Transit Zeros (10 Of Them, In Fact)

One of the things I can’t get my head around while winterly situated here in Los Angeles, on the city’s westside is, despite the area’s affluence, your nearby Beverly Hills, your Bel Airs, Brentwoods, Santa Monicas, waitingforthebusthe whole Westside scene, I’m living in a relative rapid transit desert. Lots of bus service, for sure, but the nearest LRT stop is the better part of a half-hour bus ride away, and the subway nearly an hour. It takes a long time to use public transit to get to almost anywhere else in the city from here.

This is pretty much the complete opposite from my regular place of residence in downtown-ish Toronto. While not as entirely upscale as this area in Los Angeles, it’s doing alright, thank you very much, and it is awash in access to public transit. Buses, streetcars, subways, you name it. You can get everywhere but to some of the farthest reaches of the city in a not entirely unacceptable period of time.

Ease of transit access with plenty of mobility options is a fairly standard characteristic of desirability in neighbourhoods and cities these days except when it’s not. waitingforthebus1Like on the westside of Los Angeles which has had history of fighting any invasion of rapid transit, from subways to bus lanes. But these places are more enclaves than neighbourhoods, existing outside or above the notion of city rather than as part of it.

Despite such resistance, however, rapid transit is continuing its slow march to the Pacific. In May, the Expo LRT line will open up an extension westward into Santa Monica. There are plans to continue burrowing the Purple Line subway under Wilshire Boulevard in order to eventually connect the woefully underserved UCLA Westwood campus and Ronald Reagan hospital complex. If, that is, the latest ballot initiative, a successor and extension of the 2008 Measure R, gets the thumbs-up from 2/3s of voters when it goes before them in November, to bump the L.A. County sales tax another half-a-cent which would raise $120 billion over the next 40 years, all dedicated to building transportation projects. waitingforthebus3Lots and lots of transportation projects.

The passage of this measure, finalized for consideration this June, would usher in yet another frenzy of transit building in Los Angeles, a city already something of a frenzied madhouse of transit building for a couple decades now. More than 3 dozen mass transit and highway improvements over the next 40 years, according to the LA Times’ Laura J. Nelson. Pretty much 40-in-40 if you can get your head around that degree of expansion.

“What we’ve been saying is, everyone is going to get something, and no one is going to get everything,” a Metro Transportation Agency representative said.

Fair enough, on the face of it. $120 billion is a lot of money, $3 billion a year over 40 years, but it is still a limited resource. Not everyone will be completely satisfied. Just how unhappy some are, however, will determine if this proposed measure passes muster in November.

Early indications are not particularly encouraging. waitingforthebus4For anyone familiar with the Toronto Scarborough subway dogfight, the downtown-suburban divide that’s emerged over what would get funded and when throughout the some 88 municipalities within L.A. County with the new money is a very familiar one. “The system is certainly stacked against (small) cities,” said [James] Ledford, the mayor of Palmdale [a city of about 160,000 residents, about 100 kilometres northeast of Los Angles]. … “The downtown interests are certainly being taken care of.”

Routine territorial resentment aside, there is some irony in that fact that the westside of the city which has long resisted subway expansion (albeit, a fight lead almost exclusively by the municipality of Beverly Hills) could get not one but two subway lines, projects that are sitting atop the proposed list. While the argument in favour of them is persuasive, a denser population area with job hubs and a natural transit locus at UCLA and nearby hospitals, should the rest of the county, waitingforthebus5step aside and wait their turn because the transit need here is, at least in part, self-inflicted?

It’s not like some of the westside cities are being particularly gracious about the arrival of rapid transit either. With the coming of the Expo Line LRT to Santa Monica in May, there’s a “slow-growth” group, Residocracy, attempting to raise funds and signatures for their own ballot initiative, Land Use Voter Empowerment (LUVE) that would put the development process firmly into residents’ NIMBY hands. Thanks for the rapid transit, L.A. Make sure your asses are on that last train out of here when you leave.

Transit planning is so political. That’s not a novel observation, not here in Los Angeles certainly. When they began the big transit build in earnest with the first subway back in the 90s, the Bus Riders Union formed and eventually won a landmark civil rights case against the transit agency for using funds to construct shiny, high-end projects at the expense of much needed bus service throughout the rest of the city, waitingforthebus6establishing the idea of transit equity, transit justice. Transit planning is so political, with a dash of class conflict thrown in.

Metro’s approach to contend with that reality this time around seems to be to overwhelm everyone with the sheer scale and number of projects that it would seem impossible for anyone to ask: What’s in it for me? The question the initiative’s proponents may have to answer, though, is: What’s in it for me before I die at a ripe old age? A 40 year horizon is pretty hard to see, to grasp, to pitch to your constituents. 2056?! That’s like the title of some sci-fi B-movie.

If this ambitious plan is to proceed, starting with winning enough votes in November, project priority may have to be reworked, based not on sound planning principles but political necessity, not to mention fairness and actual need. waitingforthebus7Where is the biggest captive transit ridership in the county? Probably not on the westside of Los Angeles.

In an ideal world…but that’s not where we live, is it. Transit planning isn’t ultimately about best practices. It, like almost every other aspect of politics, is rife with compromise. Getting things done right gets truncated to simply getting things done. You accept that and hope the difference between one word doesn’t translate into having got things wrong.

by-the-numbersly submitted by Cityslikr

The Bus

“What brand of shoes are those?”italianshoes

While the question wasn’t directed at me, I looked up from my book, curious. Was this a typical conversation that you might overhear during a bus ride in Los Angeles? The two gentlemen proceeded to talk quite extensively about the need for having a good pair of shoes, where to get a good pair of shoes at insanely cheap prices (downtown L.A., if you’re wondering, 7th and Los Angeles, to be exact, Little New York, one of the guys called the area), and how measuring foot width is as important as length. I silently regretted my choice of more sensible shoes for this outing. Man, I so could’ve been in on this conversation had I worn my Fluevogs!

I have become a regular bus rider during my time here, plopped down as I am on the suburban westside of town. The nearest rapid transit line is about a 23 minute bike ride or 80 minute walk. Nobody walks 80 minutes to take transit unless, you know, Fitbit, am I right?

So I take the bus. Like nearly 3/4s of all public transit users in Los Angeles. It’s a fact of life if you’re getting around this city without a car.metrotransitmap

Buses aren’t glamorous. Buses aren’t spiffy. Seldom do you think of buses as sleek or any other car commercial descriptive that comes to mind. Buses rarely beckon politicians to ribbon cutting ceremonies.

What buses do, however, for almost every North American city that didn’t get in big to the 19th-century subway craze, and grew up and out with the post-war automobile age, buses provide the backbone of their public transit systems. If your bus service isn’t fully functioning, your transit system isn’t either, regardless of your shiny subways and light rail. The quickest way to improve public transit is to improve your bus service.

But buses. So, 2nd-class.

My painter friend, Donald – not actually a painter, not actually named Donald, actually named Ned, All Fired Up’s L.A. correspondent, it’s just a phrase I like to use because Lou Reed did – Ned and I took a trip out along the Orange Line across the San Fernando Valley. It is a dedicated bus lane that connects to the Red Line subway terminus at North Hollywood. metrobusorangelineA real life, honest-to-god bus lane, protected from mixed traffic and with either signal priority or incredible luck with traffic lights. We zoomed westward, stopping almost exclusively only to pick up or drop off passengers, through places anybody even vaguely familiar with pop culture would recognize. Laurel Canyon. Van Nuys. Reseda. Tarzana. Canoga Park.

As we went, Ned told me that back in the day, this was originally planned to be a rail connection to the subway, appropriately it would seem, since it was running along the rail bed of the ol’ Southern Pacific Railroad line that operated in these parts during the first couple decades of last century. But wouldn’t you know it, and in a refrain familiar to those experienced in transit debates, there was local resistance to anything but a subway being built on the route. Too costly an option and, again for anyone aware of Toronto’s Scarborough subway debate, not an ideal mode to build for the type of urban design, built form the Valley was and remains.

The debate got lengthier and wackier. Residents didn’t want rail unless it was underground or unless the alternative was a bus lane. metrobusWhat?! Buses? OK. Let’s make it rail, even if it’s at-grade. Problem was, in their previous anti-rail zeal, state legislators made a law banning all non-underground rail in the Valley, a law which has now been overturned, paving the way for an LRT to eventually replace the Orange Line bus lane.

There is no transit planning that is not politicized transit planning, it seems. Which may just be an unfortunate inevitability of living with other people, we are political animals, after all, all of us in our own ways. The real problem though, as I have seen it, is that those really politicizing transit planning tend to be people who don’t take transit very often, if it all. How will this transit project affect my ability to get around in my car?

Non-transit users tend to like the idea of buses because they see them operating in mixed traffic, big lumbering vehicles that have to pull to the side of the road to pick up or drop off passengers, easy, sooner rather than later, to get around and get along your speedy way. That is, until you propose, taking a lane or two of road away and building a dedicated lane where buses can go about their transit business, free of snarled car traffic. metrobus1Then, all bets are off.

Non-transit users may also express a preference for buses because they can’t ever envision themselves ever getting out of their car and using public transit. Ever. So why spend all that money on fancy trains that they’ll never use. Never. Ever.

Public transit decisions made by those who have a transit choice.

I imagine if you ask even the most dedicated or dependent public transit user, what mode of public transit they’d prefer to use, the bus would be down their list. The ride is rarely as smooth as a rail glide. It can’t possibly go as fast as a subway. They can be bumpy, shaky and rattle-y.

Buses are the last option for those without many options.

So what’s with the buses already? Mothball them. Start building shiny stuff, fast stuff. metrobus2Let’s pimp our public transit rides.

Even if the barrel of money to build transit was bottomless, and we all know it isn’t, you couldn’t dig subways to everywhere you needed unless we all were prepared to Manhattanize or go full on Hong Kong. There isn’t the street space or capacity to run LRTs along every route you’d need to generate the ridership you’d want to make for an effective transit system.

The simple truth is, to design, build and operate a fully-functioning, robust transit network, you need buses. Buses are like the capillaries of the system (if I understand my anatomy correctly which I can’t guarantee), feeding riders into and onto the bigger capacity lines that take them to their final destination, work, school, the mall, home. Buses best provide local service while at the same time, if done right, treated well, delivered with a sense of purpose instead of resignation, buses can build and strengthen ridership growth. Like the Orange Line has done in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley.rodneydangerfield1

We need to stop dismissing buses, treating them as symbols of failure or reluctant compromises, or using them as a cavil in politicized transit debates, either in favour of spending buckets of cash on unnecessary high orders of transit or doing the exact opposite. Better buses, better bus service means a better transit system. More people happy and willing to ride the bus rather than choosing to do so as a last resort means fewer people driving their cars.

And fewer people in their cars mean more people knowing where to get good shoes cheap.

round-and-roundly submitted by Cityslikr

The Conservative Public Transit Blues

What is it with conservative politicians and their loathing and disregard of public transit?robfordstreetcars

Granted, I’m going out at the far end of the political spectrum and south of the border, referring to the comically diabolical but somehow frighteningly real Koch Brothers – equal parts Montgomery Burns and Lionel Barrymore’s Henry F. Potter – and a bunch of southern Republican lawmakers. Together they set out to push back a Nashville plan, where only 2% of daily commutes are made by public transit, for a Bus Rapid Transit route.

The Tennesse state senate passed a bill with an amendment that read:

This amendment prohibits metropolitan governments and any transit authorities created by a metropolitan government from constructing, maintaining or operating any bus rapid transit system using a separate lane, or other separate right-of-way, dedicated solely to the use of such bus rapid transit system on any state highway or state highway right-of-way unless the project to do so is approved by the legislative body of the metropolitan government and by the commissioner of transportation. This amendment also prohibits such entities from loading or discharging passengers at any point within the boundary lines of a state highway or state highway right-of-way not adjacent to the right-hand, lateral curb line, or in the absence of curb lines, the right-hand, lateral boundary line or edge of the roadway.

None of your fancy dedicated bus lanes in these parts, you stinkin’ communists.

Now we get the Koch Brothers’ angle. Oil industrialist types, private vehicle use fuels their empire. overturnbusPoliticians taking donations from them or their arms length groups like Americans for Prosperity, or simply those relying on them for information, such as it is, will do their legislative bidding.

That’s pretty straight forward.

But the otherwise conflicted conservative attitude toward public transit couldn’t be on better display than in this interview with William Lind, director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation. From a fiscal, free-market standpoint, the upside to public transit is clear. Mr. Lind also notes that the more people you get onto public transit, the less cars there are on the roads and, thus, less congestion.

On the other hand, buses and… race. Seems the whiter shades of the middle class don’t care to darken the doors of a bus because… well you know where this goes.poorbus

Race and class are never too far from a transit debate. In the battle over the Nashville BRT, some folks were concerned about transit bringing the ‘riff raff’ into their neighbourhoods. An invasion of ‘burger flippers’ needed to be guarded against.

In Los Angeles, the wealthy enclave of Beverly Hills has fought off a subway expansion and peak hour bus rapid transit only lanes along Wiltshire Boulevard. Swimming pools, movie stars. But we certainly don’t want the help messing with the ambience of the place, getting here more quickly and easily. There is a dark whole of nothingness on the city’s transit map in much of the north-west side of LA where the rest of Los Angeles’ subway, lametromaplight rail and bus expansion fears to go.

Up here, I think, such issues are not so overt, the question of race not so fraught with history. Still, there’s something about the push for subways as ‘1st-class transit’. The whole Scarborough subway fight was underpinned by a certain social status anxiety. If downtown gets a subway, why not Scarborough. Vaughan is getting subway? Why not Scarborough?

Anything less, even those sleek, reliable, iPads of transit, LRTs would not be good enough. (Even a bona fide, bike riding lefty can get all caught up in transit envy.) It would be an indignity, a slight, a civic slap in the face. What, Scarborough isn’t good enough for a subway?

Of course, a certain conservative faction at city council grabbed hold of the fight for not only political reasons but, ultimately, as a way to kick building public transit even further down the road. Promise subways, subways, subways everywhere and, the reality is, you won’t have to build them anywhere, at least not in the foreseeable future. A subway on Sheppard. A subway on Finch. A subway in every backyard. The more ridiculous the claim, the better because the less likely it will ever be built.fingerscrossed

Back in 2010, how many subways did the mayor promise to have built by now, 2014? And how many have been built? Rinse, and repeat.

The conservative leader of the opposition at Queen’s Park has taken a similar tack, promising subways to everywhere throughout the GTA, LRTs to none. When’s that going to happen? When the provincial deficit is eliminated. Uh huh. And how’s he propose to pay for them? Finding efficiencies and waste.

So yeah. Don’t be counting on subways any time soon.


It’s hard these days to reconcile conservative politics with sound public policy especially when it comes to public transit. Maybe that’s because their base has dwindled to regions where public transit remains negligible, sweetridein rural and suburban areas. But I think the harder truth is the conservative movement has been hijacked by those who simply believe there is no such thing as the greater good. We’re all just self-interested individuals making our way alone in the world.

There are no free rides, just sweet rides. If you want to get anywhere, you don’t do it, sitting at the back of bus.

fed uply submitted by Cityslikr