Here's LA Metro's Plan To Get You Out Of Your Car And On A Bus

(Courtesy L.A. Metro via Flickr)

How can the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority get more people to take the bus? Two years ago, the agency launched an ambitious study to answer that question.

This month, Metro unveiled the strategy borne out of that study, dubbed the NextGen Bus Plan. The agency will spend the next year sharing and refining that plan with the public — and its board of directors — as it works to basically redraw the region's bus service through the next decade.

Metro's goal is to redesign its bus service to be faster and more frequent so it's competitive with driving a personal vehicle.

Tied to that goal is a benchmark to "assure service is no more than 2.5x slower than driving," officials said. In other words, if your trip by car takes about 20 minutes, Metro's wants you to have a bus trip option that would get you to your destination in 50 minutes or less.

To clarify, "competitive" does not mean trying to be as fast or faster than driving yourself. It means trying to bring those trip times closer together.

This massive undertaking is an effort to curb years of falling ridership. From 2009 through 2019, bus trips on the system fell roughly 25%, according to the agency's data. Metro's rail system gets a lot more public attention, but the agency's bus fleet accounts for nearly 75% of the agency's total ridership.

Passengers board Metro's 351 bus to Compton Station in downtown Los Angeles. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

There are a variety of factors that are influencing that decline, but there's a vicious, paradoxical cycle at the heart of the issue: more L.A. County residents are buying and driving cars, which makes traffic worse, which makes buses stuck in that traffic slower and less reliable, which entices bus riders to drive cars for the perceived convenience, which makes traffic worse. *sharp inhale*

Our traffic tribulation is costing Metro a lot of money, and the agency knows simply adding more buses won't help.

According to Stephen Tu, director of service planning and deputy project manager for the NextGen Bus Plan, Metro spends an extra $10 million each year to provide "the same level of service to the customer, just in a slower environment."

"We don't want to just add more buses to a congested network so all the buses are sitting in traffic," Tu told LAist this week.

Logistically, Metro's plan is looking to improve speed, reliability, bus stop access, wait times, boarding and riding. On a human level, Metro is focusing its plan on people who take shorter trips (one to five miles), especially midday or in the evening. Officials say making bus riding easier for those commuters is the greatest opportunity to grow ridership.

"Nearly half of all trips taken in L.A. County are only between one and five miles," Tu said, but only 2% of that share of county commuters take Metro. If the agency can make those one-to-five-mile bus trips more tantalizing and grow that share to 6%, Tu said that would add half a million new trips — basically doubling Metro's ridership.

(Courtesy L.A. Metro via Flickr)

MORE SERVICE, FEWER STOPS

So how will the transit agency get there? Metro's basic gameplan: run buses more frequently (to arrive every five to ten minutes) on more streets and reduce trip times by making fewer stops along those routes.

A typical Metro bus route has a stop every 0.15 miles on average, according to Tu. The plan is to up that average to 0.25 miles. That means a slightly longer walk for a portion of riders — about three minutes on average compared to the current two-minutes — but a shorter total trip time, Metro projects.

Tu said that, based on the public feedback his team has been getting in two years of study, that's a tradeoff people are willing to make, adding that many of Metro's 14,000 bus stops are "underutilized."

Just 8% of Metro's 14,000 bus stops account for about 60% of total boardings, he said.

"What ends up happening is if [stops are] only several hundred feet apart, you have a bus full of passengers who are having to pull over every several hundred feet," Tu explained. "And that significantly increases the onboard time for folks who are not using that stop. So what we heard during the public outreach process... was that people were willing to accept a slightly longer walk in exchange for a faster door-to-door trip time."

But more service doesn't necessarily mean more buses on the streets. Metro will explore how to combine its local and rapid bus services on routes those two lines share.

Tu said that road delays are causing both buses to bunch up, leading to longer wait times before the next bus reaches riders. Riders are then taking whichever bus get to them first, which means Metro is basically "competing with ourselves," he said.

Right now, fewer than half of Metro bus riders have access to all-day service every five to 10 minutes via 16 major routes, officials said. Expanding that service level to 29 major routes would increase that access to 83% of riders, according to the agency.

This slide from an L.A. Metro presentation on the NextGen Bus Plan shows the transit agency's goal for a faster bus system. (Courtesy L.A. Metro)

The realignment plan won't be good news for everyone, though. Tu said an estimated " 0.1% of today's riders" will lose service as Metro discontinues certain routes.

"That means that 99.9% of today's riders are going to have access to either our service, or a municipal transit partner that will be assuming service on that corridor," he said.

So how much will it cost to reach this better bus world? At least $1 billion, according to Metro. A five-year capital campaign is expected to kick off in July of this year.

WAIT TIMES, SAFETY AND BUS-ONLY LANES

The NextGen project is part of the agency's overall approach to improving equity among its riders, particularly women, who face "outsized burdens and risks" on Metro's system, according to a different recent study. Women surveyed in that study said they felt safer riding the bus than they did waiting for the bus, so decreasing wait times could help address some of women's safety concerns (other safety concerns remain).

Tu said Metro is exploring ways to increase all-door boarding to reduce the amount of time buses spend at the curb.

The plan also calls for better signal prioritization for buses at intersections and more bus-only lanes to speed up service, like the much-lauded Flower Street project.

One big challenge for Metro — "one of our greatest," Tu said: how do buses turn around at the end of the line? Narrow residential streets, noise issues and a lack of restrooms for bus drivers all hamper a quick, easy U-ey, so the agency is looking for ways to make that process more efficient, too.

"We end up spending a lot of time traveling out of direction just to get a bus turned around, Tu said. "That's wasted service that cannot be used for customers."

If you want to learn more and chime in on Metro's plan, its staff are holding a series of public workshops from February to early April. The agency will also publish individual route sheets so riders can easily see proposed changes for specific bus lines. Those are expected to be available on Metro's NextGen Bus Plan webpage starting Feb. 1.

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