How to reverse LA’s declining transit ridership? Target particular riders

Public transportation is having a renaissance in Los Angeles. A region that in the postwar era had its once-extensive streetcar system dismantled has re-constructed a rail and BRT system. Ballot measures funding transit improvements enjoy broad public support, with the most recent initiative passing with over 70 percent of the vote.

But somehow rail and bus ridership in LA is declining. Unlike cities that are also investing in transit – such as Seattle and Houston, where ridership is increasing – LA’s passenger numbers are falling faster than even those of stagnant transit systems facing maintenance challenges.

It’s true that the well-known systemic factors adversely affecting ridership in other cities, such as inexpensive gas, subprime auto loans, and app-based ride hailing could be particularly impactful in sprawling LA. It’s also quite possible that gentrification is hurting ridership, displacing low-income transit riders and replacing them with wealthier millennials who may like living near a subway stop but also frequently use car-based modes.

But as a Californian, I believe that LA’s car-centric culture is to blame.

Not only do my LA friends refuse to join me on transit, but they often fight hard to prevent me from using non-car modes – even when transit would be faster than driving. Having never used rail or bus systems, they insist that they are overrun with criminals and homeless individuals. In one instance, I agreed to let a friend drive me a single block to Koreatown’s subway station because, to him, walking to a transit stop in Los Angeles was unimaginable.

This irrational inflexibility at least partially explains why, in spite of transit improvements, ridership is declining. With such a powerful car culture, multimodal infrastructure improvements will not solve the problem alone.

So how can LA Metro and other transit agencies stop ridership from decreasing? I suggest they target particular Angelenos.

We can divide LA commuters by how likely they are to ride transit using NYU sociology professor Steven Lukes’ power dimension construct. Lukes was the first to analyze power’s three dimensions, a method of analyzing the different ways power or dominant cultural beliefs impact people. Using the construct, I have identified three kinds of Angelenos.

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