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.

Los Angeles Rapid Bus taken on April 17, 2008 in Westwood, CA.
A Los Angeles Rapid bus line

Photograph courtesy of AllyUnion/Wikipedia.

On a recent visit to Southern California, I began my day in Claremont, where I’d spoken the previous evening at a Pomona College event. I walked from a hotel near campus to the Claremont Metrolink station, where I grabbed a commuter rail train to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. From there I transferred to the L.A. Metro’s Red Line and rode up to the Vermont/Santa Monica station and checked into a new hotel. I had lunch in that neighborhood, and later walked east to meet a friend for dinner and drinks in Silver Lake.

My father, a lifelong New Yorker and confirmed L.A. hater whose screenwriting work has frequently taken him to the City of Angels, found the idea of a carless California day pretty amusing. But the city that’s defined in the public imagination as the great auto-centric counterpoint to the traditional cities of the Northeast has quietly emerged as a serious mass transit contender. It’s no New York and never will be—Los Angeles was constructed in the era of mass automobile ownership, and its landscape will always reflect that—but it’s turning into something more interesting, a 21st-century city that moves the idea of alternative transportation beyond nostalgia or Europhilia.

Los Angeles has made this remarkable and underappreciated shift because it has never stopped growing. The core Los Angeles municipality never experienced the kind of postwar population crash that afflicted Northern cities.

In 1940, there were 1.5 million people in the city. Twenty years later, it was almost 2.5 million. By 1990 it was close to 3.5 million. Today it’s 3.8 million and still climbing. The larger metropolitan area has ballooned to 13 million residents, leaving Chicago in the dust as America’s second city. And even though the area is built in a sprawling sunbelt format, the geography of surrounding mountains, ocean, and national forests physically constrains L.A.’s growth. Because of that, the average population density throughout the urban area is actually the highest in America even though the core is much less dense than an Eastern city like New York or Boston. The result was legendary traffic jams, combined with a practical inability to widen the arterial freeways that form the backbone of the city’s transportation infrastructure.

The usual response to too much traffic in the United States is to strangle growth. New development would mean more cars would mean more traffic, so cities adopt rules to block new development.

That’s how San Mateo County between San Francisco and Silicon Valley managed to muster a measly 1.6 percent population growth in the past decade despite enviable access to two of the highest-wage labor markets in America. Over the past 20 years, however, L.A. has chosen the bolder path of investing in the kind of infrastructure that can support continued population growth, and shifting land use to encourage more housing and more people.

The process started in earnest with the construction of the often-scoffed-about Red and Purple subway lines in the 1990s. This began to create the bones of a major rapid transit system. But it’s kicked into overdrive in the 21st-century thanks to the confluence of three separate incidents. First, Rep. Henry Waxman, the powerful House Democrat who represents L.A.’s Westside, went from being a NIMBY opponent of transit construction to an environmentalist booster. Second, Antonio Villaraigosa  was elected mayor in 2004. Third, in 2008, L.A. County voters passed Measure R, a ballot proposition that raised sales taxes to create a dedicated funding stream for new transit. Thanks to Measure R and Waxman, a new Expo Line connecting downtown to some of the Westside is already open, and work will begin on a “subway to the sea” beneath Beverly Hills soon. The same pool of money also finances expansion of the light rail Gold Line and the rapid-bus Orange Line while helping hold bus fares down.

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.

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.

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