California Chooses Flashy Projects Over Quality Transit

High Speed Rail

By focusing on rider needs and growing ridership, California can still create a safe, cost-effective – and economically useful – public transportation network.

(Image Courtesy California High-Speed Rail Authority)

Do California government officials want more public transit riders? If the decades-long decline of even local public transit ridership or the state’s continued funding of its infamous $113 billion and counting fantasy train from Los Angeles to San Francisco is any indication, the answer is a regretful no. By focusing on rider needs and growing ridership, California can still create a safe, cost-effective – and economically useful – public transportation network.

Cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco have poured billions of dollars into new public transit systems while pre-pandemic populations continued to grow. Despite these investments and growth in potential riders, ridership in these cities – along with most major U.S. cities as a whole – has been in decline for years, a trend that long preceded the pandemic.

Growing adoption of climate action plans induced cities and states to spend billions of dollars on “green” public transit to replace car trips. Officials must now take the time to recognize why ridership is in a freefall and rationalize how these projects are going to attract new riders. After all, a $10 billion rail line that fails to generate more than a handful of users is an environmental and financial negative, especially after accounting for the opportunity cost from not funding other projects.

In sprawling Los Angeles, for example, pre-pandemic weekday LA Metro ridership had already declined from 1.4 million in January of 2009 to 1.2 million by February of 2020, dropping to just 363,000 two months later. Weekday ridership has since recovered to 780,000 by the end of 2022, but that’s still only two-thirds of pre-pandemic ridership in a city with a population that has remained more or less stable since 2020.

According to a 2019 University of Kentucky analysis, pre-pandemic declines – especially the sharp decline from 2015 to 2018 – were driven by competition from new transportation options such as ride-sharing apps, bike-shares and app-enabled electric bikes and scooters. Extremely low interest rates turbocharged venture capital firms with cheap cash, allowing them to subsidize these public transit competitors to such a degree that they became affordable, timesaving alternatives that urban dwellers were eager to adopt.

What about the incomplete recovery since the lockdown months of COVID-19? Some of the more common explanations for ridership declines obscure the fact that the average LA Metro rider earns less than $50,000 and works in a service, retail or manufacturing job. The typical rider uses the system to commute an hour each way simply because it is the most-affordable option. This means the rise in remote work likely only had a marginal effect on ridership.

The same can be said about car ownership. Car registrations also declined between 2019 and 2020 while remaining stable into 2021, so it doesn’t appear as if people purchasing cars drove this decline either. Transit users simply started using cars they already owned for more trips. Transit-riding concerns — whether from COVID-19 or skyrocketing violent crime on LA Metro — meant they valued their health and safety over the greater cost of car usage.

LA Metro made riding free for nearly 22 months to prop up this falling ridership. It’s likely this policy – which turned the system into a mobile homeless shelter, psychiatric ward, drug den and armed free-for-all where any behavior is tolerated – significantly deterred former users who say crime and disorder are keeping them off the buses and trains.

Now that COVID concerns are no longer a top priority for most Americans, officials must focus on reducing the crime and disorder on public transit systems that threaten rider safety if they want to bring these car-owning former users back onto the service. There’s no reason public transit services should not – as a basic foundational principle for encouraging ridership – be able to guarantee riders’ general physical safety.

To not only reach former ridership levels but grow, public transit also must be a clearly superior alternative to driving and privately owned mobility competitors. It needs to be more convenient and affordable. Regardless of whether or not pushing Californians from their cars into public transit will have any impact on the global climate, the reality is federal funding and guidelines mean that cities are going to be significantly expanding their public transit networks to reduce emissions in half by 2030 and potentially to zero by 2050.

This means funding for public transit systems will be available and the government will build and expand them. The question, then, is how to make sure this money is spent effectively and creates systems that people will prefer over driving. Author Matt Yglesias has offered an obvious solution: prioritizing ridership over any other goal such as “small business participation,” “jobs” or “equity.” The role of mass transit should be to move as many people around as possible.

In an era of declining public finances, there is no choice but to maximize cost effectiveness with the end goal of increasing ridership. The obvious starting point is focusing on better customer service in densely populated cities that already have high densities of jobs, residents and amenities.

The biggest questions and price tags surround the regional and statewide infrastructure projects that aim to replace cars or airplanes with trains. That brings us to California’s high-speed rail line that might someday connect Los Angeles to San Francisco. The starter segment – a 119-mile stretch in the sparsely populated and heavily agricultural Central Valley between Bakersfield and Merced – likely won’t be completed until 2030.

The system promised to take riders from Los Angeles to San Francisco in under three hours, but that’s an impossible feat if it makes stops and shares rail with commuter trains as it currently is set to do. Even if it gets going, investing limited state resources into a statewide high-speed rail project is unlikely to generate ridership in proportion to the vast capital required.

Without sufficient ridership, this system won’t generate the promised emissions reductions. Because of its high price and opportunity costs, it is a net negative for the environment, especially when compared to the benefits of building robust transit systems within the state’s largest cities.

The California High Speed Rail Authority unrealistically claims the train will see 117-million rides per year, a number it bases on the assumption it will sell tickets for one-seventh the per-mile cost of Amtrak’s 2007 fares. It also assumes the trains will operate at 85-percent capacity, and double the ridership intensity per mile of Japan’s highly touted bullet train system.

Furthermore, this system of car-less travel is only useful if the train’s destinations already have public transit systems that help people get to their final destination. But even if there were robust public transit networks at either end, why take the train at $86 each way when flying is cheaper, faster and, through the use of sustainable aviation fuel, could be 80 percent “cleaner” than before?

Spending $113 billion for a little-used system is a poor use of public resources. Aside from temporary construction and contractor jobs, even its economic benefits are not entirely clear.

Today’s approach of building a high-speed rail network before completing a robust, safe and usable local public transportation puts the cart before the horse, saddling Californians with billions in debt and little utility to show for it. Nuts-and-bolts customer-friendly transit must take priority over flashy, headline-grabbing projects – at least if the state is serious about improving transit ridership.

Kenneth Schrupp is a Young Voices contributor writing on the intersection of business, politics and media. He also serves as editor-in-chief of the California Review, an independent journal.


Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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