When Los Angeles shuttered its last streetcar in 1963, the Bay Area was already planting the seeds of BART, the expansive rail system that embodies a common refrain in the longstanding competition between Southern and Northern California: Angelenos are gas-guzzlers stuck in parking-lot traffic, while the Bay Area has built an enviable transit network.
But over the past two and a half years, the Bay Area’s claim to California’s mass transit throne has been deeply eroded, if not undone. L.A. now has more people riding buses, light rails and trains than the Bay Area. And even when accounting for the Bay Area’s far smaller population, L.A.’s per-capita transit ridership temporarily surpassed its Northern California neighbor for the first time in at least two decades.
How big was the turnaround? In 2019, transit riders in six Bay Area counties took 43 million more trips than L.A. County, which is over a third larger by population. But in 2021, Los Angeles racked up over 83 million more transit trips than the Bay Area – a staggering threefold reversal, according to a Bay Area News Group analysis of federal data for the two regions’ largest transit agencies.
It’s a titanic shift starting in the depths of the pandemic that could remake California’s transit landscape. With the Bay Area’s once thriving commuter-heavy trains suffering some of the country’s biggest passenger losses and Los Angeles’ bus riders propelling a surprising ridership recovery in Southern California, the state’s two biggest metro regions are now living test cases for mass transit’s role in a post-pandemic future.
At the heart of the upheaval is a question that will define the state’s transit planning for years to come: Should we continue building pricey rail projects that cater to white-collar commuters who fled public transit or should we invest in the bus riders who never left?
The implications are major, calling into question public transit’s role in the climate change battle and resurfacing long-standing tensions between planning transit for more privileged rail riders over lower-income bus riders.
“What happened in the pandemic is the whole script flipped,” said Brian Taylor, a transportation expert at UCLA.
The driving force behind the Bay Area and L.A.’s current ridership fortunes is not a flourishing mass transit system in Los Angeles. Angelenos did not suddenly ditch their cars for the metro. Instead, it’s a story of two hobbled transit systems clawing back their pre-pandemic riders at vastly different rates. As of June 2022, Los Angeles County has recovered 71% of its ridership compared to 55% in the Bay Area.
Bay Area office workers like Stephen Lanham are behind one of the nation’s worst ridership recoveries as techies, lawyers and financial analysts left transit for the safety of their cars and to work from home.
After years of being a daily BART user, Lanham, an engineer, said goodbye to hopping on trains with strangers when pandemic lockdowns kicked in. “I went two years without riding BART,” said Lanham, who has returned in recent months to riding rail twice a week. Besides his office shifting to remote work, Lanham did not want to risk spreading a COVID-19 infection to his newborn child.
His changing routine is typical. Across the Bay Area’s seven largest rail and bus agencies – including Muni, BART, Caltrain, AC Transit and VTA – riders took 283 million fewer transit rides in 2021 versus 2019. That is 80% higher than 157 million rides lost among Los Angeles County’s main transit operators.
Taylor of UCLA said the wide disparity is because Bay Area transit ridership was so heavily skewed toward commuters heading into buzzing San Francisco office buildings. “The share of trips on BART that began or ended at the four downtown San Francisco stations was going up every year. Right up to the pandemic,” said Taylor. “And then that cut off.”
The collapse in transit focused around downtown San Francisco is so dramatic that Los Angeles’ web of subways and light rails, which is smaller and notoriously lacks an LAX airport connection, is now regularly moving more people than BART for the first time since the Federal Transit Administration started collecting monthly ridership data 20 years ago.
Even as the public health crisis loosens its grip on daily life, downtown San Francisco has one of the lowest office occupancy rates in the nation.
Tech companies like Twitter are downsizing and Etsy shuttered its San Francisco doors altogether. Now the workers that are coming back to the office – and using transit – have by and large reduced their commutes to three days a week or less, according to one employer survey, leading to a cluster of midweek riders.
“It’s so obvious,” said Roger Lai, a rare tech commuter who rides BART five days a week into downtown Oakland. “On Monday and Friday, the train is clear.”
The worst month for public transit ridership since the federal government started keeping score was April 2020. That’s when Caltrain chugged up the Peninsula with 97% fewer passengers, many of them embracing a work-from-home lifestyle of baking sourdough bread and binge-watching Netflix. But in Los Angeles, during the worst of the pandemic lockdowns, over 30% of riders continued to brave the bus.
“People were dropping (from COVID) every day on the news,” said Barbara Lott-Holland an organizer with L.A.’s Bus Riders Union, who remembered stepping onto transit during the early days of the pandemic. “You could actually see the fear on their faces.”
Today, it’s not hard to find a packed bus in Los Angeles. Head to Vermont Avenue in the late afternoon and you will find nurses watching cell phone videos, teachers hauling groceries, and students munching on snacks as Line 754 crawls south from Hollywood.
Bus riders are the passengers that comprised the bulk of L.A.’s transit ridership before the pandemic. Now they’ve come back – and in many cases never left.
L.A.’s three largest bus operators, dominated by L.A. Metro, have a ridership recovery of 74%, which is among the highest rates in the country, outpacing New York City buses and peer bus agencies in the Bay Area. L.A. Metro’s latest budget is predicting a full return to pre-pandemic bus boardings by spring of 2023.
“We heard every month for two years community members saying buses are crowded,” said Jessica Meany, who heads Investing in Place, an L.A.- transit advocacy organization. “But they’re not there because it’s the best product or it works for them. They flat out have no other choice.”
Los Angeles County has some of the poorest public transit riders among metro areas in the country – many of them recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Despite living in a sprawling city built around car ownership, 84% of L.A.’s bus riders did not have car access in 2018. Instead, they often spend hours each day on public transit.
“I can hardly walk,” said Tuesday Millner, 62, after hoisting her walker over the foot-long gap from the sidewalk onto the bus. She echoed an increasingly common complaint in Los Angeles: overcrowded buses are zooming by riders because there is no room for more passengers. “They’ll pass you up in a minute.”
At the heart of the Bay Area and Los Angeles pandemic ridership dynamic are two seemingly bland transit terms: “choice” and “dependent” riders. They touch on deep divisions between transit agencies and advocates over whether public investments should prioritize building a pollution-busting mass transit system to lure car owners into trains or buses that disproportionately serve people with no other option.
Before the pandemic, the Bay Area’s “choice” rider model was a beacon for public transit agencies. On Caltrain, 70% of passengers had household incomes over $100,000. BART amassed 50,000 parking spots to win over suburban commuters heading into the city. And boosted by strong fare revenues, both agencies were among the most self-sufficient in the country.
Los Angeles, meanwhile, built one of the nation’s most wide-reaching transit networks, designed to send thousands of bright orange buses to nearly every nook and cranny of the county. L.A.’s lumbering bus grid might suffer from slow speeds, but it offers transit access to 96% of working-age adults, according to a Brookings Institution study.
As mass transit moves into a long-term ridership downturn, Los Angeles’ vast network of buses might provide a better template for the future of mass transit in California. And thinking among many transit planners is shifting away from laying rail tracks with hopes of luring suburban commuters toward a far less glamorous and far cheaper option: speeding up buses with dedicated lanes.
“There are people whose very livelihood depends on having decent mass transit. That should be the top priority,” said Joshua Schank, L.A. Metro’s first chief innovation officer, now a transportation expert for the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State and UCLA. “Not necessarily investing in major capital projects that will bear fruit 50 years from now.”
Even though the large majority of public transit riders in California are bus riders, funneling money into buses has been an uphill battle jammed with lawsuits and an underlying stigma of bus riding in America that has long led transit planners to favor digging tunnels over prioritizing bus lanes. One 2014 study of transit planning in six regions, including the Bay Area, found that bus riders were an “afterthought.”
And in Los Angeles, bus advocates are far from happy with L.A. Metro’s performance during the pandemic. For Channing Martinez, head of the L.A. Bus Riders Union, the strength of the city’s bus ridership recovery should force the transit agency to double down on increasing bus lines and giving buses priority on traffic-clogged streets. But while L.A. Metro has a long-term plan to increase bus frequency, they’ve slashed bus service this year as the agency struggles with a gaping driver shortage. L.A. Metro’s starting bus operator salary is $20.49 – 20% less than new bus drivers make in Santa Clara County.
“It’s been terrible,” said Martinez.
What does that mean for the future of California’s mass transit network? Long-term planning is largely based on a pricey effort to build rail transit into a pillar of California’s battle against climate change. Massive flows of money from President Joe Biden’s trillion-dollar infrastructure bill and Sacramento’s booming budget could make their way to projects spanning the state’s beleaguered high-speed rail enterprise, extending Caltrain into downtown San Francisco, BART into San Jose, and eventually a second $29 billion train tunnel underneath the San Francisco Bay.
“Should we invest billions of dollars making sure that the system that we build will be usable and relevant? Absolutely,” said Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, a Southern California Democrat who chairs the Assembly’s transportation committee. She said the state needs to be putting more dollars, not less, toward getting car owners to ditch their vehicles for transit that is faster and more comfortable than buses slogging through traffic.
“I think that there are people who don’t want to be seen waiting for a bus,” said Friedman. “So maybe we do need to look at more trolleys and more systems that feel more comfortable for people.”
But Marc Scribner, a transportation analyst at the Reason Foundation in Washington, said mega projects, which were planned long before the pandemic, need to be seriously re-evaluated with post-pandemic realities.
“It only becomes environmentally friendly if you have high occupancies,” said Scribner. “Hint, hint, that second tunnel under the bay is not a good idea.”
Los Angeles also is placing big bets on rail backed by a colossal $120 billion sales tax measure passed in 2016 and a deadline of the 2028 Summer Olympics. The city is making headway on projects pitched as transformative, including a long-promised airport connector and a subway extension into Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles.
For many in Los Angeles, hopes are high that new subway extensions will cement L.A.’s rail lead over the Bay Area 60 years after the demise of the city’s streetcars. “This isn’t a temporary thing. We’ve gone on a building spree that is bar none,” said Eli Lipmen, the executive director at Move L.A., a transit advocacy organization.
But not everyone is as excited. If the Bay Area’s pandemic turn from a buzzing train network into a skeleton of itself serves as a grim model for the future of mass transit, L.A.’s rail buildout may not deliver on its lofty ridership promises either.
“They build transit in areas where wealthy people are but they don’t need it,” said Juan Manuel Villegas who rode L.A.’s B line subway on a recent Thursday. He was tired of being left stranded by infrequent buses while watching billions of dollars go toward new trains heading into Beverly Hills. “They have cars,” Villegas said. “If I miss the last bus, then I wait on the street till the next morning.”