Bus riders? Yes. Invisible? No, absolutely not.

Today’s New York Times covers impending service cuts to the bus network in Los Angeles. LACMTA (Metro) is trying to rationalize its bus network, and the result is that many routes will change. Routes which operated suburb-to-suburb will be replaced by a hub-and-spoke, grid-oriented system. While this sounds good in theory, there are implementation problems which will make the transition painful for some riders. Riders view the transit system as being unreliable, and when they have to transfer (and wait for a second, or third bus), the problems are compounded:

“The hardest part is when we have to transfer — you stand there waiting, and it can feel like forever,” said Silvia Canjura, who has taken the bus to work as a nanny in Santa Monica for the last 31 years. “Will I arrive at 8:30 or 9:30 in the morning? I never really know now, but changing will make it worse.”

There’s no reason, in today’s world, with today’s technology, for a bus rider to say that they ‘never really know’ when the bus will come. Metro uses NextBus, which they’ve re-branded ‘Nextrip’, for their buses—even the embattled Route 305 documented by the Times. Of course, not every rider will have a cell phone they can use to get information from Nextrip, but that’s the value of bus shelter displays.

Knowing when the next bus will come doesn’t help if it’s severely late, and schedule adherence is an entirely different problem. But poor schedule adherence can be fixed; with an AVL system in place, bus dispatchers can see where problems are developing, and correct them, before a route is badly disrupted. It’s a matter of the agency bringing the necessary resources to bear to fix the problem, whether it’s monitoring drivers more closely, or adjusting routes and schedules to respond to traffic conditions.

As the Times continues, though, schedule adherence isn’t Metro’s only problem:

Under the new system, the 3,000 passengers who board the 305 each day, paying $1.50 for each trip, will instead have to take a series of buses or trains that could take twice as long and cost three times as much. (Unlike other cities, the patchwork system in Los Angeles does not allow free transfers.)

It turns out that the situation in Los Angeles is not like it is here in DC; WMATA discontinued paper transfers two years ago, in favor of electronic transfers on SmarTrip. In Los Angeles, it does not matter how you pay your fare: whether you pay with cash or stored value on a TAP card, there are no transfers. When your trip goes from one bus to two, you end up having to pay double. This can be fixed, and easily: start giving out transfers.

The problems which the riders interviewed by the Times describe are not insurmountable; they can—and should—be fixed. Moving to a hub-and-spoke network improves overall connectivity, and, from a planning perspective, is a good move. As Jarret Walker describes in his informative analysis of the issue, “cuts are sometimes an opportunity to delete services that have passionate, well-connected defenders, but that simply don’t make sense if your goal is a complete network that people can use to go wherever they’re going”. It may look like the services which are left after these cuts will be worse for riders, but there are ways to mitigate that, like an improved fare policy which includes transfers, and better schedule adherence (plus timed transfers to minimize waiting).

It is good that the New York Times has highlighted the issues facing these bus riders, and the problems that the upcoming service changes will create for them, but they’ve done so in a backhanded way which denigrates those riders, calling them “an almost invisible commuter class — the millions of people, most of them poor, who depend on the sprawling bus system”. The Times also fails to recognize the benefits of a hub-and-spoke network to all transit users in Los Angeles, as Jarrett Walker discusses.

Characterizing the bus system (and, by extension, public transportation) as being the exclusive domain of ‘an invisible commuter class’ of the mostly poor creates untoward associations in readers’ minds: public transportation is for the poor, public transportation is slow and unreliable, public transportation is not an alternative to the car. These associations run directly counter to the notion of “public transportation as the path to an environmentally friendly future”, and in the end they are harmful to all of us. The New York Times could have highlighted the problems that Metro’s service changes will create for some riders without reinforcing the notion of “invisible class of bus commuters”, and they should have done so; they could have more clearly highlighted the benefits of good service planning (and hub-and-spoke networks) to all riders, and should have done so.