Los Angeles Buses and the First/Last Mile Problem

For the first time ever, mostly out of sheer curiosity, I rode on LA Metro buses today. Out of my little off-handed experiment, I’ve come to realize that LA buses (and possibly bus systems of other poorly thought out cities) are ripe for disruption. The busses ran horribly late and during rush hour, they were just as crowded as the freeways (surprisingly). To MTA’s credit however, they were superbly air-conditioned. None of these factors however, are the territory of third-parties to solve.

My main gripe is the massive first/last mile problem. In my own case, I live within about 1.5 miles of the nearest stop. That means driving myself or being dropped off is the way I’d cross the “last mile” to the bus stop. Others live even further away from their nearest bus stop. This shouldn’t be the case.

Los Angeles bus ridership skews markedly toward the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Even some of the most economically marginalized people can afford a cheap second-hand automobile in this town. If that’s the case (and it is), a great number of people who need to cross the last mile aren’t even fortunate like me to be able to drive there. We’ve implicitly barred these people from riding buses. To be truly effective, it must be a 100% automobile-free experience.

In other words: there’s a strong need to solve this last-mile problem. It’s a space that’s ripe for disruption, since the city won’t be meaningfully redesigned in the next decade anyway. If someone can come in and somehow bridge the divide at a price-point that matches the majority of ridership, there could be a real opportunity here. It might be a “local pickup” concept using smart cars, golf carts, or some other small vehicle. If smartphones continue to break across socioeconomic lines and get cheaper and cheaper, perhaps even some kind of mobile component could help arrange scheduling/pickup/drop-off/etc. (That makes me start wondering about the potential of “low-income-tailored mobile apps” but I won’t get into that right now.)

Sadly, the only relevant work I’ve seen is a consulting study commissioned by the City of Los Angeles in 2009 found here: http://www.scag.ca.gov/nonmotorized/pdfs/LA-Maximizing-Mobility-Final-Vol2-Appendix3.pdf

This study also identifies the first/last mile as a critical one, but is not too heavy on suggestions. It does however discuss the shortcomings of taxis and vanpools in addressing the issue. There’s basically not much to work off of here, and that’s always the case with nascent opportunities.

The Consequence of Chronology

We should never take for granted the order in which technologies were discovered. This chronology is not inherent in the evolution of technology. Basically, technology doesn’t have to unfold the way it already did. For example, what if instead of the automobile being invented first, another type of technology that allowed people to simply ‘hop’ between cities was first to be discovered. Then society would have structured itself around that development instead. The greatest impact this would have is on our landscape, and that’s my point: the order in which technologies have debuted has fundamentally altered the spaces in which we live, work, and play.

If the ‘city-hopper’ tech had come out at the turn of the 20th century instead of the automobile, human beings wouldn’t build large concrete surfaces connecting various places. There would simply be settlements separated by vast spaces. Our physical world would look very different indeed.

The implication of this thought is to envision spaces that should not be, as opposed to spaces that should. By this I mean to say that we must not ask what should have come about (i.e. ‘instead of the automobile, we should have had this…’), but rather, what our future shouldn’t have come about. Do we want the next 100 years of human existence to be shaped by more concrete roads? What do we want the spaces in which we live to look like?

I understand that the process of innovation can be chaotic and emergent; rendering simple statements that prioritize one direction of innovation over another into mindless drivel. This is a valuable thought exercise that (hopefully) makes you appreciate the landscape that surrounds you. There doesn’t have to be roads, or pipes, or billboards. It’s merely a consequence of chronology, and if we’re living in the present, we have the potential to actively alter that chronology to suit the spaces we envision.