Transit Overflow from the Women’s March Demonstrates Need for Better Transit

Still shot from ABC7 report on overcrowding at L.A. Metro rail last Saturday.
Still shot from ABC7 report on overcrowding at L.A. Metro rail last Saturday.

This weekend’s Women’s March was an unparalleled event in United States history, with over three million people taking to the streets in cities and towns across the country. Timed to coincide with the inauguration weekend of America’s 45th President, the event captured the attention and imagination of people throughout the world.

While there were many “winners” for the weekend, there was one that has not gotten the same amount of attention: America’s public transit systems. If Open Streets events such as CicLAvia, Beach Streets, and Sunday Streets demonstrate the need for better bicycle networks and safer pedestrian design, then Saturday’s transit ridership should also make the case that, if our country had a more robust public transit system, ridership numbers would spike.

Nowhere was the shortfall more obvious than in Los Angeles. Anecdotally, my social media feed was full of friends and readers who were either experiencing waits of over an hour to use the newly expanded Expo or Gold Lines. News outlets picked up the story, with the Long Beach Press-Telegram declaring plainly that “There are too many marchers for L.A.’s trains to carry.” While other outlets put a more positive spin on the transit shortfall — the L.A. Times headline read “Jubilant protesters crowd into downtown L.A.-bound Metro trains” — most outlets put the shortfall front and center into a headline.

Not every city experienced the transit shortfall that Los Angeles experienced. There were 592,000 boardings on LA Metro trains last Saturday, 360,000 higher than usual for a Saturday, according to Metro. Other services increased service for Saturday, with the Bay Area’s BART increasing rail access to marches in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley. But even with those increases, BART was overcrowded.

So far, we’re only talking about trains because that’s where the largest overcrowding took place. Most casual transit users choose to take rail over the bus for a variety of reasons. Building out a working and connected rapid bus system would have the same benefits for people who would ride transit regularly but don’t.

Activists and academics point to the rise of Open Streets events as a turning point in the debate over how city’s should spend transportation and infrastructure dollars. The tens of thousands of people riding and walking when cars are removed and the streets are safe and attractive proved to politicians that there are many people who would choose to walk or bicycle that don’t because of they don’t believe that it is safe or the infrastructure is lacking.

If that’s the lesson from CicLAvia, then a lesson for urban planners and politicians from Saturday is that the same latent demand exists for rail transit service. When the service is more attractive than driving and people know it will be safe and easy to walk from a transit stop to their destination; a higher and higher percentage choose rail.

It wasn’t planned that way, but Saturday showed that the demand is there for rail transit. The more we build, the more people will ride.

8 thoughts on Transit Overflow from the Women’s March Demonstrates Need for Better Transit

  1. I think part of the reason the our transit is so bad is the perception that nobody (or nobody with clout) cares about it. I know of a few organizations working on it: TransForm, the Sierra Club bay area, 350 Bay Area, San Francisco Transit Riders, Green Caltrain. But it’s an uphill fight. Maybe there’d be some action if more people texted their supervisors & state reps while stuck waiting for a bus or train or in car traffic because there just isn’t enough public transit going where they want to go.

  2. I’m not necessarily opposed to the proposed solution as a lot of transit could be improved, but it is worth noting that this is essentially the same argument that highway (and parking!) proponents love to use.

  3. “Saturday showed that the demand is there for rail transit. The more we build, the more people will ride.”

    This is a technically true statement, but I question this article’s thesis. Rather than concluding that building more transit will increase ridership, I would argue that event surges may result from conditions external to transit itself, namely large numbers of people wanting to be in the same, small geographic area at the same time, limited vehicle access due to crowds/street closures, and expensive (if even accessible) parking.

    In other words, if the argument is about what will boost transit use, it indicates that greater population density and less parking around existing service will be more effective than more service.

  4. “but Saturday showed that the demand is there for rail transit. The more we build, the more people will ride.”
    Saturday isn’t the exception. Ask folks in the Richmond or Sunset who spend an hour to get downtown. Ask commuters out in Tracy the same question while they sit in traffic for 2 hours to get to SF. Or anyone on I-80 in the East Bay at pretty much any given time. Try using Muni to get to Caltrain to get to San Jose in under 2 hours. Demand exists 24/7.
    The major problem is that the Bay Area is comprised of multiple transit agencies who refuse to work together to form a seamless transit network. Then you have to deal with the inadequacies of the individual agencies who are far from progressive. Add in the pols who really couldn’t care less because they don’t use transit (ask Mayor Lee about this). Talk to the developers in SOMA who continue to build residential high rises with tons of parking. Why? Because people drive. Why do they drive? Because transit sucks. Toss in suburban sprawl and you get one huge negative feedback cycle.
    Bay Are cities need to simultaneously beef up their cores and focus on regional connections and compatibility. SF needs more than a Central Subway to nowhere or BRT that doesn’t solve any problems. BART needs to focus on infill stations and expanding in the denser city cores, in addition to addressing its traditional suburban/commuter-rail expansion efforts. But, good luck with any of this ever happening. We can’t even get Caltrain to downtown SF. Meanwhile, Denver will have built several new rail lines. Twin Cities will get two big rail expansion projects opened. San Diego’s push to the UC campus will happen. LA’s Purple Line will carry thousands of riders. Etc.

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