How Metro could have even better served 40,000 FYF fans


“Come on everyone, the bus leaves in five minutes,” I said to a group of friends during a pre-party for FYF Fest, held last week at Expo Park.

One friend’s response: “The bus? Is Uber running a big shuttle?”

Needless to say, he didn’t follow me to the bus stop. As I boarded, I wondered how much L.A. County residents and taxpayers actually knew about the bus service that they help fund.

We were headed to the Metro 200 bus, which runs from Echo Park to Expo Park along Alvarado and Hoover. And, yet, despite the fact that the route is perfectly designed to deliver hipsters in hordes to FYF, there were plenty of open seats.

Honestly, I can’t be surprised. I’ve been working at one of the largest transit agencies in the U.S. for a while now and I know the trends. And the fact is there are a lot of people who don’t consider the bus, even when the service pretty much matches their needs.

It’s a big, big issue requiring innovative thought and a grasp of transit fundamentals as cities continue to grow and expand. The Expo Line clearly served FYF pretty well, but cities can only fund and build so many rail lines and there were plenty of bus options for FYF. If it’s not going to be the bus for some people, then it has got to be something else.

Back to my group of friends. Of the 20 people at the pre-party, about half followed me to the bus. The other half stayed behind and called an Uber or Lyft.

Here’s a rough comparison of cost and time required for these trips over the two days of FYF:


Taking the bus saved each rider $31.40 dollars, but cost them each an hour of total festival time. The Uber riders saved that hour, but paid $31.40 for it. For context, $31.40 an hour adds up to a salary of $65,312, assuming a 40-hour week. In plain English: I suspect $31.40 is not insignificant to most people, my friends included.

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 4.00.11 PMUber isn’t always as expensive as in this scenario, and the bus isn’t always this convenient. But there’s still a lot to unpack here. In this situation, everyone clearly understood the merits of the bus, but half the group still chose to pay far more — for relatively little in time savings. They just couldn’t shake some underlying skepticism about the bus. Was it from a prior bad experience or no experience at all? Whatever the reason, on some fundamental level these people had a bias against the bus because ride share, well, they knew. The bus, well, they didn’t.

What happened after the show ended was even more revealing. Uber was literally telling potential customers to choose another option because wait times were so long and surge prices were sky high. But I still saw dozens of people headed into Uber vehicles near Expo Park.

Many people didn’t know where the bus goes, how to pay for it or whether it will even show up — stuff that’s pretty routine for a lot of people who depend on buses every day. The net result: even though the bus was actually a pretty decent option, it failed to get the nod over other options. 

This all offers more questions than answers, but they are important questions. The facts show my experience with FYF wasn’t just an isolated thing. Across the U.S., buses aren’t pulling in masses of riders — not like they used in the past century. 

There has certainly been some research on the topic of the bus stigma and it has been written about in some quarters, the point often being that buses need to be more like trains. But on a local, L.A. level, we still don’t know as much as we would like about the things holding people back from riding buses, i.e. lack of familiarity with the routes, travel time, concerns about safety.

Whatever the answers, we need to do more to understand this dynamic and how we can change it to attract more customers and prove transit has value in their lives. We need to provide better information, and we need transit to be a more familiar cultural phenomenon (like a music festival). For some people, downloading an app for Uber or Lyft is the first time they have ever thought about transportation outside of their personal car. Is the idea of getting in a car with a total stranger really that much less challenging than the idea of riding a bus?

We’ll be completely honest. Metro’s innovation office doesn’t have the answers yet. But in our first year of existence, we’ve spent a lot of time digging around this issue, both internally and externally. Moving forward, we join our many colleagues at Metro interested in making the bus system easier to understand, faster and more efficient. Because there are already no shortage of times when the bus is competitive with car travel in terms of price and time.

Nolan Borgman is a Metro Fellow/Transportation Planner in Metro’s Office of Extraordinary Innovation

23 replies

  1. Something I’m surprised no one has mentioned thus far is the inconvenience of paying for a bus fare in the current system, especially for first-time transit users and/or younger people who typically don’t carry cash. Uber/Lyft readily accepts credit/debit. Metro does, but only in very limited locations — at TVMs at Rail and BRT stations.

    LADOT is trying great new approaches to make it easier for people to get on their bus – they have an app where riders can pay for their fare and show the driver proof-of-purchase. The app accepts credit or debit cards.

    If I had attended FYF fest and didn’t have cash or a TAP card but still wanted to ride the bus, I would have approached the Expo line ticket vending machines, purchased a TAP card, loaded it with funds (paid with credit/debit) and boarded the bus. But this is an advanced transit rider’s solution.

    Placing ways to purchase fare media with credit/debit on board Metro buses is expensive and cost-prohibitive. An app is expensive to develop/maintain, but not as expensive as physical equipment upgrades. Or, is there a way to upgrade the existing TAP system and make it available to smartphones? Have an app that turns a smart phone into a TAP card (e.g. FareBot does this with San Francisco’s Clipper cards), and have the TAP website configured to allow immediate purchases of digital TAP cards. Load the digital TAP card to your phone, and either TAP with NFC or show the driver.

  2. The cost comparison fails to account for the greater uncertainty of metro trips. On average, each trip may be only 15 minutes, but by taking metro you run the risk of the bus being full, breakdowns, some incident on the bus requiring the sheriffs, etc.

    Every time you take metro there’s a chance of arriving VERY VERY late. That risk doesn’t exist with Uber.

  3. First of all, I think most people would prefer an Uber to a bus even if they were the SAME amount of time. With UberPool, the price difference is not all that much. LA just doesn’t have the density to support London/NYC levels of good bus service, I suppose. I think what you need are bus lines to change the equation… ie make driving slower and make buses faster. That’s waht other cities do.

  4. The RTD used to provide extra service to Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Los Alimitos race tracks. As I recall there is no extra bus service from the Hollywood Christmas Parade any longer. These services as well as others were discontinued by the MTA. The MTA is not interested in providing antiquate service on a regular basis let alone for special events. The agency by in large now makes decisons based on standard practices instead of common sense and expertise.

  5. Maybe the biggest problem with the bus at FYF was that the bus service wasn’t augmented for the festival as far as I could tell. The number one thing to do if you want people to take a bus to arrive/leave a festival is to make sure you don’t have 20 minute headways. My fiance and I are transit-dependent, we know the system and would’ve taken the 204 north from FYF, but again—20 minute headways. I understand why (it costs money to pay for extra bus driver shifts), but again, if the point is to provide augmented service for an event, then you might have to run a loss for the night if the goal is to have more first-time users ride the bus. We ended up having to take Expo to La Brea and to call a Lyft from there.

    Honestly, oftentimes people bemoan the cultural obstacles to expanded bus ridership while failing to understand that if better service was provided to the existing Metro users, the benefits would begin to be apparent to non-users. As mentioned by other commenters, this isn’t a problem that needs extraordinary innovation, rather better service and more investment would go a long way here. It’s kind of like education–there’s an entire reform movement that tangles itself up in knots over innovation when the real problem is just a simple disinvestment in the system. Increased service, increased maintenance, being able to build bus shelters and then actually building them, all-door boarding, etc. These are the nuts and bolts we need first.

    • Of course, Metro Rail now runs on 20 minute headways after 9 pm (down from 12 minutes or less prior to June). Unfortunately, without the added money from the tax increase, there is a real concern about what service you want to “thin” or cut to pay for more frequent service in the core. For example, Metro has many 40-60 minute bus lines in the San Fernando Valley and the South Bay on the major arterials, in car dominant areas. Or, you could raise fares to our peers (which would mean keeping the monthly pass at $100, but maybe paying a base fare of $2.25 or $2.50, and doubling or tripling the low senior/disabled off peak fare) but that would scare off even more riders.

  6. Going to a festival by bus makes perfect sense. How to get the proper incentive to have people to do so is the major hurdle. Now leaving a festival and taking the bus? Good luck. Those waits if Metro is not on time are amplified by ten. After standing, screaming, cheering, drinking, etc….. Thats a tough sell.

    I could imagine that Metro can do a better job to inform people about their app. One detractor would be that if the wait is more than ten minutes, Uber and Lyft have small ads on the app itself. It would maybe do metro good to set up a shuttle so that people SEE the bus when they leave, or work out a way to let people ride free with their ticket, and take it up with the vendor to divy out the cost.

    I’m sure if Metro told attendees they could ride any Metro bus or train with their tickets, you’d have their minds in that frame as soon as they purchased. It would make it too easy to just rally a group a say “we could just take the bus their and back.”

    Another question would be: Is Metro prepared to handle THAT mess? : D

  7. I would love it if all buses in LA had instructions on the outside of the bus, and the route somewhere very visible. Many of the buses I see have the final destination only on the front of the bus, and I need to whip out my phone to figure out where it’s going and at what times.

  8. This reminds me of George Bush scratching his head and wondering, “why do they all hate us?”

    I don’t think it takes a PhD dissertation to reveal why people don’t like riding buses in Los Angeles.

    1) It’s unpleasant. Bus interiors do not seem designed to be attractive in the way that train interiors are. I hate to say it, but Metro buses feel uncomfortable, they often smell bad, and they do not give the impression of being terribly safe. Bus stops are not well-maintained in the way that rail stations are.

    2) It’s infrequent and unreliable. You can show up at a metro rail station without any advance planning, and be relatively sure a train will come within 10-15 minutes at the most. Buses come far less frequently. Too many are at 30-minute intervals or worse during non-peak hours, and non-peak hours are when people often use Uber or Lyft. If you really need to say “Come on everyone, the bus leaves in five minutes,” you probably had to plan in advance and study the system a lot more than for the train or for Uber/Lyft. Furthermore, under these conditions, any bus trip requiring a transfer becomes hopelessly impractical unless you really know what you are doing.

    Moral to the story: if those who are not transit-dependent are to ride buses more, buses will need to be more pleasant environments (there are numerous cities in the world that manage to do this well), and run frequently and reliably.

    I’m sorry to sound cynical, but I don’t think that this is a question whose answer requires Extraordinary Innovation. A bit of best practices would do just fine.

    • Good point. Go to most major cities and you’ll find routes which operate every 10 or 15 minutes during peak hours do not fall off the cliff and run hourly after 8 pm, like so many Metro routes do.

    • I tend to agree with this. The buses need to run more frequently on off-peak hours, and the bus stops need to be nicer. The best bus stops I’ve ever seen are in London. They tend to have covered seating, and real-time bus arrival info, and a map (not just of the bus routes that stop at that stop, but of the routes of all the buses that stop within walking distance of that stop). Imagine a map like this at every Metro bus stop:

      I think the worst part of the problem is that a lot of reasons people don’t ride the bus are out of Metro’s hands. Metro can’t single-handedly take a city that’s largely been either designed or re-purposed with the single-occupant automobile in mind and make it into a dense, walkable, transit-friendly environment. Metro can’t change the zoning code, or get rid of parking minimums, or raise the gas tax, or implement congestion pricing. All of these things would make Los Angeles more bus-friendly, but the powers that be in city government don’t necessarily have the same livable-cities goals that Metro seems to have. Plus Metro’s budget is pretty limited, and most of our transportation tax dollars get used to make driving more convenient rather than improve transit. So does the problem require “Extraordinary Innovation?” Probably not. But the real solutions are going to take a long time, so it doesn’t hurt to have people trying to be creative in the meantime.

  9. I’ve in Los Angeles all my life, 71 years, and remember the great transit system we had as a child. I also spent thirty-one years working first for the RTD and after the merger , the MTA.

    For those who are unfamiliar with the former RTD and Los Angeles County Transportation Commission they were the two agencies that were merged to form the new MTA, there was a MTA previous to the RTD. The RTD was a operating agency while the LACTC was a funding agency that was constantly at odds with the RTD. The RTD would improve service and the LACTC would threaten to withhold funding if service was not cut back. With improved service ridership would increase which would mean more funds going to the RTD which the LACTC opposed because it would take away money from their none transportation pet programs. With the merger this philosophy became part of the MTA agenda. The former LACTC employees didn’t want anything to do with those from the former RTD. In fact to this day there are still former LACTC employees still in their former headquarters at 818 W. Seventh St. some twenty years later. If one works in operations; radio room, operating divisions, etc., employees are forbidden from answering the phone MTA or Metropolitan Transportation Authority. They must answer the phone Metro Bus or Metro Rail. Service has continually been cut with serviceable buses sitting unused in the closed Long Beach facility. Layover, off street facilities, have been redesigned resulting insufficient room for buses scheduled at these facilities plus in the case of Pico and Rimpau subjecting passengers to long walks from MTA buses to catch Big Blue buses and standing in the sun or rain where previously there was only a few steps to transfer buses under a covered boarding area.

    Both Art Lehehy (sp) and his wife were terminated shortly after the merger. They had both risen thru the ranks and were experts in public transit. Several years later Art was re-hired as the CEO. He started to attempt to bring some professionalism to the agency again only to have his contract not renewed. He didn’t go far. He was immediately hired by Metro Link whose administrative offices are in the MTA building as their new CEO.

    The only two light Rail Lines that share tracks are the Blue Line and the Expo Line. Due to poor planning trains entering and exiting Seventh and Flower Station is chaotic. The answer they are putting forth is the Downtown Connection. It will tie in the Blue Line with the Gold Line going to Pasadena and the Expo Line with the East L.A. segment of the Gold Line severing the Gold Line near little Tokyo. It has now been revealed this will not solve the problem and may in fact cause more problems. While working at the MTA on more than one occasion new programs and proposals to solve problems were presented with little thought which had to be shot down due to common sense proved they were unworkable. Which brings up a interesting problem as I see it with connecting the Blue Line and Expo Lines with the Gold Line. The proposed Blue Line / Gold Line have two large storage yards for the rail cars. The Blue Line is in North Long Beach and the Gold Line has a new one in Monrovia. There is no problem there. But the Expo Line / Gold Line only has a very small storage yard in Santa Monica that barely accommodates the current cars on the Expo Line. Where are they going to store the rest of the cars? With the severed Gold Line, the old storage yard adjacent to the L.A. River in Lincoln Heights will be inaccessible.

  10. If Metro seriously wants to ‘innovate’ and lure the interests and loyalty of Uber customers then somehow you need to adopt and employ the concept of ‘on demand’ service. Otherwise you’re just kidding yourselves if you expect a chance with that generation of consumers.

  11. I wonder if we can amend the requirements for event permits to mandate that Metro can exercise an option to insert messaging on tickets (or the equivalent web page) and on the loudspeaker. We see our police as part of crowd control operations, why not bring Metro alongside as appropriate?

  12. They also didn’t promote riding the bus to the festival at all. It was all focused on the extra Expo trains. So maybe just a simple tweet of all the buses in the area that one could have used to make the trip could also work.

  13. Lovely article and observation. Sadly, I agree with Bob, there have been far too many events where there just isn’t a Metro personnel presence. Sure, we need to change the stigma, and the added rail lines are doing that, but having someone guide the ignorant helps IMMENSELY.

  14. The biggest thing that I take away from this article is pretty typical Metro. Apparently no one was at FYF to help people figure out how to ride the bus. Nobody selling pre-board tickets, giving directions, etc.

    • The busses are supposed to work without a team of staffers explaining the service to people, in person, at each stop.
      Adding a ton of staff to give people information for a few large events may pay off in the long term, but we live in the information age.

      Somehow Angelinos who are perfectly informed and capable and rational about money in all other contexts become helpless and frightened at the thought of taking the bus.

      Nolan – I wonder if people who have taken the bus to attend LAUSD schools are more or less likely to want to continue taking buses after they graduate. That agency could be alienating people early on.

      Also, would you mind publishing some of the data you found – even the false starts would be handy to know so we can adjust our feedback accordingly. Major thanks!

  15. In LA, unlike SF, riding the bus is thought declasse, low class, vulgar, much like wearing a dirty t-shirt and old worn jeans to a party.
    Transit usage is also associated with poverty, which many attribute to moral failure.