At the onset of the pandemic, LA Metro made deep cuts to its bus service despite retaining the highest proportion of bus riders among large transit agencies in 2020. Over the past year, a coalition of transit advocates put pressure on LA Metro to reverse the cuts. The advocacy culminated in a commitment from the agency in January 2021 to restore service to pre-pandemic levels later this year. The win follows years of advocacy to make bus service a higher priority at LA Metro. Investing in Place is a Los Angeles advocacy organization that has been changing the conversation on bus investments. In this episode, Jessica Meaney and Scott Frazier of Investing in Place discuss the campaign that led to the January 2021 commitment. Jessica and Scott also reflect on the political nature of transit advocacy, and share their thoughts on what an equitable transit system looks like.
At the onset of the pandemic, LA Metro made deep cuts to its bus service despite retaining the highest proportion of bus riders among large transit agencies in 2020. Over the past year, a coalition of transit advocates put pressure on LA Metro to reverse the cuts. The advocacy culminated in a commitment from the agency in January 2021 to restore service to pre-pandemic levels later this year.
The win follows years of advocacy to make bus service a higher priority at LA Metro. Investing in Place is a Los Angeles advocacy organization that has been changing the conversation on bus investments. In this episode, Jessica Meaney and Scott Frazier of Investing in Place discuss the campaign that led to the January 2021 commitment. Jessica and Scott also reflect on the political nature of transit advocacy, and share their thoughts on what an equitable transit system looks like.
"I'm focused on taking all these wonderful ideas from the Better Bus Initiative, and putting them into a budget with real resources directed at our equity focused communities. We've had such a tremendous focus at the agency over the past several years on building giant projects. We need someone who really cares about the rider experience and the transit system as it exists today."
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Disclaimer: Political views raised by guests on the podcast do not reflect the views of TransitCenter.
Hosted by Kapish Singla
Edited by Ali Lemer and Kapish Singla
Produced by TransitCenter
Music: “Comma” - Blue Dot Sessions
Kapish Singla [00:00:01] From TransitCenter, I'm Kapish Singla. This is High Frequency. In Season Two of High Frequency, we're having conversations on how cities and transportation agencies are learning from past mistakes and remedying inequities in transit. Los Angeles is famous for its freeways, but L.A. is also home to the second largest bus riding population in the country. Despite the importance of bus service to L.A. residents, transit investments have tended to neglect bus riders. Historically, transit expansion efforts in L.A. have focused on rail to the exclusion of the bus. As a result, bus ridership has fallen nearly 20 percent in the past decade. This pattern of overlooking bus riders continued during the pandemic. Last spring, L.A. Metro made deeper cuts to bus service than to rail service, despite the fact that ridership drops were more severe on rail. This left riders who depend on Metro buses with long waits and crowded conditions on board. At the same time, there's plenty of cause for optimism. Thanks to a series of ballot initiatives, including the passage of Measure M in 2016, L.A. Metro is in a better financial position than most transit agencies. The agency has also launched NextGen, an initiative that seeks to overhaul its bus network. To learn more about the state of transit in L.A., I spoke with Jessica Meaney and Scott Fraizer of Investing in Place. Investing in Place is an advocacy organization which convenes the Better Buses for L.A. workgroup, bringing together grassroots community leaders and agency staff with the goal of improving bus service by organizing for upgrades like additional bus shelters and bus lanes. After a year of organizing with other advocates, Investing in Place recently won a commitment from the Metro board and staff to restore service to pre-COVID levels later this year. The vote signals that Metro's board is becoming more responsive to bus riders, a development that advocates hope to build on as they influence the agency's investments going forward.
Kapish Singla [00:02:23] Jessica, you're the founder and executive director of Investing in Place. Can you tell us why you started Investing in Place and specifically some of the work around budget advocacy?
Jessica Meaney [00:02:34] The core reason we started it back in 2015. We saw Measure M on the horizon for Metro. So that was our fourth sales tax. About 65 to 70 percent of our funding here in the L.A. region for our highways, our sidewalks, our buses, our trains comes from our sales taxes. Because sixty five to 70 percent of our transportation funding is generated here by people shopping in the Los Angeles County. Our Metro Board of Directors has incredible power and influence on where our funding decisions happen. So we really wanted to create a homegrown L.A. based space that was really digging deep into the policies and the finances of what was happening in our region around transportation.
Kapish Singla [00:03:19] And Jessica, can you describe the state of bus service in L.A., what are some of the challenges and who does the bus predominantly serve?
Jessica Meaney [00:03:27] The funding for bus operations has been on a decrease since 2008, and that's been mirrored in the ridership declining. Unlike other cities, particularly New York or I would guess San Francisco, our bus riders are really poor and they're largely immigrants or recent immigrants. The household median income is about 18,000, and it's reflected in their access to power and the quality of service they get. So it's very slow, it's very unreliable, and it's just a very crummy experience. But it's a lifeline and it's the only option for many people to get around in our region.
Kapish Singla [00:04:05] And Jessica, what are some of the specific improvements that Investing in Place has advocated for you to make that rider experience better?
Jessica Meaney [00:04:14] We're really focused on bus speeds, bus stops, all of the things that make our public space welcoming, safe and inclusive for all. Also, I would say what underlies a lot of those goals is a radical restructuring of how Metro does business. How much is Metro listening to community members and those who have really lacked access to decision makers for years and years and really bear the brunt of disinvestment in their communities.
Kapish Singla [00:04:43] Scott, can you tell us what NextGen is and how it proposes to improve the experience of bus riders in L.A.?
Scott Frazier [00:04:50] NextGen is a bus reorganization plan. For the first time in about 30 years. Metro is looking at making major changes to service provision and even what the the routes that it's running look like. The goal, broadly speaking, is to dramatically increase the levels of service on the busiest corridors in Los Angeles. Metro's NextGen plan proposes to realign the existing service hours so that we have a lot more buses running on those corridors. The goal is that we start making people who are using the bus system feel like they can rely on the fact that if they show up at any of those bus stops along those corridors, they can expect a bus to be coming soon.
Kapish Singla [00:05:43] Of course, this time last spring, we're experiencing the first wave of COVID related lockdowns. Transit agencies are reacting differently to it. What is L.A. Metro's response last spring?
Jessica Meaney [00:05:58] There's been just a lot of challenges in the way the agency has communicated throughout the pandemic. Over March and April, about 20 percent of our bus service was cut. No public hearings, no public conversations, just a unilateral decision from the agency. And in September, they locked that in at the protest of multiple organizations, lots of community testimony. What we were hearing from riders is they wait for their buses to show up. When they would show up, they would be too crowded and they were not comfortable getting on. So then they would have to wait and hope another bus would come along. But really, I also struggle with is we don't have the data. There's no transparency about what the actual ridership on lines look like other than rhetoric from Metro staff of: "Trust us, when it's crowded, we add more buses." That was in stark contrast to what community members were testifying at Metro committee and board meetings all over the past year about long waits, crowded buses. We're working under a goal of restoring service to pre-COVID levels by September 2021. And many will tell you, especially those who ride the bus, that that's not even that great. I don't think anyone would say Metro bus service before COVID was reliable or a viable option for many people.
Kapish Singla [00:07:22] Scott, I know that Metro in 2018 had adopted an equity framework. Scott, how do you think that service and operation changes in the past year could have been better aligned with what's outlined in that equity framework?
Scott Frazier [00:07:37] If you want to align the equity framework and the service during COVID, you would probably be increasing, not decreasing service during the course of the pandemic. Los Angeles Metro has lost, I think, the least ridership by proportion among major transit providers. And a big part of the reason that that is, is because Metro was losing ridership well before the pandemic started. We had, over the course of the 2010s, an egregious amount of transit ridership loss because people are being priced out of the region because the service quality is so poor. Because really, people just are looking for another way that is more attuned to their needs than Metro has shown the willingness to be. So when we get to spring of 2020, the clear thing that we actually see is anyone who is still using the bus system, using the transit system at that point in time, they're not doing it because they want to. They are doing it because they have no other choice. So Metro's bus ridership now being something like 50 percent of normal is a clear reflection in my mind of the fact that anyone who is using the buses absolutely needs the service. And Metro has not really responded in a way that I think could be called equitable. An equity framework can't really be undertaken in isolation. You can't just say, you know, we want to focus on the needs of Black riders in their capacity as riders, in comparison to white riders, in their capacity as riders. You need to be looking at what is the lived reality of a Black Angelino as compared with the lived reality of a white Angelino. And how can we assist the Black riders in our capacity as a transit service provider? How can we help make up the gap that exists in a society that is not equitable?
Kapish Singla [00:09:47] At the beginning of this year, Metro reports that they have netted $300 million more in sales tax revenue than originally forecasted. And I know that you played a role in influencing Metro to devote a portion of that money towards restoring the pandemic service cuts. Can you talk a bit more about the coalition that was formed at the time that that campaign came about?
Scott Frazier [00:10:09] It was something that Jessica, that Scarlett and Laura at ACT-LA and other members of our existing coalition put together on a last minute basis. We were very vocal that this was not the right thing to do. This was the wrong time to to strip bare our bus service for people who need it the most. And the board reacting to that pressure, they said: well we're going to do it anyway, but they they sort of threw us a bone and they actually put language into the motion. That said, the board recognizes that this is a very harsh action to be taking. And we want to see the agency restore these service cuts at the soon as possible date. So in January, we get news very much at the last minute that that there was a budget surplus. They actually had somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 million dollars more in revenues than they anticipated having. Now, not all of that money was eligible to be spent on transit operations, but a sizable portion of it was somewhere in the region of 30 to 50 million dollars. When we found out about this, it was because staff had put together a memo stating that the surplus existed. They had also put together a proposal for how that money should be spent. They recommended zero dollars to be spent on restoring bus service. So our coalition talked through this and said we have an opportunity here to point out to the board that not only is the staff doing something that we don't like as advocates, as bus riders, et cetera, but they're actually flying in the face of a direct order that you gave to them to to find money to restore these service cuts. And when you have it, use it. ACT-LA did an incredible job just in such a short amount of time gathering the statements from people who had lived with these bus cuts at this point for nearly a year and how it had changed their lives for the worse. And additionally, just getting comments from as many people as we could throughout the Los Angeles region stating that they wanted to see this money go back to service. We are definitely proud of how we've been able to leverage our resources as advocates and riders to change the dynamic within the boardroom at Metro.
Kapish Singla [00:12:48] And what's the difference between where the conversation around bus service was five years ago compared to where it is today?
Scott Frazier [00:12:56] That's a great question. The conversation has evolved a lot, and especially in the last year. We've seen a lot of change take place. Conversations that weren't being had around the time that Measure M passed are now more on the forefront of the minds of the Metro board of directors and other local politicians. Bus riders have marshaled and been able to put together more vocal advocacy around: we need more bus service. It's not just about light rail. We need more and better bus service.
Kapish Singla [00:13:34] What is the work that needs to happen now? What would be seen as a win to continue to push Metro forward?
Jessica Meaney [00:13:41] I think for me, I'm focused on taking all these wonderful ideas from NextGen, from its newest proposal called Better Bus Initiative, to take all those great ideas and put them into a budget with real resources directed at our equity focused communities at our high need communities. We've had such a tremendous focus at the agency over the past several years on building giant projects. We need someone who really cares about the rider experience and the transit system as it exists today. Metro has billed itself for, quote, building a world class bus system. That's their tagline before covid. And we really want to see them, as my mother would say, put their money where their mouth is and really address the high need we have in our communities today. I wonder if my mother will hear me give that she loves to say that.
Kapish Singla [00:14:34] Well, we'll see if it makes the final cut, but I love it. Jessica, from your years of advocating Metro on bus service and transit equity, why is it crucial to be an advocate for public transit?
Jessica Meaney [00:14:49] It's such a key ingredient of our cities and our neighbors ability to get to work, to school, to see our families and to have some fun. And what does it look like to support and integrate that goal with our other movements for social justice and housing and immigration protection and rights and high quality education for all? And and what does it look like in our cities to integrate all those issues and realize they're all interconnected and really amplify and listen to those most closest to the problem to find our solutions?
Kapish Singla [00:15:19] And finally, Scott, do you have advice for advocates in other cities?
Scott Frazier [00:15:23] I think that one of the things that we've discovered is that on the ground conditions are everything. I mean you can spend a lot of time crafting policy. You can spend a lot of time making improvements to policy, getting policy adopted. But the real work of transit advocacy is happening on the streets and the buses, on the trains and everywhere in between. We have rapidly sought to adjust our strategies here in Los Angeles to make sure that we are building political power, not just the power to analyze decisions, but also to shape and frame the conversations happening around them. So it's an education process. It's an advocacy process, and it is deeply political.
Kapish Singla [00:16:13] Thank you, Scott and Jessica.
Jessica Meaney [00:16:15] Thank you, Kapish. Yeah this has been super fun.
Scott Frazier [00:16:17] Thank you.
Kapish Singla [00:16:20] That's all for today's episode. I'm your host, Kapish Singla. This episode was edited by Ali Lemer and Kapish Singla. High Frequency is a TransitCenter production. For more information, please visit us at TransitCenter.org