News Analysis

by Drew Phelps

According to a report released last week by the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, low-income residents of Southern California opt to purchase cars once they have the opportunity rather than continue to ride public transit.

The report, which examined the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura and Imperial, found that a majority of public transit riders were lower income and foreign-born immigrants.

However, it also found that, since 2000, car ownership among the general population has increased significantly and those segments that accounted for the most public transit ridership saw a disproportionate increase compared to those across-the-board gains.

SoCal Counties Lose 72 Million Bus Riders a Year

At the same time, transit ridership fell by about 72 million riders annually from 2012 to 2016.

In a statement to the San Diego Union-Tribune, Michael Manville, co-author and professor of urban planning at UCLA put it very simply: “The primary take away is that exploding levels of new automobile ownership is largely incompatible with a lot of transit ridership.”

These trends appear to be similar to those taking place elsewhere, but the report’s authors note that their findings should not be applied to explain those trends in other areas.

However, they do provide some food for thought as Fresno embarks on an expansion of its public transit system in the Q, the new bus rapid transit project. Bus ridership is down 46% from the days when Fresno Area Express totaled nearly 16 million riders a year.

The study’s authors conclude that, in order to improve ridership and offset the losses of the concentrated low-income, immigrant groups, the base of ridership must be expanded.

77% of SoCal Residents Rarely or Never use Public Transit

According to their findings, about 77% of people in the surveyed region ride transit rarely or never.

Rather than trying to regain lost riders, who ride for “high social value” trips, like commuting to work or taking their children to school, it is more practical and feasible to attract more riders who take their cars for “low social value” trips, or trips that are extraneous to everyday living, like going out to eat.

Their solution is simple, but difficult to achieve.

“If one out of every four of those [77% of] people replaced a single driving trip with a transit trip once every two weeks, annual ridership would grow by 96 million – more than compensating for the losses of recent years.”

What Is the Lesson for Fresno?

So, what can Fresno learn?

Tailor this new bus service to everyone, not a certain target population.

This, the study’s authors admit, is an ambitious undertaking, and they offer an extreme option for overcoming the challenge: using policy to make driving more expensive, thus raising the allure of public transit use.

Though sure to be derided by free-market advocates as social engineering, it would likely achieve its goal (though probably creating new issues in the process).

Fresno will likely not have that option unless our city council and mayor want to take the hit at election time, but these results from Southern California tell us that some sort of policy decision will need to be made to expand ridership to a wider group of customers.

To read their full reasoning and conclusions, click here for the report: Falling Transit Ridership

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