Monday, November 27, 2017

Los Angeles looks for the recipe to someday make itself a great transit city

This article originally appeared at Mobility Lab.

People often say it’s difficult to make a blueprint for how to plan transportation because every place across the world is different.

That may be somewhat true, but certain principles can apply everywhere and, at last week’s LACoMotion conference, there were promising signs that Los Angeles can usher in a more nuanced era than its historical image as the nation’s car capital.
When asked during a panel discuss what L.A.’s mobility revolution looks like, Katherine Perez-Estolano of the planning firm Arup said basic connections still need to be made throughout the region to make it easier to get across town.
“You get out of this area [the Downtown Arts District] just a few blocks and there are no paved sidewalks and [many sidewalks end mid-block]. It is the most interesting laboratory in the world. Everybody’s wondering what L.A. will do,” she said. “I’m kind of past urban transport and mobility, and I’m into a whole different place about how we access space and place.”
Just having that positive and creative-minded attitude alone – which is similar to the one L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti relentlessly has, including in his keynote address to the conference attendees – are steps in the right direction.
And all the happy talk is backed by reality. Bike lanes are popping up everywhere in the city. The powder-blue Expo Metro subway/light-rail line takes people from downtown to the ocean in Santa Monica in under an hour. Measure M is ushering in a massive transportation plan for the county and funding to support it.
“The number of places served by mass transit is going to more than double in the next 10 to 15 years. We’ll start having transit-oriented communities and people will start walking in those neighborhoods,” said Joshua Schank, chief innovation officer for Los Angeles County Metro.
But L.A. still has a Herculean task on mobility
There are so many good things happening in the City of Angels that it feels a little harsh to constructively criticize.
But one of those criticisms: Despite all the bike lanes in downtown and elsewhere – not to mention the increasingly excellent bikeshare system that ideally will continue expanding outwards from downtown – L.A. still feels very different than, say, Washington D.C. In the District, most drivers have come to expect other types of road users. In L.A., from my recent experience of biking and walking over the course of six days, the cars mostly rage past at significantly uncomfortable speeds. People on bikes are supported by stripes and sometimes green paint on the roads, but little else to prevent the creeping feeling of imminent doom.

Two, take the above-mentioned powder-blue Expo Line, most of which is above ground and offers good views of the passing neighborhoods. There is almost no transit-oriented development all the way to the coast. That will become necessary to get people out of their cars, and right now it looks like a major uphill battle since it’s almost all single-family households immediately adjacent to the line. I’m not convinced that the route was very thoughtfully or creatively planned. But then again, L.A. is pretty jam-packed with sprawling households everywhere, and there may not have been much else of a choice.
Three, there’s the Metro Red Line, which opened in 1993 and carries impressive amounts of passengers between Union Station downtown out to North Hollywood. Buses lines expand the transit system from all the stations, but those buses take an often-prohibitive long time. I disembarked at several Metro Red stations, but they are really spread far apart and are no doubt unattractive to the many people who have jobs near the halfway points between stations.
There’s another real concern that truly does speak more specifically to L.A. – and California cities in general – and that’s the shocking and sad degree of homelessness. Governor Jerry Brown was recently quoted saying that his state had succeeded at getting about 74,000 of the 75,000 people with mental-health problems released from prison. He noted that the new problem is that about 1,000 still remain behind bars and the rest are living on the streets because there is nowhere else for them to go.
This affects public transportation greatly. It’s no stretch to imagine a lot of people simply won’t ride transit because they’ve had uncomfortable or even unpleasant run ins with mentally-ill people. They were sleeping in every station I visited and riding every train I took, and sometimes this can add to the appearance of dirty or unsafe trains and buses. And compared to many systems around the world, L.A.’s transit is indeed dirty.
Some of L.A.’s expansion of transit will need to address these issues to truly make a dent in car culture. As it stands, according to the L.A. DOT’s general manager Seleta Reynolds, “You can get to 12 times as many jobs in L.A. by car as you can by transit. Not having a car can be tough in L.A.”
How to make a mobility future happen in L.A.?
Perez-Estolano again made a great point: that people will need to almost be tricked into using “transportation options” without knowing they are having to do so.
“There’s power in allowing people to be engaged and participating in things when they don’t even know they’re being engaged,” she said, citing the CicLAvia events that close iconic and busy Wilshire Boulevard for hundreds of thousands of people only on bikes and foot.
And don’t forget about marketing. If there’s one thing we can count on L.A. doing well besides miserable traffic, it’s entertainment. The city is the best transit advertiser in the U.S. – albeit with a ridiculously low bar, but still notable.
“It’s really a lot about marketing,” agreed Gabe Klein, the former leader of both D.C. and Chicago’s DOTs. “In Copenhagen, you get off the plane and there’s a giant picture of a bike and how to use your transit card.”
All transit agencies could be better at making the case for whatever positive claims-to-fame they might have. Klein noted that it’s faster to use Divvy bikeshare for most trips in downtown Chicago than to use the train. Jay Walder of Motivate said the same is true for Citi Bike over yellow cabs in Manhattan. Those notable claims, along with many others, should be better publicized.
No matter where you live, one thing does remain the same. “People are lazy,” said Sean Rhodes of the design firm frog. “People bike in Copenhagen not because gas is $10 a gallon or for health. They bike because it’s the fastest way to get around. As that becomes the situation, you’ve still got to be safe and comfortable, and it’s got to be super easy. We’re energy conserving and lazy and that’s just the way it is. We’re not going to change that.”
Rhodes added another funny sidenote: “People in Denmark say they don’t exercise. But they ride eight miles to work. We need to make the healthy sustainable options the default.”

L.A. is no great transit city yet. The percent of people who take transit in L.A. is equivalent to the percent of people who do so in Buffalo, N.Y., said Gina Trombley from Bombardier Transportation.
But again, the city’s leaders may truly end up setting the agenda for the rest of the country on how to reimagine a world of transportation options that will align with the needs of young and future generations. Many of the speakers at LACoMotion expressed the right mindset – pretty simple stuff, really – as they get started.
“I hope there are mobility hubs where people congregate and create happy neighborhoods,” Reynolds said.
Photos by Paul Mackie/Mobility Lab.