How Los Angeles—Yes, Los Angeles—Is Becoming America’s Next Great Mass-Transit City

How to make a huge change, and succeed.
Sept. 17 2012 3:45 AM

L.A.’s Transit Revolution

How a ballot initiative, a visionary mayor, and a quest for growth are turning Los Angeles into America’s next great mass-transit city.

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In a less concrete-intensive vein, L.A. public policy has also embraced bicycling in the wake of a 2009 mayoral visit to Copenhagen, the world capital of bike infrastructure.

Perhaps most importantly of all, the city is acting to transform the built environment to match the new infrastructure. A controversial plan to rezone the Hollywood area for more density has passed. The city has also moved to reduce the number of parking spaces developers need to provide with new projects, following the lead of the smaller adjacent cities of Santa Monica and West Hollywood. A project to reconfigure Figueroa Boulevard running south from downtown toward Exposition Park as a bike-and-pedestrian friendly byway is in the works, and pending the outcome of a November ballot initiative, a streetcar may be added to the mix. At the northern end is the massive L.A. Live complex of movie theaters, restaurants, arenas, hotels, condos, and apartments—the biggest downtown investment the city had seen in decades, constructed between 2005 and 2010. At the southern end of the corridor is the University of Southern California, which is planning to redevelop its own backyard to look a bit more like a traditional urban university village.

Los Angeles continues, like almost all American cities, to be primarily automobile oriented. But the policy shift is having a real impact on the ground. The most recent American Community Survey showed a 10.7 percent increase in the share of the metro area’s population that relies on mass transit to get to work, matched with a 3.6 percent increase in driving. And that’s before several of the key Metro projects have been completed or the waning of the recession can drive new transit-oriented development.

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As work continues, people will find that Los Angeles has some attributes that make it an ideal transit city. Consultant and planner Jarrett Walker notes that the city’s long straight boulevards make it perfect for high-quality express bus service. And then, of course, there’s the weather. Something like a nine-minute wait for a bus, a 15-minute walk to your destination, or an afternoon bike ride are all more pleasant in Southern California than in a Boston winter or a sweltering Washington August. As a quirk of fate, the East Coast of the United States was settled first, so cities with large pre-automobile urban cores are clustered there. But the fundamentals of climate and terrain are more favorable to walking and transit in Los Angeles than in New York. The city could have simply stuck with tradition and stayed as the first great metropolis of the automobile era. But it’s chosen instead to embrace the goal of growing even greater, which will necessarily mean denser and less auto-focused. While the Bay Area and many Northeastern cities stagnate under the weight of oppressive zoning codes, L.A. is changing—by design—into something even bigger and better than it already is.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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