(Bloomberg) -- Los Angeles’s public transit system has recovered from the pandemic faster than cities like New York and Chicago, and now aims to get ridership back to pre-Covid levels by mid-2023.
“I have set a goal that, by the end of this fiscal year, Metro will have completely restored back to pre-pandemic levels on ridership,” Stephanie Wiggins, head of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said in an interview. “I know it’s a bold pronouncement to make and it bucks the national trend with our peers. But I do think we are in a unique situation.”
The agency, better known as LA Metro, still has far to go to reach that goal. Ridership is currently only about 70% of pre-pandemic levels. On buses, that number is 75%. Commuters have been a bit slower to return to the rail network, which is at roughly 55% of pre-Covid levels.
But the agency has come a long way since the early days of the pandemic. There were 63.8 million systemwide boardings in the second quarter, compared with 36.5 million in the same period of 2020.
Of course, LA has a much lower base of ridership than New York and other transit hubs. The nation’s second-largest city was -- and still is -- a car-centric place. Transit commuters tend to be lower-income than in other areas, and many work the kinds of jobs that can’t be done remotely. That contrasts with trends in places like San Francisco, where a heavy concentration of tech commuters switched to home-based work and kept transit from bouncing back as quickly.
Even so, getting back to pre-pandemic levels would be a remarkable feat for LA.
Pascal St. Gerard, an analyst at Fitch Ratings, called it “a very ambitious goal,” but doable if the conditions are right. “It is possible,” he said. “It will be different for every transit agency.”
LA Metro has spent decades trying to shed the city’s reputation as a place where you need a car to get around. It hasn’t been easy. Though the agency has made progress on rail lines crisscrossing the sprawling metropolis, ridership had been falling in the years before the pandemic. Even if it gets back to 2019 levels, it will remain well below the totals of the past decade.
But even a modest transit revival would come at a good time, with LA Metro readying rail links to the airport and the west side. After facing opposition for years from residents in affluent areas, the agency’s new Purple D Line will connect downtown to Beverly Hills, the Century City business district and UCLA. That could broaden the appeal of the system.
For now, many LA transit riders are just using it out of necessity. James Moore, director of the University of Southern California’s Transportation Engineering Program, said that about three-quarters of Metro bus riders have a household income below $25,000, according to data collected before the pandemic.
“Transit is still important here because it’s serving a bunch of people, a large number of people who don’t have alternatives,” Moore said.
Transit is more of a way of life in New York, but that city will take longer to get back to being the bustling center it once was. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a state agency that oversees the city’s subways, buses and commuter rail lines, may not regain full pre-pandemic ridership until about 2035. Subway weekday ridership is about 60% of pre-Covid levels, but did hit a recent milestone. It reached 3.88 million trips on Wednesday, the most since the pandemic began in March 2020.
San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit District is about 40% of pre-pandemic levels, Chicago ridership is at 60% and Atlanta’s is about 55%.
LA Metro has launched its NextGen Bus Plan -- an effort to restructure its bus network and double the number of frequently running lines, as well as expand midday evening and weekend service.
Other improvements include the expansion of its subway line from Crenshaw to LAX, Los Angeles’s major airport, which is slated to start running soon. It’s also testing a program that would provide free transit to students from K-12 schools and community colleges.
LA Metro’s budget relies less on fare revenue than New York’s MTA, with sales taxes providing more of its funding. Only 1.2% of the agency’s budget comes from the fare box, LA Metro data show. “I see the pandemic as a disruption, as opposed to a crisis,” Wiggins said. “We’re approaching it as the disruption that quite honestly I feel is needed for the transportation industry.”
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