Metro’s rail network is back to full strength after a long year of repairs, construction, and station closures—and a $2.1 billion train line is expected to open in the year ahead.
So where did all the riders go?
In November, ridership plunged 14 percent year-over-year. Passengers took 300,924 trips on Metro’s train lines on a typical weekday. That was nearly 50,000 fewer rides per day than in November 2018. Compared to one year ago, ridership is down on all train lines.
Some lines are carrying fewer riders than they have in years, and for the past few months, the Gold Line has been emptier than it's been since it began traveling to Azusa.
One of the agency's key goals for improving transportation throughout the Los Angeles region over the next decade is doubling the number of trips residents take in a way other than driving solo. Getting more people to ride transit will be a big part of meeting that threshold.
But Los Angeles, like other U.S. cities, has been losing transit riders for years. The authors of a regional study on the problem published last year point to “increasing auto ownership, steep jumps in housing prices, and the advent of new mobility services” like Uber and Lyft as key drivers of the downturn in ridership.
Recent closures, mechanical issues, and delays probably aren’t helping.
While waiting for a delayed train to leave the station on Wednesday, A Line rider Wanda Villegas said months of closures along the route—which runs between Long Beach and Downtown LA—made it extremely difficult for her to take her mother to Pasadena for cancer treatments. The journey, which at that time involved two bus rides and transfers to three separate trains, once took more than five hours.
Villegas says during that time she started taking Lyft rides to Pasadena. Even now that the A Line is open again, she only uses Metro for the return trip.
Ridership drops have been most pronounced on Metro’s buses, which carry more than two-thirds of the system’s daily passengers. As the agency poured billions of dollars into expanding its rail network, extensions to the Gold and E (formerly Expo) lines offset some of those losses by attracting more commuters to the system.
But last year, rail ridership dipped 4.2 percent after two years of solid gains.
In 2019, a further decline was almost inevitable given scheduled shut-downs of parts of the A (formerly Blue) and E lines. Both lines have fully reopened—but ridership hasn’t rebounded.
“We had one shot to get it right and have a good experience and have folks come back,” Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia said at a Metro board meeting last week. “I think we certainly did not achieve that.”
At least half of the A Line’s route was closed for most of the year. The full train line finally reopened on November 2, with Metro leaders promising faster travel times and a smoother rider experience.
Despite upgraded tracks, stations, and train cars, mechanical issues and delays afflicted the 29-year-old train line during its first weeks back in operation.
During the entire month of November, the line served an average of 44,578 weekday riders, down almost 30 percent from 63,463 riders in November 2018—two months before the southern half of the route shut down.
Prior to the shutdown, Metro had promised ride times on the train would drop to 48 minutes from end to end—down from 58 minutes. Now, agency staffers are working on getting trains to consistently hit a 53-minute goal, only five minutes faster than the scheduled travel time before the closures.
At a Long Beach station Wednesday, San Pedro resident Xavier Morales said he’s been pleased with the upgrades to the A Line since it reopened, but so far it hasn’t been enough to convince him to ride the line more than a couple times per week.
“I would ride it a lot more if it was faster,” he said. “I take Uber if I have to go to a meeting. I would not take Metro at all for that because it’s too slow.”
The recent downturn in rail ridership isn’t unique to the A Line. The E Line carried 51,833 average weekday riders in November, more than 11,000 fewer than during the same month last year. That’s a drop of nearly 18 percent.
November’s numbers don’t appear to be a fluke. Ridership on the line has dipped every month since April.
Amazingly, fewer people rode the line during the month of November than in July or August, when the line’s two Downtown LA stations were closed for renovations.
Gold Line trains appear to have been emptying as well. Average weekday ridership on the route dropped 15 percent year-over-year, from 51,673 in November 2018 to 43,838 last month.
Over the last three months, the line has seen an average of 42,817 weekday boardings, slightly lower than the 44,232 that it was averaging in 2015—before an 11.5-mile extension to Azusa opened, adding six new stations to the route.
Over the summer, Metro made some changes to its bus and rail schedules, decreasing service and increasing peak-hour wait times for the A, E, and Gold lines. Agency staff maintained the changes would result in smoother rides, with trains being delayed less frequently.
But many riders complained that the changes left trains overcrowded, making for a less pleasant riding experience. In October, Metro reversed course and boosted rush-hour service on the A and E lines, restoring six-minute headways between train arrivals.
Gold Line trains continue to come every eight minutes during rush hour, rather than every seven minutes, as they did prior to the schedule change.
Metro spokesperson Jose Ubaldo says the recent drop in rail ridership is about more than service shakeups.
“The Metro network covers a vast area of LA County and the decline of ridership cannot be attributed to simply one reason,” he writes in a statement. “With the closure of the Blue Line for 10 months a ripple effect was felt on the other rail lines.”
Ubaldo says recent technical issues and delays may have affected Gold Line ridership, while concerns about security and “social/economic challenges” may be driving rail passengers toward other modes of travel—like Uber and Lyft.
Members of Metro’s Board of Directors suggested last week that, given issues on the A Line and other routes, it might be necessary to better manage the expectations of new riders when opening new train lines, like the Crenshaw/LAX Line.
“I think we’re going to have to come to some agreement about what the right messaging is, so that riders aren’t expecting something that’s going to be absolutely fantastic,” said board member John Fasana.