Observing LA Metro’s transit ridership: A mini ethnography

In fulfillment of an ethnography assignment for Professor Tridib Banerjee’s excellent class on research design last September, I observed riders entering and exiting the La Cienega/Jefferson Station on METRO’s Expo Line light rail. I did this both on a Sunday afternoon between approximately 3pm and 4:30pm, and on the following Tuesday morning between around 8:15 and 9am. This station is located at the western end of the West Adams neighborhood above the intersection of La Cienega and Jefferson Boulevards in close proximity to McManus in eastern Culver City – a confluence of two rather different neighborhoods, demographically. It is equipped with a parking structure at its East entrance, and – as I learned at a later point from friends in Westchester – serves as a major park and ride entry point to LA Metro for drivers residing anywhere south of the Baldwin Hills.

For this study, I was a nonparticipant observer, overlooking each of the two entrances, interacting with riders only to assist them with the faregate where needed (read: more participation than I had imagined, as will become more evident). While I attempted to classify riders by age, gender, and race, all classifications are external and may not perfectly reflect riders’ identities. Overall, my observation indicates that there are striking differences between commute and non-commute riders, as is detailed below.

Rider Demographics

Riders’ demographics at this station skew young, with most riders appearing to be in their 20s or 30s. Further, most riders are by themselves – aside from a handful of couples, few groups or families boarded or exited the light rail under my watch.  At no point did the station seem crowded, despite there being about three times as many riders on Tuesday morning than on Sunday afternoon. The most striking difference in demographics was between the two observation periods:  Sunday riders were predominately Latino and Black with few White or Asian riders, while approximately half of Tuesday commute ridership was composed of the latter groups.  Further, Tuesday morning riders appeared wealthier in terms of apparel.  I did not see any discernable difference between who used each side of the station, though simultaneous observations by my classmate of cyclists and pedestrians at the intersection of the Expo and Ballona Creek bike trails suggest that foot traffic from McManus (the more affluent side of the station) was far greater on Tuesday morning.

Perceived demographics aside, the greatest difference in observed behavior between Sunday afternoon and Tuesday morning riders was their choice of how to traverse between the street level and the elevated platform:  More than half of commute time riders observed used the stairs, while the opposite is true for Sunday afternoon riders.  Overall, Tuesday riders appeared to be in better physical shape than Sunday riders.

While some riders transfer to or from buses, most riders walk or bike up to the station, with cyclists generally taking their bicycles onboard the train. The station’s park and ride structure appeared relatively underused during the period of my observation, with only a handful of families entering the station from it, all on Sunday.

During both observation periods, a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses operated a stand at the East entrance; not one rider struck up a conversation with them.

Fare Gate and Ticket Machine Troubles

Quite a few riders struggled using the faregates: While most appeared familiar with how to tap their card and confident in how to use it, I counted fiveriders who did not know where on the faregate the reader is located (all on Sunday). Further, quite a few riders exiting the station appeared to be searching for a card reader to tap out of the system (as is required in San Francisco’s BART or in the Washington D.C. Metro).  For how many times the station PA blasts the fact that fares are stored on a plastic card (“Tap with pride […] one tap card is required per rider”), Metro could do a better job educating riders on how exactly to use this card.

The ticket machines themselves also appear to be a source of confusion: None of the riders who used the machinespent less than 90 seconds purchasing a ticket, with one family taking nearly five minutes to complete their transaction.  If this doesn’t look like room for improvement on UI design, I don’t know what does.

A total of sixriders simply jumped the faregate under my watch, all during the Sunday Afternoon window. 

Conclusions

Even to the untrained eye, LA Metro’s weekend ridership looks very different than that on weekday mornings.  Weekday commute hour riders look a lot more like “choice riders”, electing to use the light rail for trips between La Cienega and the employment hubs of Santa Monica or Downtown Los Angeles rather than enduring rush hour traffic on nearby Interstate 10.

While many of LA Metro’s woes of safety on board, buses stuck in traffic, or light rail without signal prioritization are larger and will take greater efforts to address, my observation does point to other points of frustration that may be easier to solve: Ticketing. Los Angeles has a flat fare of $1.75 for all metro rides – how hard can it be if even cities with ultra-confusing fare systems such as Munich have machines that will reliably let you have a valid ticket in hand in under half the time?

(Lightly adapted from a class assignment for Tridib Banerjee’s PhD Research Design course at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy)

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