Study: Transit supporters in LA unlikely to use transit themselves

By Chet Edelman

It may sound like an Onion headline, but a new study out of UCLA finds that while a majority of Los Angeles County voters may support transit expansion, they express little desire to ride transit themselves in the future. The study found that voters appear to want transit for reasons other than riding it.

Since 2000, approximately 35 ballot measures have been passed nationwide to raise funds for local transit projects. The largest of those initiatives is Measure M, a half-cent sales tax increase approved by Los Angeles County voters in 2016, slated to raise $120 billion over the next 40 years for a host of multimodal transportation projects across the area. Given the region’s penchant for driving, planners are hoping that a more expansive and reliable transit network will begin to pull people out of their vehicles and into alternative forms of transportation. However, in a recent study from the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, author Michael Manville found while a majority of Los Angeles County voters want transit to expand, they are unlikely to use that transit in the future, a disconnect that is inherently at odds with the goals of increasing transit ridership and decreasing vehicle use in the city.

Measure M is not the only transit-oriented ballot measure Los Angeles County voters have passed. In fact, over the last 35 years, three other tax increases have been approved by voters to fund transit expansion, money that has subsequently been used to construct 110 miles of new rail lines. While transit networks in Los Angeles County may be expanding, ridership continues to fall. For example, between 2012 and 2017, ridership in Los Angeles decreased by 15 percent. This trend is by no means unique to Los Angeles; in 2017 transit ridership fell in 31 of the nation’s largest 35 metropolitan areas.  It appears that while voters may be eager to spend money on more robust transit systems, they are unwilling to actually use transit themselves.

In his study of Measure M, Manville found that voters appear to want transit for reasons other than riding it. More often than not they want driving to be less cumbersome rather than for transit service to be more convenient, a view reflected by the fact that the average Measure M supporter drives and does not regularly use transit. Moreover, for those who do use transit regularly, 40 percent express a desire to be driving instead. These results mirror a previous study conducted by Manville that polled voter support for Measure M before the 2016 election. He found that prefacing questions about Measure M with statements regarding the potential of transit to alleviate traffic congestion was much more likely to invoke a favorable opinion of the measure compared to other pro-transit arguments such as increasing social equity or providing more travel options.

One potential issue, however, is that expanding transit is unlikely to alleviate congestion and make commuting by vehicle easier. Rather, good transit service provides a viable alternative to commuting by car and allows users to avoid vehicle congestion. Thus, if voter perceptions regarding transit expansion are inherently misaligned with its actual benefits, how can cities continue to garner support for transit without being misleading? For one, transit adoption can be a slow methodical process. While most respondents may not be able envision themselves using transit at the present moment, with an increase in transit infrastructure and service, people’s views are susceptible to change. Additionally, transit expansion cannot singularly consist of one mode. In the few cities that have seen recent increases in transit ridership such as Houston, Seattle, and Columbus, a common theme has been the improvement of both rail and bus service. By taking a systemwide approach, these cities have been able to reach more citizens with quality transit service and buck the nationwide trend of falling ridership. Lastly, simply building a new transit system is often not enough to attract new users. Decision makers must also take deliberate steps to address issues of land use, parking and vehicle pricing to accentuate a transit system’s effectiveness. Without addressing these complementary polices, driving will continue to be the more attractive mode choice regardless of transit system quality. Therefore, while funding transit may be an important first step in changing urban travel behaviors, there are subsequent steps that must also be taken in order for new transit systems to reach their full potential.

Chet Edelman is a Project Assistant at SSTI.