A Cool Way to Unclog L.A.

William Fulton is president of Solimar Research Group and a senior scholar at the School of Planning, Policy and Development at USC.

Everyone in L.A. is stuck in traffic. There is no longer any distinction between rush hour and the rest of the day. Whether freeways or surface streets, it's crawl, crawl, crawl.

Both Mayor James K. Hahn and his election opponent, Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, are pushing big transportation platforms. Hahn touts express buses and money for a Gold Line extension. Villaraigosa promises more signal synchronization and more bus and rail service.

But is there really anything either candidate can do to decongest Los Angeles?

Yes. The next mayor can make it cool to get around town without driving.

Because most people in L.A. still drive most places, no mayor can afford to ignore the road system, yet there's only so much anyone can do that would quickly unclog it. By synchronizing traffic signals and improving left-turn lanes, Los Angeles has spent a quarter of a century squeezing more efficiencies from its knot of streets, boulevards and avenues. But the number of places that can accommodate new triple-left-turn lanes are dwindling.

And it's impossible to move forward with grand highway plans. Hahn supported a Caltrans strategy for widening the 101 Freeway — and got flattened. A steamroller of community rage killed the proposal, years in preparation, within two weeks of its announcement.

The winner of the mayoral race should instead focus on express buses and trains and on development patterns. Together these approaches can ameliorate the city's growth and transportation problems.

L.A.'s buses aren't sexy, but they are the commuting backbone for the city's working poor. The mayor is one of 12 members of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board. Most bus-dependent working poor live in the city. The mayor can highlight his constituents' plight by paying attention: riding the buses and talking to riders about their needs.

Rail projects and special rapid transit buses are sexy. They're also enormously controversial, especially when they sap money from the regular bus system. But over the last 20 years, the MTA has built a solid rail transit framework, almost all of it in the city of Los Angeles. Political resistance over rail costs has driven the agency to busways that are less expensive to build but still pricey. The proposed Orange Line, for instance, would stretch across the San Fernando Valley at a cost of more than $300 million, connecting Valley riders to the Red Line subway in North Hollywood.

Critics of L.A.'s rail transit program — and, by extension, rapid transit buses — claim these projects are too expensive and won't solve any transportation problems today.

Almost without exception, they're right.

Like everything else in L.A., the sprawling rail system can frustrate. To get from Pasadena to LAX, you have to take the Gold Line to the Red Line to the Blue Line to the Green Line (planners can't easily weld them together because their technologies are incompatible) and then take a bus to the airport.

L.A. remains car-oriented, and as the city is currently laid out, these rail lines will attract a relatively small number of riders because it's still easier to drive.

But the power of rail — and rapid bus transit as well — is not in moving people today but in shaping the city tomorrow. In the last 30 years, rail transit has changed several U.S. cities, most notably Washington and San Francisco, where BART now connects far-flung communities in the East Bay and South Bay to the city's jobs and recreation — and even the airport — transforming time and space in a way that drivers and bus riders could never have imagined.

L.A. is much bigger and more spread out, but the city's central parts are as dense as D.C. and San Francisco. One can easily traverse downtown, Hollywood, Mid-Wilshire, Pasadena and parts of South L.A. on the rail system. That was impossible a decade ago.

Whoever wins the election could tell the city he supports public transit by, at least occasionally, riding the rails or a bus to work. Imagine the media attention the city's top official could attract by taking the Blue Line or commuting on the Eastside Gold Line extension, now under construction.

Most important, the mayor must aggressively use his power over the development process to promote dense new projects around rail and bus rapid transit stops.

The Gold Line extension to Pasadena has already shown the power of rail to change development patterns. Although it's slow and doesn't carry many passengers, the line has stimulated high-density residential development at the Mission stop in South Pasadena and the Del Mar and Memorial Park stations in downtown Pasadena. And Hahn's expansion of the 1999 "adaptive reuse" law permits easy conversion of old office buildings to condominiums along Red Line stops downtown and in Hollywood.

A generation from now, when freeways are even more sluggish, most of the remaining transportation capacity will be along rail lines and busways. And much of the underutilized land available for higher-density development will be near the stops. The market, so far, has ignored the development potential along the Blue and Green lines. New development along rail and busway stops, especially for housing, will be more than an attractive alternative. It'll be the only solution left.

The fact that our emerging rail system is mostly in the city gives the mayor a great opportunity. By encouraging development at its stops, he can unclog L.A.'s streets.

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