Matt Yglesias argues that Los Angeles has turned the corner in promoting mass transit and is poised to become “America’s next great mass-transit city”:
The process started in earnest with the construction of the often-scoffed-about Red and Purple subway lines in the 1990s. This began to create the bones of a major rapid transit system. But it’s kicked into overdrive in the 21st-century thanks to the confluence of three separate incidents. First, Rep. Henry Waxman, the powerful House Democrat who represents L.A.’s Westside, went from being a NIMBY opponent of transit construction to an environmentalist booster. Second, Antonio Villaraigosa was elected mayor in 2004. Third, in 2008, L.A. County voters passed Measure R, a ballot proposition that raised sales taxes to create a dedicated funding stream for new transit. Thanks to Measure R and Waxman, a new Expo Line connecting downtown to some of the Westside is already open, and work will begin on a “subway to the sea” beneath Beverly Hills soon. The same pool of money also finances expansion of the light rail Gold Line and the rapid-bus Orange Line while helping hold bus fares down…
Perhaps most importantly of all, the city is acting to transform the built environment to match the new infrastructure. A controversial plan to rezone the Hollywood area for more density has passed. The city has also moved to reduce the number of parking spaces developers need to provide with new projects, following the lead of the smaller adjacent cities of Santa Monica and West Hollywood. A project to reconfigure Figueroa Boulevard running south from downtown toward Exposition Park as a bike-and-pedestrian friendly byway is in the works, and pending the outcome of a November ballot initiative, a streetcar may be added to the mix. At the northern end is the massive L.A. Live complex of movie theaters, restaurants, arenas, hotels, condos, and apartments—the biggest downtown investment the city had seen in decades, constructed between 2005 and 2010. At the southern end of the corridor is the University of Southern California, which is planning to redevelop its own backyard to look a bit more like a traditional urban university village.
Los Angeles continues, like almost all American cities, to be primarily automobile oriented. But the policy shift is having a real impact on the ground. The most recent American Community Survey showed a 10.7 percent increase in the share of the metro area’s population that relies on mass transit to get to work, matched with a 3.6 percent increase in driving. And that’s before several of the key Metro projects have been completed or the waning of the recession can drive new transit-oriented development.
As work continues, people will find that Los Angeles has some attributes that make it an ideal transit city. Consultant and planner Jarrett Walker notes that the city’s long straight boulevards make it perfect for high-quality express bus service. And then, of course, there’s the weather. Something like a nine-minute wait for a bus, a 15-minute walk to your destination, or an afternoon bike ride are all more pleasant in Southern California than in a Boston winter or a sweltering Washington August. As a quirk of fate, the East Coast of the United States was settled first, so cities with large pre-automobile urban cores are clustered there. But the fundamentals of climate and terrain are more favorable to walking and transit in Los Angeles than in New York. The city could have simply stuck with tradition and stayed as the first great metropolis of the automobile era. But it’s chosen instead to embrace the goal of growing even greater, which will necessarily mean denser and less auto-focused. While the Bay Area and many Northeastern cities stagnate under the weight of oppressive zoning codes, L.A. is changing—by design—into something even bigger and better than it already is.
Three other factors I think are in Los Angeles’ favor:
1. The metropolitan region is actually denser than all others in the United States:
The nation’s most densely populated urbanized area is Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, Calif., with nearly 7,000 people per square mile. The San Francisco-Oakland, Calif., area is the second most densely populated at 6,266 people per square mile, followed by San Jose, Calif. (5,820 people per square mile) and Delano, Calif. (5,483 people per square mile). The New York-Newark, N.J., area is fifth, with an overall density of 5,319 people per square mile
Mass transit works best in denser conditions when more people are within reach of mass transit stops/stations and it is more difficult to maintain and park a car. Los Angeles is rightfully known for sprawl but it is denser sprawl.
2. Los Angeles does have an earlier history of mass transit: streetcars were widely used in the early 1900s.
During the early and mid-1900?s the historic streetcar served as a popular mode of transportation along Broadway. The Los Angeles Streetcar system was primarily operated by Pacific Electric (1901-1961) and developed into the largest trolley system in the world by the 1920?s. This breath of scale enabled residents and visitors alike to routinely traverse the Los Angeles region, and connected many of Southern California’s communities. The system operated for over half a century, and at its peak traversed over 1,100 miles of track with 900 electric trolley cars; this dense network produced a rate of public transit usage higher than San Francisco does today on a per capita basis.
For years the system was considered by many to be “the vital cog in the city’s transportation system,” and according to author Steven Ealson, provided transportation for millions who enjoyed the streetcar so much they would “ride for miles simply for fun or for transportation to places of amusement.” The demise of the streetcar began with the unprecedented development of single-family tract housing designed and built to accommodate automobiles. This pattern of development quickened during post-war housing construction, and accelerated the demise of the streetcar system as the region became dependent on private transportation.
Read more about how General Motors was involved in dismantling the streetcar system in many large cities, including LA.
3. I wonder if a larger proportions of Los Angeles residents and leaders are simply fed up with highway traffic and want to now look at different options. Remember “Carmageddon“?
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