Serving Larchmont Village, Hancock Park, and the Greater Wilshire neighborhoods of Los Angeles since 2011.

Metro Using Latest Technology to Move Bus System into the Future

Metro Project Deputy Stephen Tu (in blue shirt) shows NextGen workshop participants some of the project’s extensive data, summarized on maps illustrating how people travel today in Los Angeles.

It’s been 25 years since Metro did a major overhaul of its Los Angeles bus system, and a lot has changed since then.  For one thing, there are more than a million more people in the Metro area than there were a quarter of a century ago.  Also, the way people travel in general has changed, the way people use public transit specifically has changed…and so has the technology that supports our local travel and transit systems.  So Metro is now in the process of a comprehensive review and realignment of its bus systems, a project it’s calling “NextGen.” “Our goal,” says a promotional video for the program, “is to get you back on the bus.”

Since January, Metro has been holding a series of 18 community meetings to reach out to the public for feedback on our current bus system’s equity, connectivity, customer experiences, schedule, accessibility and customer/public engagement…and to seek input from transit riders and non-riders alike in preparation fo a comprehensive improvement effort. Meeting number 17 of the 18 was held last night at Holman United Methodist Church, in West Adams, and we dropped in to learn more.

The late afternoon/early evening meeting was set up as an open house/workshop, starting with some welcome refreshments (fresh pupusas and cookies) and then several informational stations attendees could move through to learn more about the overall goals of the NextGen effort.  The stations provided an introduction to NextGen, general facts about travel and transit in LA, what people so far have said about how they use (or don’t use) transit, and how some very modern “big data” (including anonymized cell phone data from 5 million local cell phone users) is being used to study the ways we travel within our city.  Then, at the end of the circuit, attendees were invited to weigh in with their own needs, wants, priorities and other comments, in several different formats.

Background Information

For example, at the workshop station where current general information was presented, attendees learned that people take 27.8 million daily trips of all kinds in LA County, and 85% of those could potentially be served by public transit.  The goal, however, is to raise the number to 100% by better balancing services and systems that are good for current riders with others that will attract new riders, too.  (For example, the current system scores pretty well with people who take the longest rides, but some communities along those long routes would be better served with more stops.)  Some other interesting background points:

  • While the bus system needs to serve areas of both high and low density population, different kinds of solutions are needed for those different areas.
  • The current system tends to score well when it comes to daily work commutes, but not as well for non-commute rides (those that take place throughout the day, at non-peak hours).
  • Cars and buses take the same amount of time on less than 14% of all trips – and for trips where cars are twice (or more) as fast as buses, transit is much less competitive.
  • From mid-day through late evening, demand for travel significantly outpaces Metro’s current resources…which provides a big opportunity to fill that gap.
  • 57% of infrequent transit riders, and 50% of non-transit riders say the reason they don’t ride public transit, or ride it more often, is that it’s too slow.
  • Among frequent riders, however, the main reason for ridership is that it’s “convenient.”  The second most popular reason is that they don’t have access to a car.
  • Among “occasional” transit riders, the most frequent request is for more frequent service.

And finally, Metro has identified short trips, of 1-5 miles, as its biggest opportunity for improvement and attracting new riders.  This is because 46% of all daily travel in LA (including public transit, automobiles and everything else) are 1-5 miles long…and only 2% of them are currently made on public transit.  So that’s the “sweet spot” Metro is aiming at with the NextGen improvements.  “That’s a significant market share we’re looking to engage with,” said the presenter at that station.

Big Data’s Big Contribution

Perhaps the most interesting information of the evening came from Metro Project Deputy Stephen Tu, who presented information on how Metro is using the very latest in big data technology to map exactly when, where and how LA travels.  Using anonymized data from 5 million cell phones (narrowed down from 12 million initially), technicians are mapping exactly where we Angelenos start our travels each day, where we end up, how long it takes us to get there…and more.  And they can plot that data by census tract for fairly specific accuracy.  They can also tell where both Metro riders and non-Metro riders go each day, which areas have the largest numbers of trips each day…and at what times of day.  (For example, late at night, almost all trips go through downtown, since Metro’s 24-hour “Owl” routes all converge downtown.

Part of a map showing weekday Metro transit boardings in our local neighborhoods in October 2018. (Cooler colors represent fewer boardings, warmer colors signify more activity.)

In addition to the cell phone data, which tracks all kinds of Metro and non-Metro riders, and which Metro purchases from a consultant, Metro has its own data-tracking systems.  For example, it logs all trips by riders with TAP cards, and there are devices on all vehicles that count riders boarding, whether or not they use a TAP card to pay for their trip.  Overall the data “really tells a powerful story about how not only transit riders get around, but how everyone gets around,” says Tu.  “I think we all agree that the bus system is out of alignment with how people travel today.  We want to bring it back into alignment.”

Post-it note feedback from workshop attendees on different Metro routes and service areas.

As noted above, last night’s meeting was the next to last of the current three-month series.  Originally, there were going to be just 10 community meetings, but staffers said they’ve been so well attended (more than 125 people showed up at a meeting at West Hollywood’s Plummer Park in January), that Metro added eight more meetings over the last month, to provide even more opportunities for public input.  “We wanted to make sure we didn’t just check the boxes” when it comes to public outreach, said Tu.

If you’d like to learn more about the NextGen bus project, or provide your own input, there is still one more public meeting scheduled, next week in east LA:

Tuesday, March 19, 2019
4:00pm to 7:00pm
East Los Angeles Service Center
133 N. Sunol Dr
Los Angeles, CA 90063

After the public input process concludes, Metro will spend the spring and summer of this year synthesizing all the data and collective input into new policies and priorities to meet current service needs.  The agency is scheduled to release recommendations for new system designs, along with route and schedule changes, this summer…and then to begin implementation of and publicity for the new bus system in the fall of 2019 and winter of 2020.

In the meantime, for more information, see or contact [email protected].


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Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - with deep roots in both the Sycamore Square and West Adams Heights-Sugar Hill neighborhoods. She spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and has been writing for the Buzz since 2015.

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