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Opinion

Column: Patt Morrison asks: Transit guru Edward Humes on spending L.A.'s new transit billions

Traffic
Morning traffic on the 134 Freeway in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles on October 17.
(Los Angeles Times)

Measure M – M as in money, M as in moving around – passed handily with Los Angeles County voters, meaning that over the next 40 years, tens of billions of dollars in new sales tax money will make its way to rail lines and buses, to streets and freeways, to students and seniors — all to build a better way of getting around L.A. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Edward Humes has traveled the byways of transit issues in his book “Door to Door:  The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation,” and he’s concerned that money being spent on transit’s future may not be taking that actual future into account.

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THIS INTERVIEW ON THE ‘PATT MORRISON ASKS’ PODCAST »

Measure M is going to put a lot of money into LA transit — light rail tunnels connecting the Valley and Westside, all sorts of things to make getting around town better. Is it really going to make a dent, do you think?

It’s a huge pot of change and some really cool things are on it. On the other hand, I’m looking at a list of the rail and highway projects, and it really looks like something that could have been drawn up in 1980. It’s kind of old thinking about transportation, and I’m a little disappointed, really.

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So it’s that you don’t think this is keeping up with the kind of transit demands that we’re going to be facing?

It’s offering the promise of fixing traffic, of changing the way people get around in Los Angeles, and as I think the Times editorial endorsing it said, it would help put an end to the soul-crushing traffic we face here in the greater Los Angeles area. And I just don’t think it’s going to do that.

A significant portion of it are the old solutions of adding lanes and expanding limited access roads that have never corrected our traffic in all the years we’ve tried to do it. We’ve spent huge amounts of money trying to get out of it that way, and then you have the rail that has had no measurable impact upon congestion that we’ve already built.

What’s the fundamental problem? Is it that we’re not profoundly thinking differently about how to change the problems we’ve created for ourselves in traffic?

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Exactly. We keep doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different outcome. Not that there aren’t really great pieces of the puzzle in the proposed projects that are lined up for Measure M, and some really cool ones, like the zero-emissions freight corridor on the 710 Freeway to bring the goods out of the port complex without flooding the surrounding communities with emissions — that’s a forward-thinking development, but it’s surrounded by the same old same old.

But what’s missing are transformative visions that are necessary to get people to really change the way they get around. There was a survey done last year of transportation planning for the largest municipalities and counties in America, and something like only 7% of their plans even addressed the big changes that have arrived recently in mobility or are coming soon — ride-sharing services, automation, driverless cars.

We know they’re coming — there’s nothing in Measure M that even addresses these transformative developments that 1980s-style transportation plans wouldn’t know to address. It’s like we’re not acknowledging that things are changing very rapidly in the transportation space. We’re going to just go out and lay down more asphalt and lay down more rail and hope for the best. It’s not going to work.

It sounds like there’s a missed opportunity at a moment where we seem to be backing away from our love affair with the car, which may be as much generational as anything else

It is a missed opportunity. We now have the opportunity to say, alright, these projects are great, but they need to be embedded in a larger vision for how we can transform transportation in a positive way.

We should be leading the country if not the world in how to figure out this new ride-sharing phenomenon, the coming of automated cars. How we can use those to close that inconvenience gap, the first-mile last-mile problem that transportation planners thought would prevent so many people from taking advantage of mass transit and rail.

Meaning it may be a mile from your house to the station or the line, and then another mile from where it drops you off to where it needs to be.

Here in Southern California, it’s usually multiple miles for most people to get to transit, and it’s a difficult barrier because it raises parking, it raises extra time and effort to board that train or bus, rapid transit line, and unless that’s addressed, you’re going to have all these pretty new rail lines and you’re still going to have the anemic ridership that we have now.

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Some of the ideas that you have suggested are things that government can encourage but not necessarily do — for example, ending everybody’s 9-to-5 schedule, staggering the workday with major employers.

There’s all sorts of carrots and sticks that a municipality, a county or both can offer employers. In an age when we all have smartphones, you don’t need a lot of new infrastructure. We already have apps that tell us when we need to leave to get there on time, based on distance and traffic. It would be inconsequential to create an app that could layer in, OK, how can we stagger some of those departure times for most workers so that they avoid creating congestion? It would be so much more affordable a way than building miles and miles of very expensive freeway and road surfaces to eliminate traffic jams.

Another of your ideas which I thought was pretty engaging was that you would turn carpool lanes into big-rig lanes — keep them out of the passenger vehicle lanes.

Well, the carpool lane has had very mixed results over time. Something like half the number of people carpool to work now [compared with] 20 years ago. Even though we’re adding carpool lanes, we’re not adding carpoolers, and again, it’s an example of us just trying the same solution and expecting different results. Dedicating those lanes, whether it’s some of them to goods movement or to mass transit, to rapid bus lines or 10 or 15 years down the line, they could be virtual trains, automated buses that behave like trains, but they don’t need rail because they have incredibly powerful robot navigation systems that let them act like trains.

The only way in a heavy-traffic place like Los Angeles to make that automated vehicle system work would be to give them their own spaces to operate in.

The rise in home delivery of items — people don’t go to the store now; they go online to shop, and the store essentially comes to them. People think, Oh, that’s great, we’re cutting down on traffic because we’re not driving anywhere. But somebody’s driving somewhere to get that stuff to them.

In some locations it’s definitely adding to traffic, it’s not subtracting it. If you think about how most people shop, they usually don’t take a trip to buy one thing. But we’ve now created this online system where there’s no penalty for just buying one thing and having it shipped to you, because you can get free shipping.

It’s incredibly inefficient. UPS is one of the major carriers that delivers Amazon goods. Their original business model was to deliver from business to business. You take the truckload of goods, bring it from a warehouse or factory, and deliver it to a retail location or distribution center.

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Now, that same truckload of goods in the new model has to go to 120 different trips, 120 different stops before all the stuff is delivered, so it adds to the inefficiency of the movement of goods, and that means adding to traffic.

The idea of a more localized lifestyle — some people do it by choice because they can bike and walk. We may find our hand forced in Los Angeles, that we live a localized life because it’s impossible to do anything else.

Well, you know that wouldn’t be entirely a bad thing if we became a little more localized here.  I think I read in the Mobility 2035 plan that the city of Los Angeles produced that with all the trips people take in Los Angeles, half the trips we take on any given day are under three miles. And yet 85% or 90% of those short trips we will do in a car.

So there’s many trips we take that we really don’t need to get into our cars for, but we’ve just gotten into the habit of doing so. That contributes to traffic jams as much as anything else.

And there’s an opportunity perhaps for encouraging people, maybe with better pedestrian and bicycle facilities, which are also in that Measure M package, to consider taking some of those shorter trips outside the car.

Do you think our attitudes toward public transit are changing in the course of all this?

I think rail has a more lustrous image, but most people who take public transit in Los Angeles are taking a bus, and that’s an important link in the fabric of how many people here get around. And that’s getting some love in the Measure M plan as well, and that’s a good thing.

Of course we’re funding all of this with a sales tax, which is the most regressive form of taxation you could possibly use for transportation! So the bus riders are paying a higher share of their income in the form of this tax than other demographics in the city.

And then we also have the unknown: what the feds are going to be doing in the new administration. A lot of these projects are going to depend upon federal funding to supplement the Measure M funds. Who knows now how that’s going to spin out?

If you were building something from scratch, what would it look like?

I would envision a plan where that first mile-last mile problem we just talked about is eliminated by automation. You take your public transit card or account or smartphone app and maybe a shared van or some other short-range electric vehicle would pick you up and drop you off at the mass transit station and off you’d be whisked to wherever you needed to go, if you were going to work or leaving town or whatever.

And you would have the option of having a similar accommodation on the other end, where maybe it’d be a bike share, or pedestrian access to the transit between where you get off and where you need to end up — all of that could be part of a single app, a single payment system, a single fare, that would really be transformative in terms of reducing car traffic and reducing emissions, making our system more efficient and more affordable.

We’re talking about shared fleets of vehicles rather than individual car ownership at that point. That’s a big ask right now, but that’s the kind of thing that we should be planning for the future.

You have hopes for Measure M — what are your fears?

My fears — that it does not become part of a more forward-looking vision of transforming how we get around in Los Angeles. One of the most transformative things that we can do doesn’t depend on the vote of the people or the vision of our leaders. It’s finding ways to take those short trips we take: Maybe it’s getting your kids to school in the morning or walking to the grocery store — do it on foot.

Americans — not just Californians but Americans — walk less than almost any other people on Earth, with the exclusion of the Amish, who walk more than the average American. But the rest of us don’t even walk enough for it to be healthy.

Walking your kids to school may be one of the best things you can do to reduce traffic and boost health and just take a breath and enjoy that time with your family.

That’s what we’ve done here, and now that our kids can walk themselves to school, we’re walking ourselves around our neighborhood and up to our stores more than we used to.

So when I say, take a hike — you take it kindly.

Take it literally!

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