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Traffic Is Terrible, but Californians Keep Buying Cars

It is one of those stereotypes about Los Angeles that is actually true: Every Angeleno has wasted time in traffic.

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It is one of those stereotypes about Los Angeles that is actually true: Every Angeleno has wasted time in traffic.

Anyone looking for evidence need look no further than 2016, when voters chose to tax themselves in hopes of making their commutes a little less painful. The countywide transportation tax, which will raise $120 billion for subways, light rail lines and other transit projects over 40 years, was approved decisively — by almost 70 percent of voters.

Investing in public transportation to battle congestion isn’t a new idea. Since 1990, Southern California has added more than 100 miles of light and heavy rail in Los Angeles County, and more than 530 miles of commuter rail regionwide, according to a recent study. And yet, traffic remains terrible. How can that be?

New statistics from the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority offer one alarming reason: Despite all the spending on public transportation, its ridership is falling. In fact, recently released statistics show that in 2017, ridership fell to its lowest level in at least eight years — mostly because far fewer people are taking the bus.

Experts and officials have many possible explanations for the decline: competition from ride-share companies, changes in immigration policy that affect some of the region’s most reliable transit users, and the fact that some would-be riders just don’t think public transit is safe.

But a new report from the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, says the biggest reason is that more Southern Californians are buying cars. Between 2000 and 2015, the study says, private vehicle ownership in the area increased from 1.7 to 2.4 vehicles per household. And the study says car ownership grew fastest among “foreign-born households” and other low-income people who tend to take public transit the most.

“Transit today relies on a high rate of use by a narrow base of people,” the report’s authors wrote. “But if that narrow base of people is acquiring vehicles, transit’s healthy future lies in reversing those circumstances, and striving for at least a low rate of use by a broad base of people.”

In a region of 18.8 million people, they note that about 77 percent use public transit rarely or never. It’s a pool of “vast untapped potential.” The obstacle? Driving remains cheap.

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