The LA Times today has a closer look at Metrolink ridership, which has stagnated in recent years and is still below its 2008 peak:
They also note that downtown Los Angeles — the predominant destination for Metrolink commuters — is undergoing a residential renaissance but has faded as an employment center.
“Ridership should be growing given the size of the area Metrolink serves,” said Richard Katz, a former state legislator and longtime board member for the railroad. “Though we have been attracting riders, we’ve had a hard time holding on to them.”
The article itself has more details, including Metrolink’s aggressive marketing efforts, but it seems to me that Metrolink may have reached the limits of what it can accomplish with its current service structure.
Planners point to the shifting location of jobs, particularly away from downtown Los Angeles, as a factor:
Studies indicate that the size of the workforce in the core of Los Angeles has stagnated somewhat in the last 20 years while the number of residents has tripled. At the same time, employment has risen in Orange County, the South Bay and on the Westside.
But only Orange County is served by Metrolink, and many new downtown L.A. residents tend to work closer to home and don’t need the rail service.
“The job growth is not that high in downtown Los Angeles,” said Brian Taylor, a professor of urban planning at UCLA. Metrolink’s “ridership is very sensitive to economic change and employment shifts.”
That’s surely part of the issue. As a commuter railroad Metrolink has to follow where the jobs are, and the jobs are becoming even more spread out across the region.
But that may be the issue itself. Not that jobs are moving, but that Metrolink is still structured as a commuter rail service, taking people to work in the morning and home in the late afternoon and early evening. Many of its riders would prefer the service to be more flexible and have better local connections:
Some Southern California commuters say they like riding Metrolink, but the system needs more midday and late-night service. Others have found that express buses can be faster and cheaper. Also figuring into the loss of riders are poorly synchronized train and bus connections.
For almost two years, David Clubb relied on Metrolink to get to his office in Burbank. In the morning, he took a bus to the line’s Simi Valley station, and he did the reverse in the evening.
The bus connection was good going to work, he said, but the return by train was often late.
“There was less than a five-minute window to catch the bus” on the way home, Clubb said. “If you missed it, the wait was 40 to 45 minutes for the next one. Rather than continue to lose time, I was willing to spend $30,000 on a car.”
This is a classic case of high demand for a service that the system has not yet been able to meet. If transit in Ventura County had more frequent service, someone like Clubb could just get to the Simi Valley Station and if he missed one bus, another could come in another 10-15 minutes. And the same is true of Metrolink itself, of course.
I’d add that the issue isn’t just about commuters like this guy who miss their connecting bus. A lot of people might want to stay after work to go for drinks with co-workers, see a show in DTLA, take in a Dodger game, etc. Metrolink’s service is still geared toward commute hours, however, which doesn’t help you unless your destination happens to also be a Surfliner stop.
For Metrolink to grow, it needs to become a regional rail service that also meets commuters’ needs, rather than a commuter service that acts as a de facto regional rail system because nothing else currently fills that role. That means midday service, higher frequency service, and service later into the evening.
Metrolink found ridership gains when they introduced a weekend service from the Inland Empire to Orange County beaches. (I’ve used it, from Orange to San Clemente, it’s awesome.) They need local governments and the state to come together to give them the revenue they need to expand service on their routes so that Metrolink can become an all-day regional rail system, with the frequency levels that such a system demands.
Art Leahy, head of Metro, is also quoted in the LA Times article as saying that lower fares are something they’re looking at. Transit and rail should be free, or as close to it as possible, so that’s a good step too.
Another step is to further integrate Metrolink and the Pacific Surfliner service to meet the needs of the Southern California region as a whole. The eventual arrival of high speed rail will make this even more of a priority, and a thriving Metrolink with all-day frequent service is key to making HSR a success too.