On Transportation column, May 10 edition

Next stop, Culver City: Some good news this week with Expo Line test trains running all the way to the end of phase 1 of the project in Culver City. No opening date to Culver City has yet been announced, but the start of testing is a good sign.

A couple thoughts:

•As readers pointed out, having a giant parking lot next to the Venice/Robertson station may not be the highest ideal when it comes to urban planning. But it’s a very short walk to both downtown Culver City and the Helms Bakery complex and I think it’s overall good for the project to have some parking near Expo stations for those who don’t live near the line. I’d rather have someone drive to transit than not take transit at all.

•The Helms complex is home to Father’s Office, which in my view remains home of the best burger in the Southland. They also have an outstanding beer menu. Good burgers + good beer + good transit = win.


In 2008, the political debate over Measure R largely concerned which transit and road projects would get funding. In 2012, the current proposal seeks to limit that debate. Will it? Stay tuned.

Heads up to extremely cool event: The eighth and final stage of the Amgen Tour of California bike race is Sunday, May 20. The 42.6-mile stage begins in downtown Beverly Hills, travels through Hollywood and ends with five laps of a five-mile circuit in downtown Los Angeles with the finish line at L.A. Live.

In addition, from 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. that morning, cyclists are free to ride the downtown L.A. part of the circuit. All abilities are welcome — more details here.

With many street closures for the race, it will be a good day to either ride your bike downtown or take Metro Rail there. Take your pick: the Expo Line, Gold Line, Blue Line, Red/Purple Line subway, Metrolink and Amtrak all serve downtown.

Revising Metro fares: For many moons now, some Source readers have been clamoring for Metro to revise its fares and charge riders based on the distance they travel. Some readers even suggest that by lowering fares for short trips, Metro will pick up many new riders who currently shun riding, resulting in greater revenues for the agency.

Sorry, but I don’t see it happening here in Los Angeles County or any other major metro area. As far as I know, there isn’t a major transit agency in the U.S. that in recent times — which is synonomous with hard economic times — that has dropped its base fare to lure more short haul riders.

Why not? Probably because it doesn’t pencil out very well: Metro would have to gain an awful lot of new riders to offset the loss of revenue that, with a 28 percent fare recovery ratio, it can’t afford to do.

That’s not to say that distance-based fares will never happen. As the rail system expands, it’s likely that Metro staff and the Board will look at the economics of the current system because in a few years it will be possible (under current operating plans) to ride a single train from Santa Monica to East L.A. or the same train from Long Beach to Azusa.

In the meantime, the best solution for Metro riders who make many frequent short trips is to purchase a monthly pass for $75. If you take 20 short single bus or train rides each week, that breaks down to less than a dollar per ride.

17 replies

  1. The parking at Culver City will be key to attract riders from further west, who could park there and hop on the train to get downtown, avoiding the congestion on the 10. I use several ways to take transit downtown (Big Blue Bus 10, Rapid 720, Expo) but if there was no parking at any of the Expo stations it wouldn’t really be an option. The bus connections just aren’t good enough yet for it to make sense; you’d be better off just taking BBB 10 or Rapid 720.

  2. Will the parking lot at the Culver City Station be permanent, or will it be replaced by “transit-oriented-development” after the line is extended to Santa Monica? That would make a lot more sense as a deelopment opportunity, given the urban nature of the Culver City neighborhood.

  3. What about time-based fares, such as a fare valid for two hours on all buses and trains in the Los Angeles area? This was seriously under discussion some months ago – didn’t someone on the Board (was it Villaraigosa?) request Metro staff to develop such a proposal? A two-hour fare could of course be priced higher than the current base fare, so there’s no reason to assume it would have to result in loss of revenue. And it sure would be an improvement over the present fare zoo.

  4. ehh.. Huge parking lots are a major drag on the overall usability of local transit stations. Big parking lots at transit hubs really only make sense for longer haul trains (i.e. Metrolink, Amtrak, CAHSR), not local trains. Overall, it always makes more sense to use that same space for some other use, like housing, markets, street vendors-civic/park space, hospitality, etc. One thing that LA really needs to get a grip on with this transit Renaissance is the need to put something other than just trains and people waiting for trains at/near/around train stations. And also not Transit Adjacent Development with gargantuan parking lots but real transit oriented development.

  5. “As far as I know, there isn’t a major transit agency in the U.S. that in recent times — which is synonomous with hard economic times — that has dropped its base fare to lure more short haul riders.”

    UTA (Salt Lake City)
    http://www.ksl.com/?nid=960&sid=18615672

    MARTA (Atlanta)
    http://blogs.ajc.com/political-insider-jim-galloway/2010/02/05/marta-may-charge-by-the-mile-or-time-of-day/

    Urban Transport Problems – Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue Ph.D. in Transport Geography from the Université de Montréal:
    http://people.hofstra.edu/geotrans/eng/ch6en/conc6en/ch6c4en.html

    “Financing and fare structures.

    Most public transit systems have abandoned a distance-based fare structure to a simpler flat fare system. This had the unintended consequence of discouraging short trips for which most transit systems are well suited for, and encouraging longer trips that tend to be more costly per user than the fares they generate. Information systems offer the possibility for transit systems to move back to a more equitable distance based fare structure.”

  6. Steve,

    “In the meantime, the best solution for Metro riders who make many frequent short trips is to purchase a monthly pass for $75. If you take 20 short single bus or train rides each week, that breaks down to less than a dollar per ride.”

    While I like many of your articles, I think this a tough sell Steve. $75 for a monthly pass doesn’t sound attractive when there are cheaper alternatives for shorter distances. And believe me, there are a lot of people in my neighborhood who don’t see Metro as attractive for short trips.

    This suggestion, or selling point, is based upon thinking in terms of “rides” as in how many number of buses or trains to take, never minding how short or long it is each ride.

    Most people however, think in terms of “how far” as in how many miles it is to get there because in the end, distance traveled doesn’t change. Miles is miles whether it’s taking one bus or transferring to several rides of multiple buses and trains. This is very evident when travel distances are short.

    You don’t expect people to buy $75 in monthly passes when the distance from the home to the workplace or their favorite hang out is only 5 miles, right? Most people will opt to bicycle instead and save themselves the $75.

    Just come around ask the Metro bus riders in the neighborhood in the Lennox and Westmont areas. Majority of the people that live in this area work in nearby areas. When you start asking around, you’ll likely get the answer “the bus isn’t all that cheap,” so they still stick to driving cars, riding bicycles, and increasing number of people in our neighborhood are taking motorcycle courses at The Forum.

  7. I say every person working for Metro should sign up for the transit geography course taught by Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue!

  8. The whole section about Urban Transit Challenge by Dr. Rodrigue is a very interesting read that applies to the City of LA. I think Metro needs to study this section very closely because a lot of the things he mentions offer good advice:

    The farther out we expand, the higher the cost of running the system. This applies to extending the Gold Line all the way to Ontario in the future.

    Transit patterns are dynamic so you can’t just serve the needs of travelers just because there’s a need for it today, because that demand may go away in the future.

    Very true in LA. Transit riders want one ride to their destination, but it’s an impossible task to do so we have transfers. But not many want to do more than one transfer if possible, let alone if the distance covered overall is short.

    There’s also the increasing number of competition that public transit faces besides the automobile. Changes in energy prices has also risen the number of motorcyclists on the roads today, which offer a similar level of convenience as the automobile, but at a much better fuel economy and a lower cost of ownership.

    Directly correlates to the discussion of distance based fares.

  9. “When you start asking around, you’ll likely get the answer “the bus isn’t all that cheap,” so they still stick to driving cars, riding bicycles…”

    Bingo. That’s exactly why I mainly ride my bike.

  10. “Metro would have to gain an awful lot of new riders to offset the loss of revenue that, with a 28 percent fare recovery ratio, it can’t afford to do.”

    Speaking from my experiences alone from riding public transit in many Asian transit cities that uses a distance based fares, is that there tends to be higher number of ons and offs the buses and rails. A lot more people are willing to get on the bus, ride it for a few short kilometers, and then get off. As such, cheaper distance based fares encourages lots of quick, short trips, which overall increases ridership numbers.

    Ridership numbers can’t be measured by how full the buses or trains are visually, they have to be measured by how many people get on and off at each bus station or bus stop.

    Having one bus full of 100 passengers over the course of longer distances only brings in $150 in revenue to Metro.

    Having one bus that has 500 on and offs over its course under a distance fare system which encourages short runs and more ons and offs brings in a lot more revenue.

    In other words, the potential loss of revenue, is offset substantially with the increase in transit riders that ride it for shorter, quicker trips which has a higher ons and offs.

    On the other hand, in many flat rate systems like here in LA, more riders tend to use the system for longer trips with very few people getting off over the course of the whole line. Flat rate fares don’t really encourage short, quick trips so more riders tend to use the system over longer distances. That’s why the buses always look full, yet Metro still cannot recuperate their costs; there’s not as many people that get on and off. And when the buses are full because it discourages people from getting off to do short runs, it ends up discouraging people from taking the bus, or even the bus driver having no choice but to skip a bus stop even when there’s a person waiting there because the bus is so full.

    In the end, having a bus full of 100 passengers that ride it over a longer course of distance with very few people getting off until towards the end of the ride, only brings in very few revenue to Metro.

  11. After listening to both side of the arguments, I think it’s worth testing out distance based fares.

    If there are no other American cities that have done it, we could be the first one to prove or disprove the concept with hard data. There’s no reason why we have to follow the failing examples of other American cities just because everyone else is doing it.

    If LA is different, then we shouldn’t be scared of trying out new ideas. Using excuses and not even trying make us no different than the deadbeat politicians in Washington.

    Try it out on the Red Line for the trains since they already have gates that can do tap-in and tap-outs. The Red Line is just the right length to test it out. If distance based fares on the Red Line did increase revenues for Metro, then start implementing that to all of our light rails. If not, then abandon it. That’ll be the end of it.

    But if it works, then next try it out on the Orange or Silver Line buses because they’re BRTs that are similar to light rails. If it works out on the BRTs as well, then there would be good cause to roll that out to all of our bus services.

    It’s far better to test it out now on the Red Line as a starting point to gather test data, than spending billions more trying to test and implement it years later when the rail system has expanded.

  12. Count me in as a person who has gave up on Metro except for when traveling longer distances as my short commute to the Beverly Center isn’t worth the cost of buying a Metro Pass.

    When it comes to transit planning, I’d give more credibility to someone who has a Ph.D. in Urban Transit Development and written a college level textbook about it than just simple tossing the suggestion out with a simple “no one else is doing it the America, that’s why we won’t either.”

    If the professor who wrote the book in public transit says that flat rate fares only hurts short distance riders and with complaints here saying that realistically they are, wouldn’t that be a probable cause for Metro to study this matter seriously?

    Besides, Metro is paid with tax dollars and short distance commuters in Los Angeles are tax payers too. Listening to our concerns is part of Metro’s responsibility as a public agency.

  13. Im not sure Metro is going to be doing any trial fare changes on any part of they system any time soon given the recent FTA investigation Metro received regarding it’s deficiencies in fully analyzing its fare changes since 2010

    “The Compliance Review found that Metro was deficient in preparing fare equity studies for fare changes approved and implemented since 2010. Metro prepared and submitted to the FTA a proposed methodology for conducting the required fare equity analysis in the CAP. An updated methodology incorporating input from the BRU (Bus Riders Union) with the Updated CAP on February 29 2012.”

    http://www.metro.net/board/Items/2012/05_May/20120516EMACItem33.pdf

  14. Here we go with “been there; done that”:
    Back in the 1980’s the SCRTD changed the fare system wide. For one full fare price for all, you could request a transfer for NO EXTRA CHARGE. That transfer was good for a number of hours after issue, and it could be used UNLIMITED number of times (unlimited number of transfers to other lines), even for opposite direction of travel on the same line (the transfers did not have any info identifying what line issued it nor any other directional info, JUST the time of expiration that day). Essentially, a lot like a day pass. WOW, it really was in incredible value, I taking great advantage of it because of the savings. I can’t remember clearly, but I seem to remember no additional charge for subsequent use, but it was a long time ago, so at worst maybe a 25 cent fare for each use until expiration.

    Alas, that didn’t last long. I’m not certain if lasted only a year or so, but I do remember it was a mighty short time before we back to the OLD and still used transfer with its limitations designed to have you pay full fare TWICE. However, today’s day pass provides a good value and benefits (for multiple transfers, anyway) , so we do have something like that.

    Once again, there are hardly any “new” ideas or innovations that LA transit agencies haven’t tried, but too many newbies to LA don’t know that.

  15. @Bobby McGee
    When Metro did away with transfers and went to its current fare system, all they did was apply what NY was doing because “anything that NY does, it has to be good,” neverminding the fact that LA is very different from NY.