The economic, social, and environmental injustices of L.A.'s misguided mass transit system

The political class’s obsession with splashy big budget projects like light rail wastes billions and deprives vulnerable citizens of decent transportation. It’s also terrible for the environment, small businesses, and even global stability (seriously).

With apologies to Jim Morrison, the Big Blue Bus is calling us….Except we’re not listening.

LOS ANGELES – Certain phrases come to define certain cities. Someone (probably not Mark Twain) famously said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Lost to obscurity is the first person to have remarked, “New York never sleeps.” Likewise unknown to history is whomever first observed, “No one in L.A. rides the bus.” Angelenos’ collective love/hate relationship with their cars, their obsessive quest for the quickest routes and best shortcuts, is as integral to the city’s identity as palm trees, side hustles, and the Lakers (RIP Mamba). It’s no surprise, then, that in the decade since the country emerged from the great recession Angelos have reverted more furiously than ever to their car buying and driving ways. As a result mass transit usage has plummeted to historic lows.

What’s playing out on L.A.’s streets, roads, and highways is the opposite of what decades’ worth of public planning anticipated. Starting in the 1970s politicians and bureaucrats began to focus more on modes of transportation other than the automobile. During his 1973 run for mayor, then councilman Tom Bradley made transit a city priority for the first time in over half a century. He promised, ambitiously, to break ground on a new rail line within 18 months of his inauguration. He consciously invoked the first half of the twentieth century, when Los Angeles had the largest light rail network in the world. And in 1973 the idea made eminent sense, as cars of the era were lead and smog spewing behemoths that bear as much resemblance to today’s efficient vehicles as the SpaceX Falcon Heavy resembles Sputnik.

Mayor Bradley’s initiative proved prescient, but for all the wrong reasons. It didn’t take 18 months but instead nearly 30 years for his promise to be fulfilled by the Red Line subway. The city’s experience with the project presaged things to come: It took twelve years just to break ground and another fifteen years to complete. It was more than a billion dollars over budget, and construction was plagued by route changes and accidents including a methane explosion, a massive sinkhole, and the deaths of three construction workers. As the New York Times observed at the time, “L.A.’s first subway will almost certainly be its last.” Indeed, it proved such a fiasco that officials scrapped plans for a citywide subway network modeled after New York’s. Nevertheless, by the 1990s the city’s political class was committed to the expansion of mass transit, as well as bicycling and walking (scooters and ride sharing were not yet gleams in Silicon Valley bros’ eyes). Angelenos today are living with the consequences of those decisions.

The planners have been wrong on virtually every front. Their imagined millions of transit riders instead have overwhelmingly chosen private vehicles. Thanks to increased supply, the availability of credit, and the rise of companies like Carmax, virtually anyone can afford a car. In 2015 the state also started issuing drivers licenses to some one million illegal immigrants (studies suggest many of those people already were driving). As housing became increasingly unaffordable, many Angelenos moved away from urban centers to suburbs and exurbs, increasing their reliance on cars. As a result of these and other factors millions of motorists remain behind the wheel, perhaps observing occasionally and with curiosity as a nearly empty billion dollar train whizzes overhead, on its way to nowhere useful.

Rather than adapt to reality, in a very real sense officials are seeking to punish Angelenos for their failure to embrace the mass transit Utopia. Every policy is predicated on the quest to increase congestion and slow traffic to the point that driving becomes so miserable and time-consuming that transit actually seems like a reasonable alternative. Politicians and bureaucrats use an entire lexicon of euphemisms – road diets, complete streets, livable streets, great streets, multimodal transportation, micromobility – to obscure this central fact. As accidents increase they declare streets safer. As businesses fail they claim economic booms. They seem to be following Vladimir Lenin’s edict that a lie told often enough becomes truth.

L.A.’s transit is bad and getting worse

None of the proffered transit alternatives are nearly as efficient as an individual automobile. The biggest failings are routes, travel time, and safety. In terms of routes, it was always fanciful to believe L.A. could recreate the Red Car system, which has reached positively mythical status among city planners. When the original system (really a network of interconnected operations) was being built much of L.A. was open space. In 1910 it was relatively easy to extend a line from Hollywood to the Pacific Ocean. Beverly Hills didn’t even exist. Zoning laws were rudimentary and routinely flouted, and there were no environmental laws. Today, of course, construction of even a single new station requires negotiations with property owners, years of environmental review, zoning changes, contracts and subcontracts, and the inevitable litigation.

As a consequence L.A.’s light rail and subway lines go where they can, not where they’re most needed. Consider the much-ballyhooed Expo Line that connects downtown L.A. with Santa Monica. It roughly follows the old Santa Monica Air Line route that was discontinued in the 1950s. Unfortunately that route bypasses the corridors where transit, especially light rail, makes the most sense. Particularly west of Culver City, none of the stations are located in high density commercial, business, or residential areas. Many of the stops, including Bundy, Sepulveda, Rancho Park, and Palms are relatively isolated from surrounding areas. The closest businesses to the Sepulveda station are Anawalt Lumber and a furniture store. The construction of a new 595 unit apartment complex doesn’t change the equation, as that development specifically targets Google and other tech workers at the newly converted Westside Pavillion mall. A mass transit solution it is not.

This light rail is bound for nowhere.

Buses should be a logical solution in L.A. but they are notoriously slow and unreliable. According to L.A. Metro’s new “NextGen” initiative, one of the agency’s primary goals is to “assure service is no more than 2.5x slower than driving.” Only in the world of government bureaucracies does being two and a half times slower than the alternative count as success. Consider what that would mean for the average Angeleno: If a person’s commute is 45 minutes each way they’ll spend an hour and a half in traffic every day. Bad enough, but that’s nothing compared to the 3.75 hours required on transit – in a best case scenario. Assuming that person works 48 weeks a year they’ll spend more than a month sitting on the bus. Thirty-seven and a half days a year, much of it in close proximity to drunks, addicts, lunatics, and vagrants. Add in the inevitable delays, inefficiencies, and other disruptions and the hours get even worse.

How do you want to spend your time?

Lastly, the city’s spiraling homeless and crime rates make transit use dangerous, or at least create the perception of danger. According to a 2019 report in the Los Angeles Times, one in five Metro riders have reported being harassed on trains. Many more incidents go unreported. A 2016 survey found that 29% of riders had stopped using the system altogether due to safety concerns.

Many stations are poorly lit at night. Women in particular report feeling unsafe (though women comprise the majority of transit riders in L.A. it wasn’t until last year that Metro bothered to study their safety concerns).

Nevertheless, the city is doubling, tripling, and quadrupling down

Metro, the city’s Department of Transportation, Department of Public Works, and other departments are forever devising new ways to prioritize trains and buses over even the heaviest vehicular traffic. The city recently reconfigured the signals at dozens of intersections to give priority to the Expo Line light rail. It’s commonplace to see scores of cars and buses stopped for several minutes as a nearly empty train approaches and crosses. Elsewhere, such as on Lincoln Boulevard between El Segundo and Santa Monica, Public Works has timed stoplights to create maximum congestion at peak hours. The intersection of Lincoln and Washington, one of the busiest on the Westside, alternates two minute red lights on Lincoln versus just thirty second green lights. The result is gridlock in which it takes as much as fifteen minutes to cover even a couple of blocks. It’s congestion by design.

Meanwhile, thanks in part to historic congestion L.A.’s air quality at times has plummeted. Vehicles stopping, starting, and idling produce far greater emissions. So much for sustainability.

In short, L.A.’s current transportation policies, particularly the prioritization of transit, leaves everyone worse off. Even the most reliably pro-transit sources, including the Los Angeles Times and a network of blogs including Curbed, Streetsblog, LAist, and others have been forced to acknowledge the failure of transit in Los Angeles.

Immigrants and the working poor hurt worst

The city’s incoherent, ideologically motivated transportation system does the most harm to cohorts the city’s allegedly progressive leadership claims to care about most – low-income people, immigrants, the disabled and the elderly.

Immigrants have led L.A.’s ten-year car buying spree. According to a January 2018 report from the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies commissioned by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), between 2000 and 2018 vehicle ownership by both documented and undocumented immigrants grew at a faster pace than any other groups. Low income households also acquired private cars at a disproportionate rate compared to the population as a whole.

Critically, the authors of the report, entitled “Falling Transit Ridership: California and Southern California,” concluded “With very few exceptions, acquiring an automobile in Southern California makes life easier along multiple dimensions, dramatically increasing access to jobs, educational institutions and other opportunities.”(Kawabata & Shen, 2006) As a result, pulling low-income former riders out of their cars and back onto trains and buses could make transit agencies healthier but the region poorer.” (emphasis added)

The UCLA/SCAG report makes clear that access to a private vehicle opens up opportunities that are not available to transit users. Again, this is particularly true of lower income people who don’t have the luxury of doubling or tripling their commute times. The Mexican immigrant landscaper cannot haul hundreds of pounds of equipment on the bus. The domestic worker cannot haul supplies on a train. At the same time, the increased traffic and congestion steal precious hours from those who are paid that way.

In contrast, a car is a second office for many white collar professionals. Unlike the landscaper or domestic worker, a lawyer can bill hundreds, even thousands of dollars an hour talking on the phone. The same is true of many other service and creative professions. Indeed, for many people “car time” is quite valuable, an opportunity to make calls or brainstorm ideas without interruption from colleagues or family. Again, the same cannot be said of the immigrant worker idling in the next lane.

Alas, Metro itself has yet to face any of these realities, nor has L.A.’s political class. They’re doubling, tripling, and quadrupling down on transit. Their plans run from the mundane, like bus rapid transit (BRT) lanes, to the positively fantastical, such as a proposed monorail connecting the San Fernando Valley and LAX. The latter would cost an estimated $13 billion (count on that doubling or tripling if and when the project ever gets built; see also, California High Speed Rail). That would be on top of Metro’s already eyewatering $7.2 billion annual budget.

Truth is as strange as fiction: L.A. officialdom is seriously considering a monorail connecting the valley, the Westside, and LAX.

Angelenos are spending more time in traffic, burning more gasoline, and enriching foreign regimes

Global security comes into the frame. During the transition to new sources of energy and fuel petroleum will remain the economic backbone of the city, state, and country. Unfortunately California’s political class have adopted the policy known as “keep it in the ground.” Despite sitting on the fifth largest petroleum reserves and the third largest refining capacity in the country, not to mention potentially vast untapped supplies in the Outer Continental Shelf, California imports some 60% of its oil from overseas. A third of those imports come from Saudi Arabia, with supply also coming from other bastions of progressive human rights and environmentalism like Russia, Venezuela, Iraq, and Angola. Nearly half of this foreign crude transitions through the Strait of Hormuz, one of the most geopolitically volatile places on Earth. Indeed, even as the rest of the country shifts toward domestic petroleum, California’s imports have increased dramatically.

The consequences are evident: As the country moves ever closer to true energy independence, California remains at the mercy of foreign disruptions. The Iranian attacks on Saudi oil fields last September led many analysts to warn of a price spike. Thanks to domestic supplies, those fears proved unfounded – except in California. Prices here surged.

Even if the much-ballyhooed Green New Deal were plausible (it isn’t) it would be decades off, meaning that millions of people will continue to put gasoline and diesel into their cars and trucks idling on congested roads. Los Angeles, and California in general, could reduce our dependence on foreign oil by reducing fuel consumption in the sort term. The only way to accomplish this goal is to relieve congestion. Instead, the political class is making it worse. As a result billions more dollars will flow from Califorians’ pocketbooks to some of the worst regimes in the world. Mohammad bin Salman and Vladimir Putin no doubt are delighted with California.

With planning and systems based on outcomes and demand, Los Angeles could have a truly world class transit system. As long as those plans and systems remain in thrall to anti-car ideology, the system will continue to underperform, costing untold billions while increasing emissions, reducing economic opportunities, and costing billions of hours of wasted time. This is no way to run a mass transit system.

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