Transit ridership has been falling in Southern California for about a decade — that’s despite billions of dollars in investment in new train lines and bus service.
A new report from the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, commissioned by the Southern California Association of Governments, tries to explain why.
The study covers the six counties under the association's jurisdiction, from Ventura to San Bernardino. Researchers looked at such factors that could account for the declining ridership as lower gas prices, transit service cuts and the effect of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.
They found one major suspect: between 2000 and 2015, Southern Californians went on a car-acquisition spree.
Michael Manville, UCLA professor and study co-author, said people added 2.1 million more cars to the roads in the 15-year study period. Rising car ownership especially applied to residents who have traditionally relied on transit, including those from low-income and immigrant households.
Easier, affordable car financing during that period may have contributed to the higher rates of car ownership, according to Manville. The per capita auto debt in the region has nearly doubled during the same period.
Because ridership in the Southern California region is narrowly concentrated within the population groups that typically take transit, small changes in car ownership can have a big effect on overall transit use.
Manville said public officials should put their focus on attracting more occasional riders of trains and buses — those outside of the typical rider groups — rather than aiming to regain former users who now travel by car.
"How do we convince the overwhelming majority of people who almost never use transit, and who are responsible for most of our vehicular emissions, to start using it even just a little bit?" he asked.
Manville said the answer may require unpopular policy changes to make driving harder or more expensive. Denser development, reduced parking and more road tolls might count among these changes.