Op-Ed: For SB 827 to ever make a successful comeback, it needs to rev up support for buses
State Sen. Scott Wiener’s high-profile Senate Bill 827, which would have paved the way for more multi-unit housing construction near public transportation statewide, stalled out in its first committee reading Tuesday. The proposal had a lot of enemies — including city officials in Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as anti-gentrification and tenants-rights groups.
Weiner has vowed to revive the bill — and major legislation like this commonly goes through fits and starts over several years. But SB 827 needs more friends, and it should look for them among transit advocates.
SB 827 would have let the state to override local zoning rules related to density and parking within half a mile of rail lines, subways or ferries and within a quarter-mile of “high-frequency” bus stops. (The bill defined these as serving buses every 15 minutes during rush hours and every 30 minutes on weekends.) Its purpose was to address our statewide shortage of affordable housing, not head off an emerging crisis in public transportation. In its next incarnation, it would be a more viable bill if it did both.
Bus routes — which gave SB 827 its wider reach — are under significant future threat because of the changing nature of transportation.
Linking new housing to existing transit service is necessary if cities such as Los Angeles are to rein in traffic and the state is to cut its car-related carbon emissions. But what happens if we incentivize the construction of thousands of mid-rise apartment buildings along bus lines, but then those buses go away?
Wiener didn’t really see that as a risk. “I don’t see a future where public transit dissolves,” he told me in an interview last week, before the committee vote. While it would be truly surprising to see a subway or light-rail stop shuttered, bus routes — which gave SB 827 its wider reach — are under significant future threat because of the changing nature of transportation.
Already we know that transit use has been falling over the last decade in Southern California, with 72 million fewer annual trips taken in 2016 than 2012. In terms of raw rides, we’re still below the region’s peak in 1985, despite a much larger population. Rail ridership has fallen per capita but bus ridership’s collapse is deeper, and this loss is more consequential in communities where buses are the only source of public transit. Bus ridership in Orange County dropped 30% from 2009 to 2016; in 2017, Los Angeles buses served the fewest number of riders in a decade.
A 2017 UC Davis survey of seven large metro areas nationwide showed that ridesharing apps such as Uber and Lyft have already reduced transit by 6%. We’re already seeing cash-strapped local transit agencies cutting services, and some are even partnering with ridesharing apps. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has explicitly stated he wants his company to take over bus routes. In the future, fleets of self-driving cars run by Uber or other firms could negate the need for buses — but only for those who can afford an autonomous chauffeur. That can become something of a death spiral: Fewer riders means less revenue, which means fewer routes or less-frequent service, which means fewer riders.
Weiner’s first pass at his bill stayed agnostic on this front; it didn’t contain a “maintenance of effort” clause, requiring that any areas where housing is built under SB 827 guidelines continue their same level of transit service.
Wiener said last week he was “hesitant to freeze-frame transit service in the bill.” But a simple tweak to the legislation would give transit agencies incentive to support a revived SB 827. By placing an assessment on developers for the maintenance-of-effort provision, the state could build a reserve fund to help local transit agencies keep fares low and service strong.This would unite transit advocates with the pro-density urbanists and environmentalists who already supported SB 827.
An affordable housing bill focused on cities shouldn’t be mute on the related need for affordable transportation. California’s ambitious climate goals are at odds with a continued car culture. Electric vehicles might temper the toxicity, but currently automakers are being freed to move backward instead of forward on that project. Public transit reduces carbon emissions and traffic congestion by taking cars off the road. Because public transit is generally more affordable than driving, keeping routes robust also helps with economic-equity issues.
Some might say denser neighborhoods would naturally create a constituency of potential transit passengers demanding relief from congestion, so there’s no need to safeguard bus lines. But that’s not necessarily going to hold true as the transportation sector gets more dynamic. If a bus line closes after we build more housing adjacent to it, low-income people might see their ability to move around hampered even as their rent might fall. Then a bill promising to relieve congestion by putting housing along transit corridors would instead see congestion worsen.
Weiner’s goal of beating the housing crisis into submission is honorable and vital, and he will surely try again. But you can’t build housing in California cities without also investing in public transit. There’s a way to get the housing we need and the transit we need in the same bill and it’s an opportunity we simply cannot miss.
David Dayen is a contributing writer to Opinion.
A cure for the common opinion
Get thought-provoking perspectives with our weekly newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.