Los Angeles: Some Thoughts on the Challenge for “The Source”

The blog of the main Los Angeles transit agency, The Source, interviewed me recently on the challenges and opportunites of Los Angeles as a transit metropolis.  It was a chance to pull some of the main themes of this blog together as applied to that fascinating city.  They’ve published it in two parts, but here is the whole thing:

Question:  Compared to other places where you have done transit network consulting, what makes greater Los Angeles unique in terms of its challenges and opportunities for improving its public transportation network?

You have tremendous opportunities in Los Angeles because you have a population that’s eager to see public transit succeed, and leadership that understands that only public transit can provide comprehensive alternatives to traffic congestion.  The challenge now is to take the enthusiasm that went into Measure R and direct it toward other kinds of political investment.  We know that voters will raise their taxes to fund a long-term rail plan.  Now we have to ask for another kind of commitment: the apportionment of scarce space on your streets.  The streets won’t get any wider, so what’s the fairest way to use them?  Street width is the new currency.

A few years ago I had a memorable ride on the Ventura Blvd Metro Rapid from Warner Center to Sherman Oaks.  The service flowed smoothly through Tarzana and Encino but then got stuck in two miles of gridlock leading up to I-405, as it often does, and the crowded bus spent 20 minutes going almost nowhere.  It made no sense.  Cars can only fit onto 405 at a certain rate, especially if they’re going over Sepulveda Pass.  So in the current arrangement, the surplus traffic is stored blocking Ventura Blvd.  Why do you give over the entire width of Ventura Blvd, and effectively shut down the street, just for the purpose of storing waiting cars?  Why don’t you set aside a through lane for transit (and perhaps also for taxis, HOVs, and certainly for emergency vehicles) so that efficient use of the street can continue even as the cars pile up?  What would be the effect on traffic?  Simple: the pile of stored cars would be narrower and longer.  But meanwhile, people could get where they were going, and emergency vehicles could get through to save lives and property.

DSCN2599 Chokepoints in a network are huge opportunities for transit, but only if transit can get past them.  This bit of Ventura Blvd is one example.  Another is the Sepulveda Pass itself.  Caltrans is widening the freeway to add HOV lanes, which will finally give buses a clear path around gridlock, so that from the Valley to Westwood they can start offering the only truly reliable means of getting through the Pass.  If it works reliably you may see a range of services extended through the Pass to broaden the reach of that advantage.

But Los Angeles is almost done widening roadways.  It’s time to make hard choices about how to apportion the space that you have.  The great boulevards of Los Angeles can be, in their own way, as magnificent as the boulevards of Paris.  In the last decade Paris has added bus lanes on virtually every one of its boulevards, mostly at the expense of traffic lanes.   Traffic isn’t any worse than it was, because once people see that transit is getting through reliably, some of them choose to use it.

Question:  Los Angeles has somewhat of a unique geography.  Instead of having one central downtown, like say New York or Chicago, LA has a number of activity centers, from Westwood to Warner Center to Burbank to LAX.  How can public transit effectively serve all these disparate areas?  How would you design a network to serve this kind of city?  What would be some of its key features?

While a lot of effort has gone into downtown Los Angeles in the last few decades, LA is still a constellation of many dense centers, and that is one of its great strengths.  Sometimes you hear people say that the key to great transit is to have a single, dense downtown that everyone’s commuting to, like Manhattan or Chicago’s Loop.  Actually, that’s a recipe for very inefficient transit, lots of trains and buses flowing full one direction, but then flowing almost empty the other direction.

As a constellation of centers, Los Angeles has many corridors where demand flows both directions all day.  That’s what makes Wilshire such a superb rapid transit market: it isn’t a big destination at one end and residences at the other, like Chicago.  It’s lots of destinations and lots of residents all along the way.  That means people are going both ways all the time, so the trains and buses can be full both directions, not just one.  Many of the great transit corridors of Los Angeles have that feature to some degree.

But that means, too, that in Los Angeles people are going from everywhere to everywhere, and you can’t run a direct transit line from everywhere to everywhere.  It’s been tried.  It’s still being tried in Sydney, Australia, for example, and it’s a mess.  Hundreds of bus routes overlapping each other, each doing something slightly different, most of them not frequent enough to be worth waiting for.  The Los Angeles RTD of 30 years ago was more like that, but Metro has done great work in simplifying the system over the years.

So connections are absolutely crucial.  You have to be able to get off one bus or train and onto another.  That has to be attractive.  It has to be normal.  Fare penalties for transferring, for example, are a problem.  The cost of a trip from A to B should be based on where A and B are, not on whether you have to change at C to get there.  Metro’s fare penalties have historical and legal explanations, but that doesn’t mean they make sense for the future.  There’s a need to rethink that, in the context of your smartcard system, so that the fare system serves the same strategy that the network design is serving.  Right now, the two seem headed in different directions.

DSCN2519 Question:  In several posts on Human Transit, you’ve discussed the Metro Rapid Bus network, describing it as the best service that could have been implemented city-wide, given time and resource constraints.  Yet, to this day, only the initial lines on Ventura Blvd. and Wilshire Blvd. have received the “full treatment,” (i.e. shelters, information signage, etc.) leading some to see the project as having failed to live up to its billing.  Going forward, what needs to happen to fully realize the promise of the Rapid Bus system?  What initial compromises should be reexamined?

The Metro Rapid brand followed a predictable arc that you see with a lot of great ideas.  First you do a demonstration project in the strongest possible market – which for the Rapid was Wilshire and Ventura.  So it succeeds.  Now, everybody wants one.  So you start replicating it in lots of corridors.  But you started with the strongest markets of all, so as you expand it to other markets the payoff diminishes, just as you would expect.   Eventually, you hit a downturn and you start cutting them back.

DSCN2620Notice how the DASH shuttles went through exactly the same arc:  First, a huge success downtown, where the market is ideal for them.  Then every neighborhood wanted one.  So now you have them all over the city, but of course most of them don’t perform like downtown’s, so you end up running less frequency, and gradually the brand loses some of its meaning.

This arc is so common that there’s no point complaining about it.  It’s just what happens to great new ideas.

So as you expanded the Rapid, a lot of the features that were so cool in the original version just couldn’t be afforded.  I’m sure the debates came down to questions like this: Should we extend this great mobility product to just two corridors so we can afford all these cool shelters and signs?  Or should we forget about the shelters and just extend this great product everywhere we can?

I think the Metro Rapid was a great achievement.  The same idea is spreading all over North America now, and I’ve done my best to promote it overseas, citing Los Angeles as the most fully developed model.  Even some European cities can learn from it.

But it does take some fortitude to protect the meaning of the brand in the face of both financial limits and the demand that every new idea be extended everywhere.  It’s good to see some of the weakest Rapids being eliminated, so that the brand can be focused where it will succeed, because that helps you maintain the entire Metro Rapid brand at a higher standard of service and amenity.  It’s not so good to see some Rapids being cut to weekday only, or to see frequencies and service duration cut back, because that means that the Metro Rapid brand means less, and that’s bad for all of the Rapids and for the whole strategy that they serve.

DSCN2661 Question:  With Measure R projects ramping up, public transit is getting more attention in the media and Angelenos are engaging in the planning process more than ever.  What are some of the best ways for planners to engage the public in these discussions?  Are there ways to avoid getting bogged down in planning jargon so that everyone can join the discussion, regardless of background?

Government agencies have to ask themselves:  What’s the hard value judgment inside whatever issue we’re debating?  What’s the basic choice between competing values that the city is facing? Journalists should be thinking this way too, of course.  Where a public conversation really works, it’s because everyone, no matter their education or background, can understand that the city is dealing with a hard choice between two things that are both desirable, or both undesirable.

In Portland, for example, the regional government in the 1980s and early 90s managed a really successful conversation about urban form by coming back over and over to a simple question:  More people are coming: do we expand vertically or horizontally, density or sprawl?   It was messy.  A lot of people wanted to change the subject.  But in the end they had the conversation, and reached a clear decision about where they’d allow new horizontal growth and where they’d aim for density, and that consensus has been remarkably resilient in the decade and a half since.

The government couldn’t have created that conversation on their own.  Journalists, in particular, played a big role in keeping the basic question visible through all the inevitable side-debates and ego-dramas that raged in the process.

DSCN2469 Not all questions are that simple, but the point is to frame the issue so that people understand that there really is a hard choice to be made between different things they value.  Do you want lower taxes or do you want rapid transit?  Should we move bus stops closer together so that you don’t have to walk as far, or further apart so that the service runs faster? Do you want parking in front of this strip of businesses, or is it more important to have a transit lane there?  The questions are hard, but any reasonably conscious person can understand the question, and understand why it’s hard, if it’s presented to them respectfully and clearly.

If you do that well, you can deny people the crutch of saying “the big bad government is doing this to me.”  Individuals will still say that, but you won’t get that attitude raging out of control.   In a democracy the government’s place is to ask the question, help people understand and debate the question, arrive at a decision, and then act on it.  But every step of that reasoning needs to be visible to the public.

I see your governments trying to do this, and sometimes succeeding, but it’s hard to do in an era when many journalists would rather just do stories about what the government did today and why somebody’s mad about it.  That’s why good journalism is just essential.  Everyone is a customer of journalism, so everyone has a role in demanding that, through their own choices about what media to follow.

Question:  And finally, given that this summer was the 20th anniversary of LA’s first modern light rail line, the Blue Line, how do you predict Los Angeles’ transit system — and built environment generally – will look in another 20 years?

In 2030 the whole Measure R rail program is done, and a bit more.  Rail links most of the largest centers in the region, at least to downtown if not to each other.  Thanks to the Regional Connector, the Blue and Gold Lines each extend all the way across the region, from the ocean to the foothills.  The Wilshire subway has reached Brentwood if not the ocean.   The Orange Line has been upgraded to light rail and extended east to Burbank, with plans to push on to Glendale and Pasadena where it will connect with the Blue Line.  The Crenshaw Line is pushing south toward Torrance and north toward Hollywood.   Similar growth in rail is happening all over the network.

Sensible, well-scaled dense communities are growing around these new rail stations, and some new high rise centers have developed.  More than ever, Los Angeles is a city of cities, with many skylines, many downtowns, many kinds of center, all linked by rapid transit.

DSCN2449 In all the dense parts of the city, the population has the an option of a sustainable-transport lifestyle, in which you don’t own a car and instead rely on a mixture of transit, cycling, car-sharing, and the occasional taxi.   Driving costs a lot more.  Gas prices are over $10/gallon, and parking costs and congestion prices have been rising toward free-market levels as well, so even an electric car is expensive to drive and park.  It’s cool not to own a car, and the imagery of popular culture is shifting in response.  In one of the most popular 3D music videos of 2029, two teenage stars (both currently in the womb) dance and sing on top of a sleek Metro Rapid as it glides past stopped traffic in its exclusive lane, between the fashionable shops and hangouts of Venice Boulevard.   The dramatic Culver City skyline glitters in the background.

Yes, there are still buses, lots of them.  Despite all the new rail lines, most of the city still rides on tires.  But the Los Angeles boulevard of 2030 feels more like a Parisian boulevard in many ways, including generous sidewalks, lush shade trees, and of course a transit lane.  The long Metro Rapid buses have many doors that open wide at every stop, so that people can flow on and off as easily as they do on a subway.

Indeed, the Rapid has come to feel like a subway on the surface.  Nothing gets in its way, so it glides smoothly from one stop to the next past all the frustrations of other traffic.  In fact, the Rapid is the only reliable way to travel down most of the great boulevards of LA, if you’re going further than you can cycle.  And because it works, all kinds of people ride it.

The physical design of the Rapid of 2030 also helps it feel like an intrinsic part of the street.  Guided by optical technology, the vehicle lines up exactly with the curb, at the same level and with a very small gap.   When the wide doors open, wheelchairs just roll on and off, just as they would on a rail line.   More importantly, the spacious and mostly transparent Rapid vehicle feels like a continuation of the sidewalk.  The Rapid has become a pedestrian accelerator: it carries pedestrians further than they can walk while leaving them feeling, at every step, that they are still on the street – rather than on a vehicle that’s using the street.  You may have to stand, but you’re not standing on a bus; you’re just hanging out in an interesting street, while moving faster than your feet can take you.

DSCN2411 Because of that, the language has changed too.  Nobody talks about “Line 754” anymore.  You might call it the Vermont Rapid, but really it’s just a basic part of Vermont Avenue.  If you want to go from Vermont & Adams to Olympic & La Brea, you just go north on Vermont and west on Olympic; in 2030, those simple directions for cars and taxis and bicycles and pedestrians are also the directions for transit.  Vermont and Olympic aren’t streets that a Rapid bus happens to run on.  They are complete streets, welcoming and serving everyone, so of course they must have Rapids, just as they must have wide and attractive sidewalks.

After all, you wouldn’t have a major boulevard without a Rapid in its own lane, because then there’d be no way for people to get through quickly and reliably without getting stuck in traffic.   You’d be storing cars where they obstruct not just the transit system but also the economy, and people’s happiness, and the life-saving work of emergency services.  And that just wouldn’t make sense.

6 Responses to Los Angeles: Some Thoughts on the Challenge for “The Source”

  1. anonymouse November 24, 2010 at 10:15 pm #

    I’m glad that you’ve mentioned the single biggest and most important transit improvement that LA needs to make in the next two decades, which seems to be largely missing from the popular consciousness. It’s not subways or light rail. Nor is it buses. It’s trees. At both ends of the transit trip, riders become pedestrians, who generally walk on sidewalks, and the walk can be made considerably more pleasant if there’s some shade from the baking hot sun in the summer. The “iconic” five-story palms are so useless in this respect that it feels almost like they’re mocking you, especially when they drop the occasional leaf on your head. But with some intelligent tree-planting to provide shade, the walking part of the transit trip can be made more comfortable and attractive, which ought to increase the popularity of transit as well.

  2. Zoltán November 25, 2010 at 11:12 am #

    @anonymouse I’m in full agreement with you that trees, and other implements of providing shade, make transit trips so, so much more attractive.
    When I was in Baltimore last summer, which doesn’t even have anything close to the summers of Los Angeles, one of the things that kept me indoors on days I might have otherwise taken the bus and spent some time in various places downtown was the need to walk in the hot sun.
    Similarly, I saw a family waiting in the sun for their bus, and I heard who I assumed to be the mother say “This is why it sucks not to have a car”. Q.E.D.

  3. David Keddie November 26, 2010 at 6:16 am #

    You paint an attractive picture Jarrett, at least to a transit enthusiast. To play the devil’s advocate though I’ll present an alternate picture:
    Driverless cars whisk people along the boulevards congestion and accident free, powered by electricity or hydrogen or synthetic fuel from coal or gasoline from oil shale and conventional sources, whichever is the cheapest. The cars are guided to available parking seamlessly by smart parking networks, making automobile driving, if more expensive, nonetheless just as preferred in 2030 as it is today. The potential greater fuel and parking costs are offset by the purchase of smaller cars, similar to the response in Europe and Japan to high costs.
    Just a thought… no offense intended to your excellent work and ideas 🙂
    It’s important I think to consider how potential technological changes could change the nature of the debate. I still think walkable and transit-capable urban landscapes have a great deal of appeal irrespective of the ease of automobile dependency. I’m less certain as to whether current trends in favor of transit and walking won’t be overcome by the implementation of existing driverless and smart network technologies, not to mention alternative sources of fuel for automobiles.

  4. D. K. November 26, 2010 at 9:08 am #

    Any alternative source of fuel would likely be more expensive than gasoline is now (to say nothing of the pollution involved in oil shale extraction and conversion). The bottom line is that personal transportation would still require moving about 1-4 tons of steel, aluminum, plastic, and glass to transport a 100-250 lb. individual.
    Driverless cars are an interesting idea. Let me know when they’re successfully implemented on a large scale and all of the logistical, technical, and legal challenges are solved. Rail, rapid bus, bike/walking infrastructure are proven technology that can be easily implemented in within a generation’s time.
    Relying on personal transport (automobiles) and existing land use patterns (suburban sprawl) as the be-all-and-end-all is just kicking the can down the road. Traffic congestion is only one of the downsides of automobile use. Driverless cars do not address the environmental issues of automobile transit (or the social issues). Even a Smart Car-sized driverless car running on clean nuclear power or renewable sources would use more energy than effective public transit.
    We need to think outside the box of the personal-transit oriented model.

  5. bzcat November 30, 2010 at 12:37 pm #

    The bus lane as part of streetscape is natural to most big urban centers in Europe and Asia but that concept as yet to take hold in LA. Witness our latest fallout from the Wilshire Blvd BRT project… a couple of wealthy condo owners is going to torpedo a real improvement in transit service in the busiest bus corridor in the country. Progress is great but just like Congress, the real power to change lies where the money is and those interests aren’t aligned with getting buses integrated with the streetscape.

  6. Mark Elliot February 9, 2012 at 11:40 pm #

    I will agree that 20 years on we’ll see not only changed streets, but a changed consciousness. Granted, it’s very difficult to envision this now. That is the single-biggest challenge to making change, IMO, in any area of land use or mobility or the nexus thereof: Getting policymakers and their constituents behind new ideas that most folks have never seen illustrated, much less implemented.
    Most folks go with their gut, their experiential knowledge, and moreover are distrustful when Metro or whichever comes calling with a ‘vision.’ Who can blame them: Los Angeles plan books are full of monorails, jetpacks, and Jetson-like cities-of-the-future imagery. Fast forward forty years from them, though, and LA is still a wreck.
    What makes this different, I think, is the overall acceleration in the pace of change. Productivity, for example; and our personal relationship with technology. Our relationship to time. And a nagging understanding that if we’re not moving ahead (individually & country-wise) we’re falling behind.
    So I expect that the next 20 years will be more packed with change than the past 40, though you can never underestimate the parochial self-interest of condo canyon residents or those in my own burgh of Beverly Hills.