Why Los Angeles Hasn't Solved Its Transit Crisis
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Why Los Angeles Hasn’t Solved Its Transit Crisis

The political gridlock behind the transit gridlock.

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Photo: MCCAIG

On April 1, officials from the Los Angeles County Metro Transportation Authority (L.A. Metro) presented to the public controversial plans for a new Bus Rapid Transit line in Northeast L.A. connecting the San Fernando Valley to Pasadena. Then, for the next four hours, they fielded around 50 questions from more than 200 attendees, many of whom were irate at plans to convert car lanes to bus-only lanes on Colorado Boulevard in Eagle Rock, a hip suburb in the middle of the intended route.

The dispute is another example of the gridlock behind the gridlock all across Los Angeles. When city officials try to convert auto transit to greener, faster and more equitable mass transit, they face organized, hostile opposition. Meanwhile, even ambitious vehicle electrification goals — adding 70 million electric cars by 2030 and banning gas vehicle sales by 2035 — are not enough to meet 1.5 degree Celsius warming targets, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit studying climate change. American cities must take cars off the road or else.


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In Los Angeles, residents insist the city sprawl is incompatible with mass transit, but is it really? Urban planners argue that a combination of rail, bus rapid transit (BRT) and electric bikes and scooters would transport Angelenos around the county more easily than cars do today, easing traffic and saving lives lost in road accidents.

The city is infamous for its reliance on the car, but in truth only a handful of American cities were built around mass transit. Far from a dystopic outlier, forsaken on the sea, Los Angeles is normal.
 


“The fundamental reality of a city is there’s not a lot of space,” says urban plannerJordan Fraade. “Shared space is the fundamental, inescapable fact of city life.” The question is how to organize that space.


 
“Los Angeles is trying to accomplish, through electoral politics and public policy, what cities like Boston and New York accomplished largely through the accident of history,” writes Michael Manville, a professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles. “America’s legacy transit cities did not divorce the automobile. They were married to transit from the start.”

In other words, if Los Angeles can end its abusive relationship with the car, the rest of the country can, too.

*   *   *

Mass transit in the suburbs

Rail is a critical component of any mass-transit ecosystem, but only when ridership justifies its steep cost, urban planners say.

According to urban planner Jordan Fraade, there is no substitute for heavy rail in dense transit corridors like the Sepulveda Pass, which expects more than 120,000 daily riders when its planned rail line opens in over a decade. Wilshire Boulevard is another of the city’s most trafficked corridors, making the Purple Line extension a smart investment.

But elsewhere in the sprawl, high-capacity heavy rail and lower capacity light rail are likely wasteful expenditures, lacking the ridership to justify the slow, multibillion dollar projects. Pasadena’s Gold (now L) Line, and its ongoing extension to Pomona, is a glaring example. Fraade compiled 2015 ridership data on L.A.’s major transit lines to generate a capital cost per boarding statistic — a kind of civic “bang for buck” — and found that L.A. County spent $205.97 per boarding on the Gold Line. (The statistic excludes operating costs.) The Expo (now E) Line cost the county $100.85 per boarding, and the Orange Line (now the G Line) in the San Fernando Valley cost $54.04 per boarding. The Wilshire Boulevard bus lane was the most efficient, costing only $1.24 per boarding.
 


“When I left office [the Orange Line] was carrying 30,000,” says former  County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. “Today, if you tried to get rid of the Orange Line, people would lie in front of the tractors.”


 
The spectrum of bus rapid transit, from the demarcated bus lane to enclosed busways with multiple cars strung together in chains, offers an alternative to rail that costs less and is more easily built.

In Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, the majority of residents live on the outskirts of the city and commute in traffic for work to the urban center. So the city built four BRT lines on its main roads and shortened trips by more than an hour in each direction, saving residents approximately 50 hours per month. Bogota, Mexico City, and others have enjoyed similar success.

A study from the Technical University of Denmark found that BRT can compete with light rail as a people mover. Depending on the scope of the BRT plan and its urban context, BRT can be significantly cheaper than light rail, too. Heavy rail can move more people but at much greater costs, and only if the ridership demand already exists: In Los Angeles, the Gold Line extension is budgeted at $1.4 billion, while the Orange Line BRT cost under $350 million. Each mode has its appropriate setting, urban planners stress, and the options should be seen as complementary.

More than two decades ago, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky proposed the Orange Line after touring BRT systems in Curitiba, Brazil. On the flight back to Los Angeles, he sketched out a preliminary design on an airplane napkin for the city’s first experiment in “rail on rubber tires,” as BRT is often called.

“Our estimation was we would have 7,500 boardings a day when it opened — we had 16,000,” says Yaroslavsky. “When I left office it was carrying 30,000. Today, if you tried to get rid of the Orange Line, people would lie in front of the tractors.”

L.A. Metro is currently planning to replace the Orange Line with light rail, however. “People think rail is higher class,” says Yaroslavsky. “If we had tried to build a light rail in the Valley we still wouldn’t have it to this day, instead of 15 years of Orange Line.”
 


In deep blue Los Angeles, mass public transit investment — a flagship policy of the Democratic Party — is popular as long as it doesn’t conflict with auto transit.


 
Bus-only lanes are even cheaper than enclosed BRT and also effective, though enforcement is a persistent issue, as cars frequently park in the lanes or cut through them to make turns.

On a chilly March evening, parked cars were littered throughout the bus lane on Wilshire Boulevard, forcing the 720 Rapid bus to halt, merge with traffic and then reenter its supposedly protected lane. Passenger Roberto Ortega, however, said the 720 was quick. A nearby passenger, Junior, agreed. “This is faster than the other one, the 20,” he said, referring to the local line.

In San Francisco, cameras on the buses capture the license plates of transgressing drivers. Cities can also paint bus lanes red, better demarcating them. Cone perimeters are quickly set up but come with ongoing labor costs, says John Gahbauer, a researcher at the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies.

Gahbauer studies tactical transit lanes (TTLs), bus-only throughways that target particularly congested blocks or intersections.

“City planners and public works officials now have data on bus speeds and congestion,” he says. “By putting in a TTL, which can be as short as a couple blocks, they speed up buses at pinch points and with very low costs they get very big results.”

Finally, electric bikes and scooters can transport residents from a transit stop to their door, the “last mile” of a trip, when riders find themselves stranded.

“I’m not the world’s most physically fit person but I can go up a hill on an electric bike without breaking a sweat,” says Fraade. “If bike lanes are built out and [E-bikes are] made affordable, they could be really quite revolutionary, especially in a city that has perfect weather year-round and is mostly flat.”

*   *   *

When cars fly

Measure M, a 0.5% sales tax funding public transit in Los Angeles, passed in 2016 with 71% of the vote, easing past the 66% supermajority needed to approve taxes in California. But voters said they only supported Measure M to improve traffic by drawing drivers out of their cars and onto alternative transit modes, according to post-election research by Michael Manville. In other words, a typical Measure M voter approved the tax not to take the transit, but to better stay in his car — in the hope that other drivers would take the train.

The paradox illustrates the city’s inability to address its mobility crisis. In deep blue Los Angeles, mass public transit investment — a flagship policy of the Democratic Party — is popular as long as it doesn’t conflict with auto transit, which is defended so bitterly that when city officials try to flip road space for bike or bus lanes they face recall efforts.

That’s what happened to City Councilmember Mike Bonin when he tried to remove 9.4 miles of car lanes in his Westside district for 4.3 miles of protected bike lanes. The 2018 recall effort failed, but the damage was done.

“The outrage was huge,” he says. “I think the reaction to it has probably set back the momentum behind protected bike lanes citywide.”
 


In Los Angeles, residents insist the city sprawl is incompatible with mass transit, but is it really?


 
In Eagle Rock, no recall efforts yet exist against local politicians, perhaps because County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who serves on the Metro board and represents Eagle Rock as a supervisor, only stated her support for the project on Feb. 17. “It’s provocative,” Solis said of the BRT line, “but I think it’s worthwhile for us to explore.”

“I am on board with it and want to go on the record with that,” she added.

Still, backlash has been at a familiar pitch for several years.

In 2019, Eagle Rock resident Cherryl Weaver, then a spokesperson for Eagle Rock 411, an organization opposing the new Metro plans, called BRT a “3rd world” transit option in a Facebook comment. “Truly, honest to god, if you look at where 98% of where bus rapid transit systems are, they’re not in First World countries, they’re in Third World countries,” she told Capital & Main. “A bus, no matter if it’s bus rapid transit, does not work like a rail system. It’s definitely inferior. What does that say about what they think of our neighborhood versus the Westside, where they’re putting in rail?”

Weaver says she does not oppose BRT outright, but wants it on the 134 freeway, where it won’t impact traffic. No evidence exists that lane removal worsens traffic, however. Rather, expanding roads worsens traffic by encouraging driving, while taking away lanes eases traffic by discouraging driving, an urban planning principle called induced demand. When Los Angeles completed its $1.6 billion lane expansion of the 405 freeway in 2014, traffic increased.

Contrary to the beliefs of Measure M supporters, the same logic follows for transit investment. The Expo line never eased traffic on the parallel 10 freeway, with new drivers soon replacing those now commuting by rail.

“The fundamental reality of a city is there’s not a lot of space,” says Jordan Fraade. “Shared space is the fundamental, inescapable fact of city life.” The question is how to organize that space.

Even autonomous electric vehicles are an inefficient use of city space compared to mass transit options. The Honda Civic, the most popular car in California, is 90 square feet; if its carpool statistics follow national averages, it carries just one passenger more than three-quarters of the time. A car-only road moves a maximum of 1,600 people per hour while a two-way protected bikeway moves 7,500, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials. Bus or light rail can move up to 25,000, a figure the Orange Line exceeded.

Weaver is unconvinced. “The city was built in a way that is almost impossible to become carless,” she says. “If it was a city like Paris, that has one of the most amazing public transit systems I’ve ever seen, it was built on a hub. Trains go out from a spoke and go out to every neighborhood. You’re travelling very close to where you want to go.”

“I see us having flying cars before having carless cities,” she says.

Urban planners recommend staying grounded. For the finest people-moving technology money can buy, try the bus, the train, the bike, or the human stride.


Copyright 2021 Capital & Main

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