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


Wilshire Rapid 720

February 8, 2016

The rumblings have died down somewhat from January’s LA Times article about the recent dip in public transit ridership in Southern California. disbandedthepta“For almost a decade, transit ridership has declined across Southern California despite enormous and costly efforts by top transportation officials to entice people out of their cars and onto buses and trains.” How is that possible? transit advocates wonder. You’ll never get people here out of their cars, confirmed drivers assert.

There’s been pushback to the article, unsurprisingly, Human Transit’s Jarrett Walker for one. Starting with Perils of Transit Journalism I: Don’t Let Trendlines Confuse You and going forward to his response to the anti-transit triumphalism of Randal O’Toole at the Cato Institute, Mr. Walker forcefully and thoroughly makes the case why the Times’ story is actually less than it seems. I’ll leave it for you to get into the meat of the argument but one significant thought popped out at me.

“A broader point here is that ridership, and especially ridership trends, are meaningless unless they are compared to the service offered to achieve them,” Walker writes.

This echoes the common fallacy that transit ridership is generated by infrastructure.

In fact, transit ridership comes from operating service. Infrastructure is mostly a way to make that service more efficient and attractive, but its impact on ridership is indirect, while the impact of service is direct.

Or, as he sums up in a later post: “What matters is not what is built but what is operated.”

This is key, as municipalities rush in to build out their transit networks with the latest and shiniest technology. godzillaHere in Los Angeles, one LRT extension opens next month, another in May. A subway line is being added to in the slow march toward the coast.

Toronto too is suddenly all abuzz with new plans for expanded subway and LRT lines. Finally! We are joining the 21st-century.

“What matters is not what is built but what is operated.”

Los Angeles, like almost every North American city that isn’t New York, has a transit system heavily, heavily dependent on its buses to keep it operational. 74% of transit users here, I believe it is, use a bus. Most riders have to get to the higher order transit lines cities like Los Angeles are investing in. The only way to do that, both economically and from a built form standpoint, is by bus.

One of the reasons floated for the drop in transit numbers here was a recent fare increase combined with bus service cuts. The same situation the Toronto mayor, John Tory, faced when coming into office back in 2014. busadForget Build It and They Will Come. Don’t Run It Properly (and Charge More For Doing Less) and They’ll Stop Coming.

This was a very theoretical argument for me, living where I do in Toronto, with my easy access to non-bus transit. But I’ve become a bus rider while in Los Angeles, and things look quite different from the seat (or not) of a bus. This is the defining public transit experience for a solid majority of transit users. You want to increase ridership? Make taking a bus a better way of getting around.

I’ve been taking the Wilshire Rapid back and forth. It’s an express version of the local service, running from Santa Monica in the west, east to downtown. Stops are further apart, meaning less time with ons and offs. There’s a dedicated bus lane during rush hours, for fits and starts along the route that is, more or less observed, depending on how heavy the car traffic is.busschedule

The ride has worked for me more than not although it is still a small sample size. My time hasn’t been of the essence on any of these outings, so an extra 10, 15 minutes or so wasn’t not an issue. If it had been,  I would’ve left that much sooner. Another luxury I have getting around.

Bus travel, at least along the Wilshire Boulevard route, isn’t all terrible. But is that any way to sell people on it, to increase ridership numbers? Take the bus. It doesn’t suck.

Except when it does. When you’re packed tight, standing for close to an hour in close quarters with strangers, that woman, nodding off in her seat, keeps dropping her open beer can on the floor, adding to the cloying fragrance. Is that Axe that guy’s wearing?

The Wilshire “Rapid” grinds to a further halt as it crawls into mixed traffic at the Beverly Hills city limit because it doesn’t care for dedicated bus lanes, like the city’s been fighting to stop a subway running below it. It’s not lost on any passenger who’s able to see out a window that this part of Wilshire Boulevard is lined with luxury car dealers. mclarenBMW. Ferrari. McLaren.

If bus service is integral to a properly functioning transit system, and it is for almost every transit system, and if your goal is to get more people using the transit system and out of their cars, and it should be for every major city, road hierarchies must change. That is the key rather than — or an important addition to — building high end transit infrastructure. Buses must run regularly, on time, and as convenient and pleasantly as possible.

The only way to do that, until at least until we’ve invented flying buses, and that takes us back to big ticket transit projects, is to start squeezing cars, making it more expensive to drive them, taking road space from them and giving it over to the smooth and efficient operation of buses. wilshirebuslaneI sometimes wonder if those like Randal O’Toole claim to be bus “champions” because they realize the only way for a bus dependent transit system to fully function is at the expense of the private automobile. Assuming that’ll never happen, not in their lifetime, not if they have their way, it means public transit will always be a second rate way to get around, never a question of choice but necessity.

As long as that remains the case, the lowly bus as the afterthought in transit planning, building ridership will always be an uphill battle.

bussily submitted by Cityslikr


De-Pave Paradise And Tear Down That Parking Lot

September 14, 2015

guestcommentary

(A post-concussion follow-up to yesterday’s post from All Fired Up in the Big Smoke’s Los Angeles correspondent, Ned Teitelbaum. Another in our series, To Live and Drive In L.A., The Battle for Road Space edition.)

***

Still emerging from the fog of my concussion, the city starts to come back into focus.

I see how the City Council passed the Mobility Plan 2035 by a broad margin, with all but two of our city council members voting in favor of it. rowenaavelaThe plan is a series of goals that includes such boiler-plate objectives as expanding bicycle ridership and providing frequent, reliable on-time bus arrivals. It looks great on paper. But implementing it without pissing off drivers? Well, that’s another matter.

Take Rowena Avenue, for example, in our Mayor’s own Silver Lake district. The street was one of the first to be put on a road diet two years ago, and there has been nothing but controversy since. Traffic is backed up, and nobody seems to be using the bike lanes. Drivers are frustrated, and frustrated drivers go where frustrated drivers go, namely onto our residential side streets. But the change looks likely to remain since it helps the city move toward its Vision Zero Initiative of reaching zero traffic deaths by 2035.

Bravo, I say.

But the acrimony over the Rowena fight has now wafted over to the Hyperion Bridge fight next door. hyperionbridgelaThere, another re-striping war has been engaged. Once again, activists want to reduce the car lanes, this time from four to three, with the extra space going to both sides of the bridge for walkers and cyclists. A template of a letter that people can e-mail to their City Council representatives was put out by the advocacy group LA Walks and urges the city to back this plan so people can enjoy “the bridge’s beautiful and historic belvederes,” from both sides. And indeed, one major difference between Rowena and the Hyperion Bridge is the latter’s almost irresistible invitation to stop and gaze, to take up the river breeze and just breathe. The letter asks, “Why do we want to prevent people from enjoying one of the city’s best views of what will soon be a revitalized LA River?”

No arguments from me. But the Board of Public Works has already balked once at the idea, and even the Mayor’s own rep at the time of the vote, Matt Szabo, refused to back the plan. Said Szabo, referencing the Rowena traffic clog, “I can’t in good conscience vote for anything that would compound that situation.”

toliveanddieinLA

Perhaps Mr. Szabo should take another look. Yesterday, I was on Rowena, and I noticed a distinctly calmer traffic flow. I even spotted a cyclist. I said ‘Hi’ but I don’t think he heard me.

sunshine hazily submitted by Ned Teitelbaum