Los Angeles Plans to Reboot Its Bus System
And they plan to do it using cell phone data. Never before have so many unknowingly contributed to such a positive and beneficial plan. The problem? Bus ridership has declined harshly, not just in Los Angeles, but nationwide. Specifically, that’s a drop of 36% this decade with most cities experiencing similar declines. So the 2300 buses that run the 73,000,000 miles each year in Los Angeles are struggling to keep up.
There are some shining moments. Like the Orange Line that carries more than 20,000 people every weekday. Orange Line is fast because it is a street protected from traffic. A dedicated road that has its own timed intersection light system that keeps buses running more and waiting less. The gray buses are also different. Sixty feet long, they travel from the northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley to the North Hollywood Metro station, doing the 18 miles (with stops) in about an hour. Touted to be “the country’s best example of bus rapid transit,” it combines “the best features of a trolley line with the relative cheapness of a bus.”
Hoard of Failure
So one success story amidst a hoard of failure. Why? Maybe it is the economy? People have switched to services like Uber because they can. Although those Uber riders may well reflect cars in the garage awaiting the weekend trip. Maybe. Or perhaps because car loans are cheap and easy and Car Max guarantees you won’t get ripped off by the dealer, more people are buying cars and fewer people are riding buses.
You would think, with all the 4 or 5 mile an hour traffic (405), there would be fewer people in their cars and more on the buses. But the bus depends so much on the starting point and the destination. If you have to drive to the bus stop to start, and take a taxi from the bus stop to work, the whole situation is unpleasant. Cato Institute says public transit makes sense only when one central area in a city has most of the jobs, and anywhere else it’s too slow and too expensive.
Start and Stop Traffic
In fact, the start and stop is really where the system hurts the most. And it is also where cell phone data might help to reshape the system. Adam Rogers, in Wired’s Transportation section, says, “LA is talking about scrapping the system and starting over, the first radical revamp since rail came back to town. To figure out how to do it right, all the city’s transit planners need is location data from about 5 million cell phones.”
Gathering the data, they discovered that besides the typical peak from 7-9 am and from 3-6 pm, there was a midday peak of people avoiding the rush to run errands. Conan Cheung, in charge of the Metro’s NextGen study says, “…Metro’s whole approach turned out to be skewed to the wrong kinds of trips. Traditionally we’re trying to provide fast service for long-distance trips. That’s something the Orange Line and trains are good at. But the cell phone data showed that only 16 percent of trips in LA County were longer than 10 miles. Two-thirds of all travel was less than five miles. Short hops, not long hauls, rule the roads.”
Speed and Size
So the best way to encourage people to use the bus for those short run errand trips is through speed. The NextGen study compared the time for the transit system against the same trip through Google Maps. 85% of the trips could go Metro. But less than half were as fast as driving. Trips that took 2.5 times longer on a bus were the killer. “At that point, all we’re carrying are people who have no choice but to ride transit,” he explains. “If we want to attract people who have a choice, we cannot be that slow.”
The story is not complete. Add to the general mix of buses and cars, the push for autonomous driver vehicles. Instead of a 60 passenger bus, we have 2-4 passenger vehicles that can economically make the short-hop trips that are so lucrative. There is much the data can tell us. But who’s listening?