A Transit State Of Mind

April 2, 2016

As Los Angeles prepares to push another sales tax initiative to raise $120 billion for a massive 40 year expansion of its transit and transportation system, it is not without contention. losangelestransitThere’s the usual stuff, like who gets what and when, the best use of money on the proper technology, i.e. bus, light rail, subway, will this really help relieve congestion. Nothing other jurisdictions haven’t had to deal with in one way and at one time or another.

But 20 years in to this massive and ongoing project, there are some L.A. specific quirks to the proceedings.

Take, for example, the fact that some of the existing transit lines here were built on abandoned freight track beds, the old streetcar tracks from a once vibrant system back in the day having been ripped up, their routes paved over by some of today’s urban freeways, as local legend has it, meaning I heard somebody say it or read it somewhere, Reyner Banham probably, and couldn’t be bothered to do any research to see if it was true. Using the old freight corridors made the new transit lines less expensive. Also, and again I’m guessing here, it kept the new transit projects from competing for actual road space, thereby reducing conflict with car drivers except when they had to wait at level street crossings for the trains to pass.

One of the consequences of building transit lines in old freight corridors was pointed out by Gene Maddaus in LA Weekly a couple weeks back. reynerbanham“Those freight lines were generally designed to serve industrial areas and to avoid commercial centers,” Maddaus writes. “This explains why they sometimes run just out of reach of vibrant and walkable shopping districts.” New, more transit friendly development doesn’t magically appear when new transit is built. Until it (or if it ever) does, ridership may not meet projections, congestion may not be relieved, leading to existential questions about the very viability of transit, blah, blah, blah.

I bring this up not to engage directly with the debate, put transit where it’ll take immediately versus build it and they will come, not that there’s necessarily an either-or to that equation, just the best use of limited resources and all that. I raise it as a long-winded introduction to my Tale of Transit Travel This Week: Part They Put A Bus Stop Here?!

Metro’s Green Line runs 20 miles inland from the city’s South Bay beaches to within figurative spitting distance of LAX, and east, greenline1through or near communities like Hawthorne, Crenshaw, Compton, Lakewood, before ending in Norwalk. It is almost entirely an elevated LRT except when it runs along the median of Interstate 105. The Green Line connects with 2 other rapid transit lines, the Blue and Silver which both connect passengers to Long Beach and San Pedro to the south, respectively, and downtown and beyond to the north.

I arrived at the Aviation/LAX station a little earlier than expected, and looking to kill some time, found myself pretty much in the middle of nowhere. That’s not exactly true. You could see a residential neighbourhood not far from the platform, a midrise apartment building going up right across the street. The airport runways were just over there. The 105-405 freeway interchange sat above me in the opposite direction. Grab a coffee and a breakfast burrito? Not so much. So I just reloaded my transit card instead and looked at the station art.

Three bus lines stop at this particular station. There are certainly surrounding neighbourhoods to provide a walk-up ridership although, I did tell you there were 2 freeways nearby plus all your airport service roads, right? So it’s not exactly a pleasant morning stroll to the train.

Not that anyone’s arguing every transit station has to be a destination. Networks and systems are going to have spots that work as nothing more than stops along the way. greenlineIt’s that end, and that end, this hub and that one, that determine the necessity for a particular line or route. Besides, there’s something significant and symbolic about riding transit right in the teeth of the very symbol of car culture, the freeway.

But this was just a prelude to the real fun and excitement. Four stops on, I hop off at the Harbor Freeway station to make my connection to the Silver Rapid Bus Line. Yep, the 110 freeway, running from San Pedro, north to downtown Los Angeles and on to Pasadena. Uh huh. The LRT connects to a bus in the middle of a highway, a busy, busy highway.

My first thought was, where the hell am I? This is where I get off? You have to walk along the platform which is above the freeway, and down a set of stairs to the bus stop. silverlinestopThe overwhelming sensation that hits you is, it’s loud. Fucking loud. I don’t know, the overhang of the station catches the noise from the train departing and all the cars racing by below you. You actually have to shout to be heard. It’s unpleasant.

The bus stop is even more disorienting. At the bottom of the stairs, you wind up right smack dab in the middle of a busy expressway, cars whipping by you in both directions. Sure, you’re pretty well protected but still. How often have you found yourself standing in the middle of a highway, waiting for a bus? Moreover, how exactly do you promote development around this rapid transit stop?

I know, I know. It’s bus rapid transit, just a bus, but do not doubt the rapid part, at least not along this highway stretch. The Silver Line runs a more local service in San Pedro and through downtown, but on the 110 and 10 past downtown out to El Monte where it ends? You fly. silverlinestop1Like a bus with Sandra Bullock in the driver’s seat.

I really should’ve kept time but we moved nearly 12 miles (including a couple stops) in what seemed like minutes, 15, 20? We certainly passed cars, stuck in traffic as they were, riding in our dedicated bus lane. It was fast. While you regular Greyhound users may not be impressed, this is a blast to someone who’s spent an inordinate time on city buses over the past 3 months or so.

Never mind the joy such a ride brings to a transit tourist like I am. How about the vital role in providing true mobility to those who really need it? It may not be pretty. It may not be particularly flashy. But there’s a real sense of empowerment, looking out of the window of a bus, traveling uncontested along the freeway, zipping past cars bogged down in congested traffic.

Public transit cannot always be just about ridership numbers and the latest, sleekest technology.  speedIt shouldn’t simply be boiled down to delivering the biggest bang for the buck. Serving up a consistent, even if only brief, boost of, I don’t know, fun and sense of unimpeded forward motion can go a long way to encouraging transit users to believe that their time matters and that the city isn’t always designed as an obstacle to them getting on with their lives.

speedily submitted by Cityslikr


Transit Zeros (10 Of Them, In Fact)

March 26, 2016

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 Gold Line

March 18, 2016

It ain’t easy, building public transit in the automobile age we live in. Demands are greater. Expectations higher. proveitPurse strings much tighter to pry open.

Cars are the status quo. The status quo gets a wider pass when it comes to building, rebuilding and over-building all the infrastructure necessary to maintain its primacy. Look at Toronto lately. Want to speed up repairs on the Gardiner Expressway? Money found. Done. A billion dollars more may also be spent keeping another section of that highway elevated just right. Done, and done.

Here in Los Angeles, the local public transit builder and provider, Metro, seems overly concerned about holding drivers’ hands, assuring them that they’re driving interests are being looked after too. “Metro eases traffic by tackling bottlenecks.” “Metro eases traffic with more options for drivers.” “Metro funds $430 million worth of local improvement projects each year, from signal synchronization to filling potholes and repaving roads.”

Yet every transit decision made – subway or LRT, rail or bus, this alignment or that – seems microscopically scrutinized in comparison. Success of whatever claims are made for public transit must be immediate and absolute. therethereAn empty bus spotted running its route is seen as a failure. An empty freeway or parking lot? Not so much.

My friend Ned and I rode the Gold Line yesterday, from end-to-end, Atlantic station in the central-east, around, up and out to the newest terminus, APU/Citrus College in the more north-east. The line just opened up a new, “6 stations, 5 cities”, 11.5 mile extension into the foothill communities of the San Gabriel Mountains to much anticipation and mixed reviews. Boon or blunder/One has to wonder?, the tormented transit poets asks.

“Politics brought the Gold Line into existence,” rail enthusiast Ethan N. Elkind wrote in the Los Angeles Times this week, not at all favourably.

Better mass transit is necessary across the region. But not every part of the county has the population to support rail. In the case of the Gold Line, we’ve brought expensive train technology to a generally low-density area that could be more economically served by bus rapid transit or commuter buses running in the right-of-way.

In the LA Weekly over the past week or so, Gene Maddaus has been writing extensively about the transit future of Los Angeles, exploring the complicated politics of it. Will More Transit Actually Ease L.A.’s Traffic? he asks in one article. goldline2On the Gold Line yesterday, running alongside the packed 210 freeway for a bit, it’s hard to respond to Mr. Maddaus’s question in the affirmative. We’re building all this and traffic’s still bad? Not to mention that earlier this year, it was reported that transit ridership numbers were down. We’re building all this and people aren’t using it?

All these questions and concerns are legitimate and should be asked and not shrugged off. The 6 new stations on the Gold Line certainly do feel more like a commuter rail service. All stopped right next to parking lots. There was little sign of much street life around any of the stations (albeit, just from my view aboard the train). When we arrived at the last stop, we got out to get a coffee. goldlineINot seeing anything in the immediate vicinity, Ned asked a woman who had just parked her car and was heading to the Metro to get to the Kings game downtown (one less car on the road which is not insignificant) if there was a nearby coffee shop we could get to. “Walking?!” she responded, as incredulously as that. Not easily. Not quickly.

Should this LRT have been a bus lane instead? Maybe. But we all know the politics of that. Buses engender little love or respect. Buses in their own dedicated bus lane can draw the ire of drivers.

That isn’t meant to negate the argument. It’s just that the rigorousness applied to building and paying for public transit is rarely brought to bear when it comes to other forms of transportation, and by other forms of transportation, natch, I mean the private automobile. Conventional wisdom seems to already be that self-driving cars will relieve us all of our congestion woes. trafficcongestionHow do we know that to be a fact any more than we know the Gold Line should’ve been a bus route instead of an LRT?

In discussing the upcoming ballot initiative to raise $120 billion for new transportation projects, former Los Angeles County supervisor, Zev Yaroslavsky said, “Everything’s gotta go perfectly for Metro politically” for the measure to win. Perfectly. On a measure that includes, according to the LA Times Transportation and Mobility writer, Laura J. Nelson, nearly 20% of the proposed money would go to highway construction and enhancements. Where 80% of the 18.4 cents federal gas tax still goes into roads.

Billions of dollars being spent to build, expand and enhance roads and freeways when we know, categorically, that doing that only serves to increase driving numbers, cars on the road, congestion. stubbornBut when it comes to public transit? It’s gotta be perfect.

We need to change the terms of this debate. Driving cannot be the default mobility mode around which everything else must function. It will be an uphill battle. It will not happen overnight. That’s the thing about the status quo. It’s dug in deep. Dislodging it will take a lot more effort than it should.

confoundedly submitted by Cityslikr