Is Metro ridership down because low-income passengers are leaving LA?

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For the last five years, Los Angeles trains and buses have seen an exodus of riders.

Transit officials have provided a number of hypotheses for the ridership dip, from safety concerns to the rise of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.

But another explanation, brought up at a Metro committee meeting last week, could be that low-income passengers can no longer afford to live in areas well-served by trains and buses.

“We know that the housing stock is sort of moving around in the region, and the bus system is staying the same,” Metro CEO JamesGallagher told the agency’s finance, budget, and audit committee. “In areas where we had really good ridership, movement of people out of those areas has reduced ridership.”

The agency is now working on a major overhaul of its bus network, which is in part designed to ensure buses are actually going places riders are trying to get to—and passing through the neighborhoods where they live.

But Denny Zane, director of transportation advocacy group Move LA, tells Curbed he suspects many of Metro’s missing riders have left Los Angeles altogether.

“The low-income ridership base left town,” he says. “They got forced out by [high] rents.”

Population data suggest there has been a demographic shift in LA County since 2014, when Metro ridership began to decline. According to estimates from the Census Bureau, the county lost nearly 80,000 households bringing in under $50,000 per year between 2014 and 2017.

Some of those households may have become more prosperous; others likely moved away.

An annual report on state migration patterns from the California Department of Finance shows that Los Angeles is one of just five counties in the state where the number of people moving out has eclipsed the number moving in for each of the past five years.

That trend could exist for many reasons, but housing costs are a likely contributor. In recent census surveys, 37 percent of those leaving California indicated housing was the primary factor in their decision to leave—more than any other option given.

Zane says that’s a problem for Metro, because residents with high—or even moderate—incomes are far less likely to ride public transit.

In a recent Metro survey of bus riders, just 12 percent of passengers reported having a household income of more than $50,000 per year. Meanwhile, nearly 60 percent had an income under $20,000.

On Metro’s train lines, it’s a slightly different picture. Just over one-third of riders reported household incomes above $50,000 on the same survey. Those earning under $20,000 represented 35 percent of riders.

Coincidentally or not, rail service is what Metro is most aggressively expanding, investing billions of dollars into new and expanded train lines in the coming decades. But even rail ridership declined in 2018, after two years of steady growth following the Westside extension of the popular Expo Line.

Zane isn’t the only one to suggest that migration patterns and the displacement of low-income residents may be contributing to falling ridership.

In a UCLA study released last year, authors analyzed census tracts with high ridership, finding data “consistent with the idea that the people most likely to use transit migrated away from transit-rich areas.”

But the authors also acknowledge that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to measure the true impact of changing neighborhoods on transit ridership, settling on a call for “substantial further research” on the matter.

Metro leaders are also unsure how much rider migration is impacting service.

“This is an issue driving ridership down, but we haven’t spent time analyzing the specifics,” an agency spokesperson tells Curbed via email.

Zane says his biggest concern is ensuring that as Metro struggles to attract new riders, it doesn’t lose focus on serving those who depend on transit as an inexpensive way to get around.

“We should be looking to expand on the existing base,” he says. “Low-income people deserve to have their services protected.”

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