Typically Los Angeles is considered a textbook guide on what “not to do” when it comes to transport and land-use planning. In so many ways it is the utterly stereotypical post World War II city: without a strong core, without a functioning public transport system, with enormous congestion, with terrible air pollution, and so forth. However, as I noted back in March, Los Angeles is changing its ways.
In fact, Taras Grescoe – writer of the fantastic book Straphanger - reckons that Los Angeles is the American city most at the cutting edge of improving its public transport system. He penned this recent op-ed in the LA Times, noting:
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.
Of course, for a city of its size in the developed world, Los Angeles probably does have one of the world’s most under-developed public transport systems (especially rail). So it has a lot of catch-up to play. But they’re doing it!
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.
It’s not just in relation to the “big things” where LA is leading the way though. The structure of their bus network, and the marketing of public transport as a viable alternative to driving, are relatively cheap when compared to giant subway projects, but vitally important. Grescoe discusses the bus network:
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.
Ah yes, the inevitable debate around bus priority. That sounds like a familiar argument.
In relation to better marketing, I hope that marketing department at Auckland Transport takes a good long look at this video:
One particularly important element of marketing PT better in Auckland will be shifting to our buses having a consistent livery, dependent on what they do (QTN services, express services, etc.) rather than the bus company which operates the service. We’ve made some progress on that with the Link Buses and the Northern Express – let’s hope it’s something Auckland Transport stands firm on in the next round of contract negotiations.
While Auckland has made some great progress on improving its public transport system in the past few years, and we have some exciting things coming up, I don’t think we can be complacent at all. But there’s plenty we can learn from what other cities around the world are doing – and not always the cities we might have thought to look to for advice.