In one sense, 2020 was the toughest of years for mass transit across the United States. Lives were lost. At LA Metro and across the nation, ridership plummeted due to safer-at-home orders. Service was reduced and — depending on location — restored to varying degrees. Agencies’ finances were upended. I think the above video, which we posted March 31, says it all.
Even the phrase mass transit came into question. In 2020 ‘essential transit’ is perhaps the best way to describe what Metro and other bus and rail agencies do.
On the other hand, this was also a year that illuminated the critical importance of transit. While many workers and students stayed home, hundreds of thousands of essential workers, many with no other mobility choice, continued to take buses and trains to essential jobs and other important destinations.
Frontline workers at so many transit agencies showed — I can’t think of a better word — heroic levels of courage and mettle in keeping so many buses and trains running in the face of an invisible threat, the coronavirus. Two Metro employees and one contractor perished this year due to COVID-19 and hundreds of others missed some work due to contracting COVID-19, caring for family members or being quarantined.
And yet, day after day, week after week, month after month, the buses and trains have kept on rolling.
I am well aware from reader/rider comments on this blog and social media that things were less than ideal at times. But running as much service as we managed was, I think, an accomplishment that should be lauded.
To keep a very long story short, I’ll break down Metro’s pandemic response this year into three bullet points:
•After initially reducing service levels to about 70 percent of normal in the spring, Metro in June restored some service and has been running about 80 percent of our normal service since — for about 50 percent of our usual ridership. On Dec. 13 we began implementing our NextGen Bus Plan to provide more frequent service and modify routes to better serve today’s travel patterns.
•In terms of safety, the agency is requiring face coverings for all riders and employees on the system (except those who can’t wear a face covering for medical reasons). The agency has acquired more than a million pieces of personal protection equipment. We’ve also stepped up cleaning regimens and are working to ensure adequate ventilation. Since March, we’ve limited boarding on buses to rear door only to help limit exposure of our bus operators, who also work behind protective barriers. We continue to ask bus riders to carry a valid fare.
•Even with financial challenges, Metro has managed to avoid layoffs or furloughs this year (the agency did offer a buyout program that a small number of employees took). As for Metro’s finances, sales tax revenues — of which the agency is heavily dependent — declined two percent in the fiscal year that ended this past July 1 and were down three percent in the first quarter of this fiscal year.
Metro has also lost $125 million to $130 million in fare revenues. Metro ultimately received $772.6 million in CARES Act funding and will receive money from the second pandemic stimulus bill recently approved by Congress. Long story short: like many transit agencies, we’re not out of the woods, although we’ve kept much of our service intact and hav kept our Measure M program on track.
Ultimately there’s no way of ignoring the pandemic, which loomed over everything in 2020. That said, Metro made progress on a number of projects that will benefit riders and our county when life returns to normal. Here are a few of the highlights from 2020:
•As mentioned above, the NextGen Bus Plan was approved by the Metro Board of Directors in October after more than two years of work and community input. The plan focuses on establishing high frequency, easy to understand and high quality transit corridors across the Metro network matched to the travel patterns of LA County.
NextGen has been in the works for nearly three years and is the most sweeping overhaul of the Metro bus system in 25 years. Under the new plan — to be implemented in stages, beginning earlier this month December — buses will arrive every five to 10 minutes for 83 percent of current riders compared to around 48 percent today.
The plan is to add service as demand grows so that we can return to pre-COVID-19 service levels. We may not yet be at the total amount of service NextGen envisions. But we think the plan offers a great foundation for the future and that riders will experience the benefits right now.
The maps below show the difference between the frequency of Metro’s current service and what is planned under NextGen. The differences are most pronounced during the midday hours — a time when many members of the public said they wanted more service.
•Construction was (and is) an essential activity during the pandemic and work continued in 2020 on the four Measure R and M rail projects under construction. A quick roundup:
–In June, Metro’s contractor completed the decking for the Purple (D Line) Extension’s Wilshire/Rodeo station in Beverly Hills seven months ahead of schedule. Reduced traffic due to the pandemic allowed the city of Beverly Hills to close all lanes on Wilshire to accommodate the work.
Work continues on all three segments of the project. The first segment between Wilshire/Western and Wilshire/La Cienega is about 65 percent complete, the second section to Century City is 38 percent done and section three to the Westwood/VA Hospital is 15 percent done. We also posted this fun video on the fossils found during work on the project:
–In October, work began on the second entrance to the Regional Connector tunnel in Little Tokyo. The existing Little Tokyo station will be replaced a new underground station on the west side of Alameda Street. The Connector will use a pair of 1.9-mile tunnels under DTLA to tie together the A Line (Blue), E Line (Expo) and L Line (Gold) for faster trips to and through DTLA with fewer transfers. Metro Art in September debuted a new photography exhibit in the Union Station Passageway Art Gallery with some great pics of Connector work by the photographer Ken Karagozian (and documentation of other Metro projects over three decades). The project is now 71 percent complete with a forecast opening of late 2022.
•The Crenshaw/LAX Transit Project is now 97 percent complete and aiming toward an opening in 2021 at a date to be determined. During early testing this year, trains first crossed the 405 in February and trains reached Crenshaw Boulevard in November — the first time a train had run on Crenshaw since the streetcars’ demise in the 1950s.
•Early construction work on the L Line (Gold) extension to Glendora, San Dimas, La Verne and Pomona continued. The project is being built by the Foothill Gold Line Construction Authority and will be operated by Metro.
•In response to widespread demonstrations in the L.A. region (and across the world) in the spring over the killing of George Floyd by police in Minnesota and other acts of police brutality, the Metro Board approved several motions to improve Metro’s equity efforts, including a reevaluation of the agency’s use-of-force policy and a Mutual Aid policy that allowed the police to use Metro buses to transport people arrested at protests. Please see the top of this post.
Metro also invited the public to apply for membership in a new Public Safety Advisory Committee that will advise Metro on ways to reimagine security on the Metro system to address the needs of all riders.
Protests and curfews triggered some detours for Metro bus and rail service. Most notably, Metro ended service several hours early on the night of May 30 to protect riders and employees. And we found ourselves posting this type of info to our social media streams:
•The long-awaited new platform at Union Station for the J Line (Silver) and several other bus lines (including Foothill Transit’s Silver Streak) opened in November. The Patsaouras Bus Plaza gives riders a shorter and safer walk to Union Station — and the elevated passageway is an artwork courtesy of a collaboration between artist Ned Kahn and the architectural engineering team. Check out the video below:
•This fall Metro began opening a Customer Center, Transit Hub and Mobility Center at Willowbrook/Rosa Parks Station. The Customer Center also included a new artwork by George Evans that features prominent people who built and guided the community (the first pic in the gallery below).
•The first electric bus debuted on the G Line (Orange) in August and 50 percent of the buses on the line are now electric-powered — good progress toward making the line fully electric.
•In May, Metro announced that the Transit app would be the agency’s new official app for smartphones. Transit offered improvements when it came to navigation, real-time arrival info and service alerts. A feature that predicted crowding levels on buses was added later in the year.
•Virtual TAP cards for recent edition iPhones and Apple Watches became a reality in early September, allowing riders to use their phones as a contactless way to purchase and validate fares for buses and trains. The virtual TAP cards are coming to Android-powered phones in 2021.
TAP is now available in Apple Wallet! Add your TAP card to iPhone or @Apple Watch for a safer, faster, and more convenient way to ride throughout LA County. #applepay https://t.co/aK3VQiRpBL pic.twitter.com/S6j8uOjuz4
— LA Metro (@metrolosangeles) September 3, 2020
•In late October, Metro, L.A. County and the SEED Foundation held a groundbreaking for the SEED School of L.A County at Vermont and Manchester in South L.A. SEED LA will focus on serving the most at-risk and resilient students and prepare them for college and beyond — including careers in transportation. Housing, retail and public space will also be built — a nice transformation for a lot that has been empty since the early ’90s.
•In late August, Metro CEO Phil Washington announced he was launching the Fareless System Initiative to study the possibility of Metro going fareless for riders. Here’s a Q&A on the effort. A report to the Metro Board is expected in early 2021.
“LA Metro has a moral obligation to pursue a fareless system and help our region recover from both a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and the devastating effects of the lack of affordability in the region,” Phil said. “Fare-free transit will help essential workers, moms and dads, students, seniors and riders with disabilities. I view this as something that could change the life trajectory of millions of people and families in L.A. County, the most populous county in America.”
•In September, the Metro Art team oversaw the installation of the vibrant artwork by Ingrid Calame at Leimert Park Station on the Crenshaw/LAX Transit Project; see the pic below. And later in the fall, a striking new artwork by Sonia Romero was installed at the L Line’s Mariachi Plaza Station; see the vid below.
•The Metro Micro on-demand service launched Dec. 13 in two service areas — LAX/Inglewood and Watts/Willowbrook. The service uses small vehicles to provide short rides and fares are currently $1 per ride. Service is scheduled to expand to more areas in 2021.
•Remember what it was like to hear music played in person? The final Metro Art Presents performance of the year was March 6 when the Healing Gems performed at Union Station.
Once the pandemic settled upon our region, Metro Art pivoted to a series of digital offerings, including livestreamed concerts and DJ sessions, a Sunday evening sound bath, poetry readings, a salsa dance class as a hat tip to our popular annual Salsa Night at Union Station and even a debut six-episode radio series, Deep Routes with dublab. Check out the videos at the Metro Art IGTV archive or listen to a new Kiss 2020 Goodbye playlist.
•In December, the Metro Board approved the Final Environmental Impact Report for the project that will build a light rail between Van Nuys and the Sylmar/San Fernando Metrolink Station. That’s a big step toward actual construction. More on the project in the video below.
•Over the summer, Metro led the successful creation and release of a Predevelopment Agreement for the Sepulveda Transit Corridor project to build a high-capacity transit line between Van Nuys, the Westside and eventually LAX. Metro received strong responses from firms bidding to help accelerate the project. The PDA is first of its kind in the nation and it positions Metro to deliver a mega-project with private sector partners. Project staff will will return with a recommendation to the Metro Board in 2021.
Honestly, that’s just a sampling menu of the year at Metro. We look forward to bringing more agency news in the year ahead.
To all our readers: thank you for riding and reading this past year. On behalf of everyone at Metro, we thank you for your patronage, feedback (good and not as good) and your taxpayer dollars. Please stay safe, stay alive and we wish everyone the best in 2021!