A Transit Ridership Role Reversal in California

Since the outset of the pandemic, the capital of car-oriented sprawl in California has become the king of public transit. Looking for lessons about the future of public transit in the United States? Look to San Francisco and Los Angeles.

2 minute read

September 14, 2022, 11:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


By reputation and ridership, the San Francisco Bay Area has long been considered the much more transit-oriented urban region in California when compared to Los Angeles. But pandemic trends have changed that balance of power, according to a paywalled article by Eliyahu Kamisher for the Mercury News.

“[O]ver the past two and a half years, the Bay Area’s claim to California’s mass transit throne has been deeply eroded, if not undone,” writes Kamisher. “L.A. now has more people riding buses, light rails and trains than the Bay Area. And even when accounting for the Bay Area’s far smaller population, L.A.’s per-capita transit ridership temporarily surpassed its Northern California neighbor for the first time in at least two decades.”

Specifically, “In 2019, transit riders in six Bay Area counties took 43 million more trips than L.A. County, which is over a third larger by population. But in 2021, Los Angeles racked up over 83 million more transit trips than the Bay Area.” That “staggering” threefold reversal is a living text case for the future of transit, post-pandemic, according to Kamisher.

The article blames the Bay Area’s reduced ridership on the large populations of regional workers in white color jobs staying home instead of commuting to the office (a familiar narrative with profound implications for the future of San Francisco, which has been slower than all other U.S. cities to recover to pre-pandemic office occupancies and other metrics of traditional urban core activity).

In Los Angeles, by comparison, buses are packed with riders who never stopped using the system. “L.A.’s three largest bus operators, dominated by L.A. Metro, have a ridership recovery of 74%, which is among the highest rates in the country, outpacing New York City buses and peer bus agencies in the Bay Area. L.A. Metro’s latest budget is predicting a full return to pre-pandemic bus boardings by spring of 2023,” according to Kamisher.

The trends in both regions are upending long-held beliefs about the way cities work. Los Angeles is known, for example, as a capital of car-oriented sprawl. Bus riders are now revealing a different side of the city.

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