The Los Angeles River

April 11, 2016

“The Los Angeles River today is like a scar on the landscape, a faint reminder of what it used to be.”*

Wait. Los Angeles has a river? Get out of town!lariver6

In fact, you’ve probably all seen it, in movies or on TV. That concrete raceway that regularly hosts filmed car chases. Yes. That Los Angeles River.

“By 1960, the federal government had created the fifty-nine-mile storm drain that is still flatteringly called the Los Angeles River.”

In this semi-arid, desert-like location in the American southwest, a, if not mighty, a persistent, let’s call it, river once did flow. Don’t think of the Mississippi or St. Lawrence. The Los Angeles River (and its tributaries and neighbouring county counterparts) provided enough water to help establish and sustain settlements, going well back into the pre-Columbian era. The city itself owes its original location, called El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula by the 16th-century Spanish colonizers, to the river.

The history of the city’s development and its relationship with the rivers running through it offers up a fascinating testament to systematic bungling based on the primacy of self-interest over collective action. lariver5Within about a century of the official establishment of Los Angeles, the eponymous river was near depleted to the point of uselessness in sustaining the communities around it by largely unregulated over-use. When it flooded, which it did regularly and without any discernible pattern, the river was seen more as a menace than a vital element.

If you think political calculation, regional antagonism and mistrust of expert opinion are all part of some modern outcropping of a damaged, corrupt system, don’t despair. They all seem to have been part of the process long before any of our apathy and disillusionment took hold. In the battle to contain and constrain the damaging aspects of the Los Angeles River, possible solutions were routinely ignored and derided. Collective efforts to deal with flood control were undermined by hyper-local and personal interests.

“There was little coordination of effort, and much of the works was in direct conflict. Neighbors became enemies. Farmers were occasionally forced to guard their levees with rifles.”lariver

“Flood protection work at Los Angeles, while more effective than the piecemeal efforts attempted elsewhere, also proved the futility of using a localized approach to combat what was essentially a regional problem.”

Funding the necessary infrastructure through ballot initiatives to contend with the flooding also served as a source of dissension, a very modern sounding problem.

“The chief obstacle to reaching consensus on a flood control bill was a difference in opinion on the way the work should be funded. Some favored he creation of assessment districts, which would tax only those in areas where works was to be done. This method was favored by the Los Angeles City Council and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, not surprisingly, since city taxpayers had already spent considerable money on the construction of levees and were understandably reluctant to spend more to help outlying districts do what they had already done. Others, however, preferred a uniform assessment for all taxpayers throughout the flood-prone area.”

And expert opinions? We don’t need no stinkin’ expert opinions. lariver3We go with our gut, my own personal observation and anecdotal evidence.

“Many of those interviewed who had witnessed the great floods of decades past, however, expressed skepticism that such floods could be prevented and that the rivers could be controlled. One man, who had ridden in a rowboat from Long Beach to Wilmington when the river had overflowed, said, “I have seen some pretty good ones, and if you can tell me how you can put a body of water nearly two miles wide…into an eighty foot channel and only six or eight feet deep, then that beats me.”

“Former California Governor H.F. Gage, who lived beside the San Gabriel River, said, “It’s all rubbish what they propose to do. The people should take care of the river.”

“A man from  the road department was down here. [He] had a lot of expensive ideas, but [they were] principally hot air. lariver2The supervisors can find ways of appropriating money for entertaining a lot of people…but try to do something for the citizens of the county who deserve attention, who are poor and need some help – that is out of the question.”

“But the way the proposition is being handled only makes salaries for some engineers.”

Of course, sacrificing the idea of the greater good at the altar of private interests also played a part in the history of the Los Angeles River.

“Even in 1915, the high price of real estate in Southern California inhibited flood control planning. Because the Los Angeles River was no considered a navigable stream, most of its channel was privately owned and, therefore, had to be purchased before work could be done. The cost of land along the river south of Los Angeles precluded engineers from giving the river a wide berth…The confining of the river into a relatively narrow channel would increase the velocity and erosive power of floodwaters, which meant hat levees would need extra protection…The price of real estate, officials said, also made the construction of a reservoir impractical at the only site on the coastal plain where the development of a large reservoir was physically possible…”

A history that is being revisited in much the same manner again these days.

Fifty years after the river was paved over in what seemed like a final act of the drama, a possible renewal and transformation has emerged as a hot topic. lariver4“The revitalization of LA’s neglected riverfront has gone from social-justice crusade to money-soaked land grab,” Richard Kreitner wrote in The Nation last month. What started as a truly grassroots, community-based movement way back in the mid-80s has become a pitched cultural and socio-economic battle, another stark drawing of lines between the public good and private interests. It’s as if whenever it comes down to water in this city, the specter of Chinatown is evoked.

When it was revealed that starchitect Frank Gehry and his firm had been quietly brought on to draw up plans to transform the river, the normally well-regarded, progressive mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, defended that decision as an attempt to “elevate this [river revitalization] so the civic elite of L.A. realizes this is not a hobby of the activists but one of the grand projects of our time.” ‘The hobby of activsts’. You can’t get much more condescending than that without actually trying. lariverbookAnd, unsurprisingly, once the “elite” get involved, questions of money making and conflict of interest inevitably follow.

How’s that saying go? You can never step into the same river twice, loosely paraphrased. The river may be different. The players involved may have all changed. The politics, though, sound eerily familiar, timeless almost.

 

(* All quotes from the very enjoyable and informative book by Blake Gumprecht, The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death and Possible Rebirth).

all wetly 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


Skid Row

March 4, 2016

You’d think that a city, competing as it might on a 21st-century global scale to attract the best and the brightest, business and industry, skidrowits slice of the tourist trade pie, would do what it could to erase from the guide book maps the Skid Row name of a neighbourhood. It’s so, I don’t know, Dirty 30s. Old school dismissive and denigrating. Get a job, ya lousy hobo!

Or, you know, because morality.

Not Los Angeles. Right there below Little Tokyo, the Downtown Arts District, the Toy District, the Old Bank District. South and east of the Jewelry District.

Skid Row.

I didn’t make my way there to see if it was actually true, if such a place could really officially still exist. I arrived by accident. Not an uncommon occurrence for someone without much spatial-directional-geographic skill who likes to wander cities. Sometimes you wind up in unexpected places.hobo

For anyone who’s been to Los Angeles, homeless encampments are not an unusual sight. Freeway overpasses provide shelter from some of the elements nature inflicts. Under-used strips of sidewalk space outside of fenced off commercial buildings like self-storage businesses keep pedestrian levels low and possible conflict to a minimum. There’s a woman outside the parking lot of my favourite Ralphs living under what seems to be a semi-permanent tarp enclosures.

But the magnitude of the homeless population in Skid Row is nothing short of shocking. Blocks and blocks of largely men, as best as I could tell, simply existing in the streets, some in full makeshift camping like conditions, sleeping bags, tarpoline shelters, suitcases or duffel bags or plastic bags, stuffed with their belongings. Others, just out there, with nothing more than a concrete bed.

I didn’t stop to linger, to take a closer look, to more fully assess the situation. breadlinesI kept my head low, responded politely to anyone who engaged with me, but continued moving. The immediate response to finding myself where I did and recognizing the scale of it, of course, was to turn around, go back to the safety I’d come from.

But I didn’t. I couldn’t. Maybe if it had been dark or late. It wasn’t.

Besides, the immediate fearfulness I felt was completely baseless. No matter how justified every one of these people I passed would be in stomping me to death for my complicity in their current condition, there’d be more chance of me being struck by lightning in this place lightning seldom strikes than being assaulted by anyone here. Even if I were flashing hundred dollar bills and a Rodeo Drive purchased watch on each wrist, the upside for anybody here accosting me would only be short term, breadlines3met most certainly with a heavy-handed crackdown that wouldn’t even have to explain itself.

As I was expressing my discomfort and disbelief on the Twitter (after safely reaching my destination, natch), Tobias Vaughan suggested I look up Jones v. City of Los Angeles. I did. Turns out this city has something of a sad, nasty history of trying to criminalize its homeless. “Is LA the meanest city in America to its skid row homeless?” The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless cite a 2007 UCLA study pointing out that, at the time, “… Los Angeles was spending $6 million a year to pay for fifty extra police officers to crack down on crime in the Skid Row area at a time when the city budgeted only $5.7 million for homeless services.” The kind of crime? mymangodfreyStuff like jaywalking and loitering.

I haven’t seen more recent data to know if things have changed. If conditions were less dire for those living on Skid Row now than before, that’s difficult to imagine. How could it be worse? Less police harassment?

This, at a time when other jurisdictions have accepted the fact that using the criminal system to penalize and deal with the homeless is much more expensive and ineffective than actually trying to deal with it in a more constructive manner. “If you want to end homelessness, you put people in housing,” the director of Utah’s Housing and Community Development Division, Gordon Walker said. “This is relatively simple.”

It’s not as if there isn’t space to construct housing in the area of Skid Row, filled as it is, unsurprisingly with derelict buildings and empty lots. sullivanstravelsThe problem with that, I imagine, would be you’d establish a sense of permanence. The homeless housed. Skid Row as an actual place, with actual foundations, as opposed to just a name on a map, a name that can be changed when the conditions warrant.

A more traditional approach would be to slowly squeeze Skid Row out of existence. As downtown Los Angeles DTLA continues to revitalize outward, and make no mistake, it is revitalizing – the margaritas I found out on the fringes were fantastic! — there will eventually be no place for a Skid Row here. It’ll linger only as a hip bar name. Homelessness won’t cease to exist, of course. It will simply be re-located where people like me wouldn’t possibly want to go to or find ourselves by accident.

This is not a problem unique to Los Angeles. Remember, even Toronto the Good criminalizes ‘aggressive panhandling’ with its very own Orwellian named bylaw, the Safe Street Act. skidrow2Safe from what and for whom exactly? For the likes of me, naturally, from the nuisance and annoyance of having to deal with the result of the unfairness and inequality we like to, instead, ignore and wish away.

Until we actually get serious about dealing with homelessness, and all the facets that create it, there’s never just one reason someone finds themselves living on the streets, maybe it’s good a Skid Row remains on the map. It’s there for people to see if they choose to look close enough. Huh. Skid Row. That’s still a thing? How?

incredulously submitted by Cityslikr


Vernacular Of The Vine

March 2, 2016

guestcommentary

(With yesterday’s Public Works and Infrastructure Committee’s unanimous vote of approval for the Hybrid #3 option to keep the Gardiner East expressway elevated, a timely post from our L.A. correspondent, Ned Teitelbaum)

*  *  *

For some time now, I have been playing a game in my head whereby I compare the freeway system of L.A. to a system of vines in a vineyard. losangelesvineywardHow, for example, would a particular vineyard be helped if a little strategic pruning were done? Would the vines allow for a more effective transport of minerals and nutrients to the grapes? And how, analogously, would the city of Los Angeles be helped by a judicious pruning of its freeways? Would cars move more freely into our pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods? Is that a good thing? A bad thing? Some wine-growers like to stress their vines, but could that very stress lead to grape rage?

Okay, so the analogy isn’t exact. But this particular act of analogizing is not so far-fetched, because while we don’t usually think of L.A. as wine country, that’s exactly what it was for the first hundred-plus years of its existence, with the earliest vineyards being established in 1781 at the Mission de Los Angeles. At first they were planted primarily to the drought-resistant, low-acid Airen grape from La Mancha, in Spain. Soon they were joined by other vitis vinifera and spread throughout the area. cheonggyecheonMany vineyards were added in the early 1800s and the industry was well-established by the time the Forty-Niners hit northern California with a rapacious thirst for Los Angeles wine.

The vineyards, unfortunately, were torn up long ago, but palimpsests of that key period of L.A.’s wine history abound, from the random ubiquity of grapes growing in private gardens and backyards to the streets named after early L.A. winemakers like Vignes, Kohler, Wolfskill and Requena. And then there’s the world’s most iconic street corner, Hollywood and Vine, which marks the transition from a town tied to the land to a city hitched to the stars.

L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne had not dissimilar thoughts on “trimming” (his word) what he calls the “stub end of the 2 freeway as it bends south and west from Interstate 5 and dips into Silver Lake and Echo Park.” Upon reading the article I wanted to celebrate. cheonggyecheonafterI had been waiting for this moment in L.A. history, when the city would decide, or at least decide to decide, that it was time to start pruning.

The plan for the 2 freeway doesn’t call for tearing it down (or uprooting it, in the language of the vine), but for re-purposing it. Traffic lanes would be reduced and narrowed, and housing and storefronts would go up along its sides. A park would be built down the middle, which would connect to the L.A. River, where another park is currently being planned under the direction of Frank Gehry. There is even a notion to run a resurrected light rail through it, from Downtown to Glendale, summoning the memory of the Red Cars of two generations ago.

This all comes against the backdrop of other cities removing their urban highways, from the Embarcadero in San Francisco, to the Whitehurst Freeway in Washington,DC, to Harbor Drive in Portland to Cheonggyecheon in Seoul. Could L.A. join this illustrious list of cities? hollywoodandvineIt’s beyond imagination – and, most probably at this time, beyond the imagination of city leaders as well.

Mr. Hawthorne knows it won’t be easy. But even in the letters to the editor critical of his idea (which most of them were), one could sense that the status quo is to nobody’s liking. Being aware of that is a good first step. Los Angeles will surely not be able to support the number of vines (or cars) that it once did, but that shouldn’t prevent it from pruning, as well as uprooting, in order to save the vineyard.

vino veritasly submitted by Ned Teitelbaum


Validation

February 22, 2016

Men with serious shoes and bags of flavoured pita chips present their parking tickets for store validation as their first order of business with the check-out cashier. pitachipsUshers inform the audience of the running time of the film they’re about to see, assuring them that it’s well under the 3 hour free parking limit. “If you choose to stick around after the movie to grab something to eat or do a little shopping,” the usher continues, “the validation machine is down on the second floor so drivers can get themselves a discounted parking rate.”

This is a city firmly gripped by the cult of the car.

I drove a rental car to the pedestrianized area of downtown Culver City where I paid a full $3 to park for 2 hours. If I’d taken transit, it would’ve cost me $3.50 (x 3 people) round trip. And don’t talk to me about the additional dollars for operating a motorized vehicle unless you’re prepared to also talk about the society wide externalities of automobile use.italianshoes

On my runs and walks through nearby neighbourhoods, travelling south from Santa Monica Boulevard, as the midrise condos and apartments give way to fully detached single family houses, residential streets are full of parked cards, on both sides of the road. These are areas with long driveways running up and into long lots. Driveways, many of which are already filled with two cars with space for one or two more, and yet still, drivers and their vehicles appropriate the streets, their street numbers stencilled into the curbs in front of the house.

This is a city fully engulfed in car cult madness.

“Cars are wonderful, but they’re very expensive in terms of their impact on the environment and the cost that it takes to maintain them and to keep them up,” [Dallas City Manager A.C.] Gonzalez said. “But they’re wonderfully convenient.”

Like Los Angeles, Dallas, Texas is another city trying to come to terms with its car-centricity, not just in terms of mobility but equality. It turns out the two are inextricably linked. mclaren1Maintaining the private automobile atop your transportation system hierarchy is expensive and ultimately unsustainable, the heaviest burden, unsurprisingly, falling on those individuals and communities least able to afford keeping pace. Convenient for some translates into out of reach and impractical for others.

“Cars are wonderful” if you can afford to operate them as a manageable part of your household budget. “Cars are wonderful” if you’re not relegated to neighbourhoods that are a two hour drive away from your place of work, school and every other necessary amenity to maintaining a tolerable quality of life. “Cars are wonderful” if they are the only realistic way to get about your day in any sort of realistic time frame. They pretty much have to be, right?

An enforced car reliance is an attack on equality and fairness. You might not need a car in places like Los Angeles to conduct the business of living but the reality on the ground is that it’s a whole lot tougher if you don’t drive. crowdedbus2Google ‘carless los angeles’ and you get an immediate sense of the novelty of it. Unless of course you’re looking at low income, racialized parts of the city.

There’s no question Los Angeles is currently undergoing a transformative, higher order transit build. Subway and LRT extensions all over the place! Yet there’s some question that it’s come at the expense of bus service, draining much needed operational and capital needs and resulting in service cuts and fare hikes, negatively impacting the biggest users of public transit in the city, bus riders. Some of the most vulnerable residents of the city left to fight it out over much-contested road space against the undisputed transportation kings of the road, car drivers.

A transit system that remains 2nd-class, always taking the backseat to the needs of private automobile owners, will never be a viable option to those with a choice whether to use it. fieldofdreamsAs long as car driving remains subsidized and given preferential treatment as overwhelmingly as it is here in Los Angeles, public transit will continue to be an after-thought to everybody who sees it as an after-thought already, a nuisance, something for other people. Public transit isn’t Field of Dreams. Simply building it is not enough. You have to attack the culture, mindset and privilege that inhibit its progress.

How? You start by stop validating the primacy of private car use in your transportation system.

matter of factly 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