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The revival and future of rapid transit in Los Angeles – Part 1

This guest post is the first in a two part series from Darren Davis who is a Principal Transport Planner for Auckland Transport looking at the revival and future of rapid transit in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles is virtually a metonym for car-based mobility based on an extensive freeway network. Sadly, the early promise of unlimited mobility on uncongested freeways has turned from autopia to dystopia where Los Angeles is routinely in second place in the United States (after Washington DC) in time wasted stuck in traffic and where the picture postcard sunsets are the result of photochemical smog refracting the rays of the sun.

However, all is far from lost for Los Angeles and it has much going for it as a once and future transit city. It was originally developed on the basis of the world’s largest streetcar network, the Pacific Red Cars, with 1,600 km of track. It is relatively dense; it has a largely intact rectilinear grid street and arterials well-spaced for excellent public transport access. Its polycentric nature actually works to its advantage as it promotes bidirectional travel, making better use of available public transport capacity. And in addition, a lot of the former Pacific Red Car corridors were still available to be reused.

In October 1992, I travelled to Los Angeles for the first time and spent a week with the then Metropolitan Transportation Commission (LAMTC) at the early stages of the LA rail renaissance. I wrote an article about my experience entitled “LA: City on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”

At the time of my visit, Los Angeles had just one light rail line, opened two years previously to typically great LA fanfare, including the presence of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This was the Blue Line which covers the 35.4 km between Downtown LA and Long Beach via South Los Angeles. By 1992, the line was carrying 35,000 passengers per day, half of whom were new to public transport. My then interpretation was that this was not good value for the $US887 million capex investment and $42.6 million annual opex requirement, less than 11 per cent of which was being recovered through the farebox. However, hindsight is the greatest teacher and the Blue Line is now carrying 90,000 passengers per day, making it the second busiest light rail line in the United States after Boston’s Green Line.

Also while I was in Los Angeles in 1992, the first stage of the Metrolink commuter rail network opened on three lines and has since been progressively expanded to seven lines over six Southern California counties, covering 624 km of track and carrying over 40,000 weekday passengers on an average trip length of 60 km and an average operating speed (including station stops) of 60 km/h.

January 1993 saw the opening of the first stage of the underground Red/Purple Line subway linking Union Station to MacArthur Park in the Westlake District. The line was originally slated to continue west on Wilshire Boulevard corridor, one of the densest urban corridors in the United States. However, politics got in the way and a methane explosion in the Fairfax District was used as a pretext to prevent subway construction west of Western Avenue on the Wilshire Corridor, purportedly on safety grounds. So the Purple Line subway ended up as a 3.7 km stub line to Western Avenue in Koreatown, completed in 1996. The main Red Line was diverted up Vermont Avenue and then under Hollywood Boulevard, reaching the legendary intersection of Hollywood and Vine in 1998 before continuing west to Hollywood and Highland and then north under the Cahuenga Pass to Universal City and North Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley in 2000

MacArthur Park, Westlake District

Ironically, more politicking, based on local neighbourhood concerns, got in the way of a further extension of the Red Line at grade west of North Hollywood on a disused Pacific Red Car corridor. This ended up requiring any further rail to be fully underground, a prohibitively expensive proposition for the relatively low density San Fernando Valley. This turn of events led to some lateral thinking and a flying visit to Curitiba in Brazil which resulted in the corridor being used by the Orange Line Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) to Warner Center and Canoga Park at the western end of the valley in 2005 with a northern extension to Chatsworth Metrolink Station completed in 2012 for a total line length of 29 km. The Orange Line is one of the best BRT implementations in the United States. It carries around 30,000 passengers per day with frequencies of every 4 minutes at peak times; 8 minutes interpeak and 10 minutes at weekends and is a significant feeder to the Red Line at its North Hollywood terminus. Ironically, its peak capacity is close to being maxed out due to the east west line’s interaction with numerous heavily trafficked north south arterials. This issue could be solved with absolute traffic signal priority for buses or the use of bi-articulated buses.

After the Red Line, the next rail line to be built was the 32.2 km Green Line which resulted from a judicial compromise over the construction of the last freeway to be built in Los Angeles, the Glenn Anderson Freeway linking Norwalk with LAX Airport and the South Bay. This required the inclusion of rapid transit into the freeway median. Due to the then booming aerospace industry in the South Bay, the decision was taken to prioritise servicing the South Bay over a spur into LAX Airport, instead requiring airport-bound customers to transfer to a free bus shuttle at Aviation/LAX Station, 4 km from the airport. The line was also foreshortened at its eastern end well short of its originally intended (and more useful) terminus at the Norwalk Metrolink Station.  The Green Line opened in 1995 just as the South Bay aerospace industry went into major decline and it has since been mocked as the line that goes from nowhere to nowhere. Nevertheless, it still carries 40,000 weekday passengers; connects to the very heavily used Blue Line at Willowbrook and to LAX at Aviation/ LAX (via a free bus shuttle). Due to the line being fully grade-separated, it averages 52.2 km/h (including station stops).

Aviation_LAX Green Line Station

Further rail development took place with the opening of the Gold Line from Union Station to Pasadena in 2003, a project that jumped up the priority queue due to energetic lobbying and political support in the area and the San Gabriel Valley to its east as well as the absence of other suitable “shovel-ready” projects.  This line was extended from Union Station into East Los Angeles in 2007 including a 2.9 km underground section with two stations under East First Street in Boyle Heights. The Gold Line has a total length of 31.7 km carries around 43,000 daily passengers.

Apartments by Sierra Madre Villa Gold Line Station

The latest light rail line to be completed is the 13.8 km first stage of the Expo Line from Downtown Los Angeles to Culver City on the Westside, again utilising a disused Red Car corridor parallel to Expo Boulevard. This line brings the University of Southern California and the various museums and sports venues in the Expo Park/ LA Coliseum area into the rail network and is the first rail line to serve the heavily congested Westside in over 50 years. Only opened in 2012, it is already exceeding its 2020 patronage estimates with 27,000 daily passengers just one year after opening.

In 1990, Los Angeles had 0 km of rail. Since then, it has progressively built out 28 km of fully underground metro heavy rail; 113 km of light rail and 624 km of commuter rail. Underground heavy rail carries 160,000 passengers per day; light rail 200,000 and the largely peak-focused commuter rail 40,000. Going from 0 to ~400,000 daily rail passengers in a little over 20 years is not an achievement to be sniffed at.

As of today this is the extent of the LA rapid transit system. Metro have also put together this neat interactive timeline of the development of their rapid transit network.

Tomorrow Darren will cover what’s planned for the future of rapid transit in LA and how they are paying for it.

The author the above article is an employee of Auckland Transport, however, the views, or opinions expressed in that article are personal to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Auckland Transport, its management or employees.  Auckland Transport is not responsible for, and disclaims any and all liability for the content of the article.

27 comments to The revival and future of rapid transit in Los Angeles – Part 1

  • Greg N

    Great post Darren,
    So for LA, it is true, that: “if you re-build it, they will come (again) in droves.”

    I guess, (not wanting to pre-empty part 2 of your post), that it is true LA does have the ability (and has actually done so), to fund this by raising local taxes and other special levies – that the current National government is denying AC/AT the ability to do. I’ll await tomorrows installment with interest.

    In your estimation, what percentage of the total lines to date in LA have been able to be built because the old Red-Car network/corridors actually existed and thus allowed services to be more easily rolled out using them?
    And what is a similar percentage for Aucklands PT corridors we have now (got from the old Tram network and/or Rail corridors)?

    My reading of this is that the Red-Car network was pretty extensive in its time and corridor rights and even corridors were mostly left in place, so LA had a better foundation to build on than Auckland had in the 1990s.
    Would that be a fair comment?

    And has that situation changed much in Aucklands favour at all the last 20+ years?

  • Yep, you will need to wait until tomorrow for more on the funding side of things. BTW, yes many lines are on former Pacific Red Car lines but ironically this has led to the perverse outcome where the availability of the corridor is a bigger driver than transit supportive land use. The Expo Line is a key example. Apart from the University of Southern California and the museums and sports facilities in the Exposition Park area (and Downtown Los Angeles itself), most of the corridor is low density while one of the densest urban corridors in the United States, along Wilshire Boulevard, is 5km to the north. And note that while the corridors were often unused and in very poor condition, they were in private ownership, general by freight railroads and it cost a fortune for LA Metro to acquire these corridors and some of the Metrolink commmuter rail service routes. One of the biggest constraints, apart from the perennial shortage of operating cost funding, to the expansion of commuter rail is that they often (but generally not in LA) run over tracks owned by freight railroads with limited “trackage rights” granted to commuter services. The big growth in rail freight in US is driven by a mass of imports from China and elsewhere in Asia arriving at West Coast ports and needing to be shippped cross-country to its final destination. Freight rail has obvious economies of scale for this task, meaning freight railroads are often heavily resistant to allowing additional slots for commuter rail service on their railroads in urban areas.

  • Dave B

    Very interesting to read this, having made a recent trip to Los Angeles myself, and made a point of using the rail system as far as possible. The trip from LAX to Union Station required four stages/three changes: Free shuttle bus, Green line, blue line, then red line, so it was not the fastest transit. However what impressed me was the cheapness of travel. US$1.00 to purchase a TAP-card which could then be loaded with credit. $1.50 per single ride anywhere within the metro area (bus or train), or $5.00 for day-pass.
    Auckland and Wellington overpriced PT fare-setters please take note!!

    And clearly visible was the proposed branch-off point for the spur to LAX airport on the Green Line. Unfortunately this line does not go to the city centre (or allow for through-running onto the Blue line which does), so unless something changes, the city will still not be accessible from the airport without a change of trains. The system is clearly still a work-in-progress, but an exciting and inspirational one, given how it had to claw its way back into existence from nothing just a couple of decades ago.

    • On the fares issue. It’s something I’ve looked at and when comparing fares, operating costs and farebox recovery in Australia, Canada and the US to those in New Zealand. The general trend is:
      Australia = Similar fares, higher operating costs (probably due to stronger unions) so worse farebox recovery and higher subsidies.
      Canada = Similar fares, similar operating costs but better cost recovery due to higher quality PT system attracting more passengers.
      US = Lower fares, similar operating costs so worse farebox recovery and higher subsidies.
      Personally I would rather our fares stay the same and the system improves through something like the CFN rather than lower fares.

      • Agree Matt, but there surely is room for much cleverer fare structures. Especially for deep discounts off peak, and for daily, weekly, and/or monthly caps for high volume users.

        • We definitely need to change the fare structure to make it more use user friendly and off peak discounts and fare caps should be part of that. Probably doesn’t need to have deep discounts but definitely noticeable ones. Also need to recognise that PT fares are only one part of the equation, for example most recently we’ve seen AT reduce the price of parking in their own buildings which will definitely have changed the equation for some users so that probably needs to be looked at as well.

      • Dave B

        Matt, you need to remember that our PT systems vie for market share with the private car which is heavily subsidised when all externatilties and “as-of-right” freebies (such as parking) are taken into account (can’t provide comprehensive referencing without a huge amount of work). I think the problem with keeping our fares as they are (i.e. high!) is that PT remains forever on the back-foot in competition with this system, not only direct-costs to users, but also in its struggle to attract cap-ex for any serious improvement. A lower-fare, higher-subsidy regime would recognise this and help put PT on a more equal footing with its chief subsidised competitor.

        • Dave B

          Or else far more should be done to fully-charge the externalities of mass car-use, but this always seems an even harder political nut to crack.

        • john smith

          There’s a balance to be struck here. Maybe lower fares > more riders > more popular pressure for better services.

          On the other hand: lower fares > lower farebox cost recovery** > higher public subsidy > more pressure from the bean-counters to keep the system as small as possible. From the point of view of a treasury type who knows and cares nothing about external benefits or urban amenity: Why do things that will attract more business if that just increases the required subsidy?

          It all depends on the elasticity of demand with respect to price, at various price levels. I hazard a guess that in most ANZ cities, for most people for most purposes existing public transport is so inconvenient that they wouldn’t use it at any price. To attract them, improving service is more important than capping fares.

          Advocates of public transport want to be in a zone where they can say to the treasury types: ‘if you improve the service it will attract more business AND improve farebox cost recovery AND reduce the total subsidy required’.

          ** It’s not realistic to extact that a fare cut, without better services, will attract enough new business to increase revenue.

          • Agree entirely that the focus must be on quality improvement first, and this is happening, but there is a good chance that off peak discounts could be at least farebox neutral, if not positive, as the marginal cost of more riders on services nowhere near capacity is zero. Of course the time rich cash poor should not be considered the only customer, but they are one segment worth attracting along with the rest, especially as they can include the elderly and kids, especially on holidays and weekends.

            Worth trialling and promoting with the New Network, and especially, fare integration.
            Same with caps.

          • Greg N

            If you have any subsidy with your PT (i.e. less than 100% farebox recovery) then you cannot show the bean counter that the total subsidy required will reduce when more people use it as the absolute $’s spent will only go up by the value of the subsidy provided for each PT user.

            What you can say though is that as more people use a PT system, then the subsidy per user required will drop over time as you increase your farebox recovery – all other things being equal.

            Of course, if you also say to your bean counter type, well the alternative to investing in better (or any) PT and incurring those subsidies, is you’ll have to spend 3 times as much on roading/widening/parking projects that will at best get you ahead for 5 years, then you’ll be faced with the same choice – then the bean counter will normally see sense and agree that a compromise over a subsisided PT service will produce the most optimal outcome for all users of the transport system.

            Its the all or nothing position taken on either side of the equation that doesn’t work.

          • The real point is that the huge value of any and all mode shift from driving to PT mostly accrues to those who keep driving. But of course this is economic not financial, therefore invisible to bean counters.

            Though always worth reminding the poor dears. ;-]

            Any increase in transit use without increase in gross subsidy adds economic values at zero financial cost.

        • I think there’s a balance to be struck and previous improvements in quality show that increasing quality will attract riders even with high fares. I would suggest that too many people think that PT is just about the poor and that fares should reflect that but I tend to think we should be targeting our system for the middle 80%. As John Smith says, if it requires more subsidy then there will be pressure on other parts of the PT system. I can’t remember the exact figure but I think it has been worked out at something like a 50% reduction in fares would only result in a 20% increase in patronage.

          I think one option would be to leave average fare levels as they are now but with some changes in fare structure but then leave them at that level for a few years so that over time inflation sees the fares drop in real terms which would see that happening at the same time as service quality improvements roll through giving a double whammy patronage boost without harming farebox recovery at the moment.

          • Greg N

            Although with a 1-3% annual inflation rate, it will take a long time for any inflation lead drop in fares to flow through into people perceiving actual reductions in fares.
            And the usual case historically is that as the costs go up by or faster than inflation (and the subsidies usually don’t), so the pressure comes on sooner than later to hike to fares to, you know, cover the increased costs.

          • Better to round up cash fares to whole coins and increase the price spread with HOP, as well as speed boarding. Cash handling costs are high too.

  • Interesting comments. The airport connections at LAX are a challenge. Either there are the $7 ($8 from 1 March) Flyaway buses (run by LA World Airports) to Union Station via the Harbor Freeway Transitway. As well, There are direct Flyaway buses to Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley; Westwood on the Westside where UCLA is located; and to the Expo/ La Brea station on the Expo line. But to get to Pasadena by train, you get to explore many colours of the rainbow on the way; G Shuttle to Aviation/LAX; Green Line to Willowbrook; Blue Line to 7th St/ Metro Center; Red/Purple Line to Union Station; then Gold Line to Pasadena. The irony is that the first time I went to LA, I took the B shuttle to the City Bus Center (in the Airport’s B parking lot) at 96th/ Vicksburg then the 439 Express to Downtwown. I was in my hotel room within an hour from leaving the airport – a speed that I’ve never managed since with rail. The 439 Express sadly no longer exists. This piece from Metro’s The Source blog outlines the current state of play with improving rail connections to LAX. http://thesource.metro.net/2014/01/23/four-alternatives-move-forward-for-airport-metro-connector-project-with-more-study-of-two-train-to-terminal-options/ As for the farebox recovery point, Metro is consulting on fare increases to improve their farebox recovery rate but allowing free transfers which in effect is a fare decrease for many customers as a great many customers need to connect (as happens in connected networks) to complete their trip. The following piece, also from The Source, outlines the fare proposals (including an option with off-peak fares) http://thesource.metro.net/2014/01/17/proposal-for-restructuring-metro-fares-is-released-fares-would-be-raised-and-free-transfers-allowed/

    • Sigmund

      There’s also a $1 (ONE dollar!!) bus that takes you all the way to Santa Monica. Perfect for a long layover – takes about 45 minutes to an hour each way. Compare that to an international tourist arriving at AKL… hmmmm.

    • Hi there. I live in L.A. and have taken rail to/from the airport numerous times. The fastest way from airport to downtown is to take the free shuttle to the Green Line and connect to the Silver Line bus, which runs along the carpool/ExpressLanes and connects to most major stops in Downtown LA. The fare is $1.50 + $2.45, or is fully covered via a day pass.

      A hypothetical commute to Pasadena would be shuttle (10 mins) -> Green Line (15 mins) -> Silver Line (30 mins) -> Gold Line (25 mins). If done around commute time, it would probably take you about 1 hr 40 mins. The Flyaway bus is more expensive and could be very inconvenient based on which terminal you fly into, since it has to stop at each terminal to pick up people, and there is a long wait between buses.

  • john smith

    It appears from Wikipedia that these rail services carry about a fifth to a quarter of Los Angeles County public transport trips.

    I’d be interested in any comment on bus-rail integration.

  • john smith

    Greg N: ‘If you have any subsidy with your PT (i.e. less than 100% farebox recovery) then you cannot show the bean counter that the total subsidy required will reduce when more people use it as the absolute $’s spent will only go up by the value of the subsidy provided for each PT user.’

    Increasing patronage can reduce the total subsidy required (as well as improving the farebox cost recovery ratio) if the *marginal* rider is profitable.

    For example, putting an extra person on an existing half-empty off peak service is profitable because the marginal cost is practically zero.

    That’s why it’s important in your network improvement plans to promote a total network suitable for ‘anywhere, any time’ travel, and to reject the common meme that public transport is only or mainly about reudcing traffic congestion in the journey to work to the central area. The second type of service will always have poor cost recovery because of the expense of having vehicles, drivers etc that are only used for a few hours a day. The first type of service has the potential to do better – providing of course that you can put enough bums on seats during the offpeak periods.

  • Yep, rail is just over a fifth of public transport patronage in Los Angeles County. There are just under 2 million daily public transport rides in Los Angeles County and around 400,000 of these are on rail. Bus patronage has remained relatively static in Los Angeles but that misses the point that rail is now doing a lot of the heavy lifting for longer distance trips so that buses are performing better in providing local connectivity, more limited stop service on major arterials, plus the Silver and Orange Line bus rapid transit corridors. Bus – rail integration is getting better but the sheer number of transit agencies does complicate things. The LA equivalent of the HOP card, TAP (Transit Access Pass) has to support over 600 separate products (and not all operators are on TAP yet!) to cope with the complexity of each operator having different fare systems and a myriad of different transfer policies with other operators.

  • KLK

    Hi Darren – look forward to your follow up posts on how AT is planning to follow the lead of LA and, well, every other modern city and prioritise PT spend over road. ;-)

    Great posts by the way. Very insightful and shows that a leopard can change its spots….if it wants to.

  • […] 1  on The revival and future of rapid transit in Los Angeles is here – including this link to a very cool interactive timeline on the development of the system over […]

  • It’s worth pointing out that we are currently still copying LA’s transport policies slavishly in Auckland as we have since the 1950s, the problem is that we’re still copying that 1950s version, not the 21 century update.

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