The Orange Line [BRT] carries more than 20,000 people every weekday. But setting this route aside, bus ridership has gone off a cliff, here and nationwide. Some 2,300 buses run around LA every day — 165 routes covering almost 1,500 square miles, for a total of 73 million miles a year. Ridership is down 36 percent this decade, and most cities in the US have seen similar declines. Last year, the number of people using transit fell in most of the biggest metro systems — and that was an improvement over the year before.
No one’s really sure why. Some researchers think people with enough money may have switched to services like Uber and Lyft, though it’s likely those trips replaced private car travel, not transit. Another hypothesis is that after the 2008 recession, cars and car loans became very cheap. LA may not be as decentralized as cliché would have it, but it is multicentric and, well, eccentric when it comes to the places people live, work, and shop.
Getting people out of cars and into buses and trains is key to knocking that number down. Trains are great, and Los Angeles’ light rail network — 84 miles spreading across the Southland — is the largest in the country. But trains are expensive, and they can’t get everywhere. That’s where buses can come in. Yet at the precise moment when it’s most urgent that cities get people out of their cars, bus systems are struggling.
So LA is talking about scrapping the system and starting over, the first radical revamp since rail came back to town. To figure out how to do it right, all the city’s transit planners need is location data from about 5 million cell phones.