L.A. -- transit's promised land

I've spent the last three years traveling to 14 cities around the world, looking at how places as diverse as Copenhagen, Tokyo and Bogota are trying to escape congestion, pollution and sprawl by finding alternatives to the car. When people ask me which major U.S. city is at the cutting edge of forward-thinking transportation planning, they're always surprised when I reply that it is Los Angeles — those "72 suburbs in search of a city," according to the tired put-down — that is working hardest to improve transit. Some express astonishment that transit is an option in L.A. at all, which leads me to soliloquize, a la Joan Didion, on the "rapture-of-the-freeway" and the joys of strap-hanging in SoCal.

L.A. has a two-line subway, I tell them, running trains through cavernous stations, like the one at Hollywood and Vine, where the ceilings are covered with oversized film reels. (You can actually get to the Oscars by subway!) The Orange Line's buses shoot into the heart of the San Fernando Valley along dedicated busways. The articulated, air-conditioned buses look like something dreamed up by the set designer of "RoboCop"!) Connecting on one of the city's four light-rail lines can take you from Pasadena to Mariachi Plaza in East Los Angeles, or from Culver City to the Long Beach Aquarium. When you're downtown, or in more than a dozen other neighborhoods, you can hop a ride on the peppy, pint-sized DASH buses. (And get this: The fare is only half a buck!)

If Gov. Jerry Brown's plans go through, I add, someday your gateway to the city won't be LAX but the gorgeous Mission Revival-style Union Station, after a ride on the nation's most advanced bullet train.

Many Angelenos are surprised to learn that their city's reputation is at an all-time high among international transit scholars. This is the place, after all, that consistently ranks first in measures of commuter stress, as well as in hours wasted in traffic. (According to the Texas Transportation Institute's latest urban mobility report, traffic delays in Los Angeles now amount to half a billion hours a year.) Of the nation's 10 most congested commuter corridors, seven can be found in Los Angeles.

But it's important to remember that freeways, though they have become the city's de facto conduits for commuters, came relatively late. Los Angeles was originally a railway city, its early form set by the Southern Pacific Railroad and Santa Fe Railway. Its dispersed industrial suburbs were laced together by the inter-urban Red Cars of the Pacific Electric Railway and the local Yellow Cars of the Los Angeles Railway, a public transit system that, before World War II, was considered by many to be the best in the world.

Outsiders may see freeway-driven sprawl, but metropolitan Los Angeles is actually more densely settled, over its entire urban area, than the New York-Newark metro area. That makes the area ideally suited for the transit revival its leaders are trying to foster.

Los Angeles' problem, though, is that it also suffers from a chronic transit deficit. Although many European and Asian cities of comparable stature built urban highways in the 20th century, they did it in tandem with development of their metro and commuter rail systems. (Shanghai, for example, took just 16 years to build the world's largest metro system — one now more extensive, in terms of track mileage, than New York's subway.)

After decades of neglect, Los Angeles now finds itself playing catch-up on its rail and bus transit networks. To its credit, the county's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or Metro, is taking the long view. It is working hard to boost density to levels that will encourage ridership by entering into public-private partnerships that are turning station-proximate land into condo developments and multifamily dwellings, like Del Mar Station and 1600 Vine.

And in recessionary times, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has successfully lobbied for Metro to place a measure to extend a half-cent sales tax, which was first ratified by voters in 2008, on the November ballot. If approved, the extension of Measure R to 2069 would channel tens of billions of dollars to improving transit for decades to come — including a continuation of the Purple Line subway far into the Westside and, eventually, all the way to the Pacific.

The key, in a city with L.A.'s mix of ethnicity, languages and economic classes, is not to get caught up in turf wars. In city after city, I've seen how transit too often gets mired in ideology, when the discussion really needs to be about mobility — what works. A metropolis of Los Angeles' standing deserves as much rail transit as it can get.

But a city with a large population of working poor also deserves an efficient, comfortable network of frequently scheduled buses to mesh with heavy and light rail. About 78% of L.A.'s transit users get around on buses. The Metro Rapid system, which runs 36% faster than a regular bus line, is a good start. But for it to achieve its full potential, its buses need to run in dedicated busways — and, inevitably, that's going to mean taking away entire lanes from cars. I've seen successful bus rapid transit in action in such cities as Ottawa, Canada; Istanbul, Turkey; and Bogota, Colombia, and when buses consistently whip past lines of backed-up cars, even the most transit-phobic citizens start to weigh the merits of investing in a fare card.

On this front, the battle that has pitted the Bus Riders' Union against Metro rail supporters is a bogus one. Transit shouldn't be about either/or — about streetcars and buses versus subways, or rubber versus rail. It needs to be about anything that furthers genuinely sustainable mobility, which can include bike- and car-share programs, inter-city high-speed trains, even funiculars. (Bunker Hill's Angels Flight, it turns out, may have been an idea before its time!) In cities where transit efficiently serves both the suburbs and business districts, among them Toronto and Vancouver, Canada, and Zurich, Switzerland, intelligently scheduled feeder buses are used to boost the ridership of high-frequency mass transit rail systems.

The real fight in Los Angeles is not going to be over issues such as methane pockets under Beverly Hills High but over whether street space now given over to the private automobile will go to public transit. The drivers I talked to in Los Angeles all acknowledged that their city needed better transit. But, they admitted, that didn't mean they planned on using it themselves. Too often, unfortunately, transit is seen as something the other person ought to be using.

That's too bad, because the Los Angeles I discovered riding the Blue Line to the Watts Towers, the Gold Line into deepest Pasadena, a DASH bus to the Grand Central Market and the Red Line to Koreatown and Hollywood and Vine is a pretty friendly, funky place. And that's something I never would have known if I'd spent all my time stuck on the freeway.

Taras Grescoe is the author of "Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves From the Automobile." Twitter @grescoe.

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