare share, and many will likely pay less than they should, but I figure that lower up-front fares should drive higher ridership in general -- ideally I'd have zero-fare service, which is basically only unfair to people who don't use it at all...

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