“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.
Uber 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.
Categories: Office of Extraordinary Innovation