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UCLA Study Suggests Low-Income Riders in Santa Monica, Southern California Switching to Own Wheels

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

February 6, 2018 -- A new study by UCLA is suggesting plummeting ridership on public buses in Santa Monica and across the rest of Southern California is being driven by an unanticipated dynamic:

Low income riders, particularly immigrants, are abandoning public buses and, in most cases, the region’s light-rail systems, as they scrape together enough money to buy their own vehicles.

The analysis from the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies said the rocketing trend in car ownership is a "smoldering, if not a smoking, gun" as public officials struggle to deal with ridership which plummeted by 72 million trips over a five-year period, regionally.

Based on U.S. census data, the study also found Southern California households --especially among low-income earners -- dramatically increased their levels of vehicle ownership.

Between 2000 and 2015, the share of households in the region with no vehicles fell by 30 percent, the study said.

Among foreign-born residents, zero-vehicle households were down 42 percent, and those with fewer vehicles than adults were down 22 percent.

“Finally, among foreign-born households from Mexico, the share of households without vehicles declined an astonishing 66 percent, while households with more adults than vehicles dropped 27 percent,” the analysts said.

These riders are traditionally the core of bus ridership.

“Much of the region’s built-environment is designed to accommodate the presence of private vehicles and to punish their absence,” the report’s authors wrote in their conclusion.

“Driving is relatively easy, while moving around by means other than driving is not,” they said. “These circumstances give people strong economic and social incentives to acquire cars, and -- once they have cars -- to drive more and ride transit less.”

Southern California’s ridership declines are traced to the four dominate public transit systems. This includes Santa Monica’s municipal Big Blue Bus system, where bus ridership sank to about 13.8 million in the 2016-2017 year -- a 27 percent plunge just from the 2014-2015 fiscal year.

The numbers were also bad for the much bigger LA Metro, Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) and Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

Despite huge investments statewide in light-rail -- with only the Gold line and downtown Los Angeles-to-Santa Monica Expo posting successful records -- buses are still the “workhorse” of public transit, responsible in Southern California for 86 percent of transit trips, the study said.

L.A. County’s expansion of light rail also has badly stumbled, UCLA’s researchers said. The Gold and Expo lines enjoy popularity, but their train riders in total weren’t enough to overcome the losses in the rest of the light-rail system, researchers said.

The UCLA study includes the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Imperial, Ventura and San Bernardino.


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