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Santa Monica Finds Itself at Transit Crossroads

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

February 6, 2018 -- Unlike older metropolitan areas with mass transit, such as New York or Chicago, Southern California grew up in suburban sprawl and was built to serve vehicles with freeways and vast amounts of parking.

Civic leaders and others are trying to reverse course, as gridlock -- related pollution -- and the wear-and-tear on the public’s nerves and health worsens.

The City of Santa Monica, more so than most other regional communities, has been re-designing its city to encourage residents, workers and visitors to ditch vehicles in favor of alternative transit, like buses, Expo trains, walking and riding bikes.

Expo has been exceptionally popular, but at least one outside study found people still choose to drive their own cars, despite the congestion -- particularly downtown -- that has sparked opposition from residents over new building the City is allowing.

The City has paved the road to more density and taller buildings, in part to help ease a widespread housing crunch. But the lynchpin is convincing its populace to not use vehicles, allowing growth and more development without more congestion.

Mayor Ted Winterer believes the BBB’s dropping ridership is cause for pause and noted the City Council is including a study session on the future of the transit agency at its meeting February 27 ("Ridership Plunges on Santa Monica City Buses as Expo Popularity Soars," January 17, 2018).

“We are concerned and have been for some time,” Winterer said in a Monday email to The Lookout.

Council Member Kevin McKeown also expressed concern, for City buses and those countrywide struggling to keep riders from steering away in their own vehicles -- a pattern, in Southern California at least, that started in the era of post-war prosperity.

“In a capitalist society, human behavior is price-driven, and if we had true-cost pricing that took into account the damage to our planet and coming generations, cars and gas would be much more expensive and mass transit would be free,” McKeown said.

“Bus ridership is falling all over the country because scheduled fixed-route transit finds it hard to compete not only with cheap cars and gas, but with new options and disruptive technologies.”

Before the May 2016 arrival of the Downtown Los Angeles-to-Santa Monica extension of the Expo line, the BBB underwent an all-encompassing over-haul, so its bus service would be compatible with light rail ("Santa Monica Big Blue Bus Makes Major Route Changes in Final Light Rail Preparations," February 17, 2016).

But the system’s most recent report showed Expo cannibalized some routes and is blamed in part for the drop in ridership, although BBB’s loss of passengers has continued for seven years.

In any case, more than three-quarters of Southern California's 19 million residents rarely, if ever, hop a bus or board a train, the analysts said.

Fewer than three percent of residents take more than a quarter of the region's transit trips, and riders are overwhelmingly poor and not white, the study said.

Researchers said they also found some evidence that neighborhoods with a high concentration of transit riders in 2000 had become slightly wealthier, and had fewer immigrants, 15 years later.

Whether that evidence is caused by gentrification would be “premature” to determine.

The report said the binge in car-buying in Southern California is beyond the control of public transit systems, and “increased vehicle access for lower-income residents has positive economic and social benefits.

“Instead of trying to recapture lost regular riders, focusing on expanding the pool of 'choice riders' could boost ridership significantly," the report said.

"If every fourth person in Southern California who rarely or never rides transit replaced one driving trip with one transit trip every two weeks, annual ridership would grow by 96 million.”


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