Metro’s New Ad Campaign Keeps Focus in the Wrong Place

If you have used the Metro smartphone app recently, you have probably seen this ad for the soon-to-open Foothill Extension of the Gold Line:FullSizeRender

Presumably, with a ballot measure follow-up to 2008’s Measure R currently being focus grouped and prepared for its big day in November, Metro feels some need to reassure drivers that they too will benefit by agreeing to bless the local Transportation Authority with yet another long term half-cent sales tax. And here we have it: the essentially Los Angeles scene of a transit agency heralding the opening of its newest rail corridor as a boon to the region’s non-transit users.

Due to the Foothill Extension’s suburban and quasi-commuter rail routing (which adds 6 stations over 11 miles), there is an argument to be made that the intent of the campaign is to cast rail as a favorable alternative for drivers fed up with the 210 through the western San Gabriel Valley. But in terms of the new ad, it’s a weak argument. After all, assuming we accept the premise to begin with, for whom is traffic actually being eased? The drivers, of course. And that’s what’s being broadcast here. If anything, Metro is telling drivers that it’s OK to stay on the 210 because someone else will ride the Gold Line. I find it tough to look at the other “Metro Eases Traffic” images and think that the agency is even considering drivers as potential transit users.

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Personally, I believe that the Gold Line extension will beat the relatively paltry 10,100 weekday riders that the FEIR predicted back in 2007 before long. But this ad campaign really speaks to the heart of a deeper issue for bus and rail riders in Los Angeles. The quality of the transit projects and the quality of transit service that can be achieved through this driver-first mindset is always going to be second rate. The projects suffer because there is an overemphasis on the potential for rail to alleviate the pressure that exists at some specific location in the road network. This emphasis, which Metro has played no small part in crafting, leads to a widespread ignorance of the fact that, as UCLA Professor Brian Taylor points out, freeways and rail lines are different technologies with disparate needs and effects. Service, which is at least as important as the infrastructure you build, suffers because the mandate to extend transit is of a secondary importance to the mobility of personal automobiles. As a result, even the heavy rail backbone of the Metrorail system sinks to abysmal frequencies of 1 train every 20+ minutes on weekday evenings immediately after rush hour ends. Metro’s buses, which we’ll discuss more in a future post, have suffered even more acutely from this mindset.

Once the expectation has been set that “traffic easing” is an acceptable basis which to judge the success of transit, it is an inevitability that headlines like this will pop up. There is an inherent risk to continuing to court voter support along these lines. Public confidence is not a function of what an agency promises, but of what it shows itself capable of delivering. It is a difficult capital to rebuild. So is Metro really serving itself by suggesting that the mere presence of a rail line running parallel to the 210 is going to cause a world of difference for car commuters in the west SGV? I tend to doubt it. In reality, the only way to achieve the goal of an easier commute is not by pandering to the whims of drivers, but by creating an efficient and well-served transit network focused on creating and empowering riders.