Imagine a city that feels like a community. People commute to and from work with ease. Neighborhoods are lively, with parks, schools, and shops within walking distance. One can enjoy a night out without cabbing from place to place. It is possible to simply walk around and take in the city. Everything is convenient, accessible, and safe.
This is a vision hardly anyone would disagree with. So why does it feel like Los Angeles is drifting further and further away from it?
Los Angeles is very much a car-oriented city. Perhaps it is because urban sprawl has been a staple of our history. To be fair, we have come a long way in making some areas of the city walkable – downtown and Koreatown are good examples. Elsewhere, the topography of Los Angeles County presents natural opposition to ideal city planning. The long-term effort required to overcome this has not always been prioritized on the city’s agenda, further entrenching the single vehicle model.
It has become quite a chicken-and-egg problem. Angelenos prefer driving over, say, taking a bus because it’s faster. But to improve the efficiency of buses, the city would have to prevent them from getting stuck in traffic with measures like creating a bus-only lane. For the vast number of drivers who are already stuck in traffic too often, such measures would only exacerbate the problem. And so on.
This has led to a concerning decrease in Metro’s ridership. In the four years since ridership peaked in 2013, Metro has lost an estimated 7.5 million boardings across its bus, subway, and light rail networks, with bus ridership alone decreasing by 20%. This is a trend consistent not just within Los Angeles, but throughout the nation. Not only does North America carry the fewest rail passengers per year of any world region, but in most U.S. cities (with the exception of New York) ridership has fallen over the last eight years.
It is not enough to dream of the potential for our city and country to become more livable. We must put in the work to see these long-term results through. And if it means sacrificing the immediate benefits of a car-centric way of living now, then we should be willing to say, so be it.
In California’s most recent midterm elections, the majority of Californians voted no to repealing the gas tax that would help fund transportation projects. Clearly, we are aware that something needs to change, and willing to act in favor of that change.
So what more can we do?
For starters, we can move away from our reliance on cars. Disincentives like limiting car ownership, as well as creating low-emissions zones where drivers are charged fees for driving in certain areas have a good chance of nudging people towards public transport and dispersing traffic.
In addition to encouraging the use of green vehicles, Los Angeles could also replicate the new superblock model being implemented in cities like Barcelona, where vehicular traffic in particular gridlike sections of the city are redirected to the perimeter. By doing so, the traffic within this superblock would be primarily pedestrian. In practice, this could look very much like driving, or even better taking a bus, to the edge of downtown and then being free to walk around, shop, catch a movie, and have a drink all night without worrying about parking and pedestrian safety.
In conjunction with this, Los Angeles would do well to look into mixed-use zoning that would allow for shops, entertainment, residences, and offices to coexist. The plurality of urban spaces is a large contributing factor to the feeling of community in our ideal vision of a city, as is the crucial element of actual, living people. As common sense as it sounds, downtown Los Angeles can feel like a wealthy, dense “ghost town” – unaffordable and uninhabited. The city must remember that at the heart of its growth remains the needs of its people, and thereby grow accordingly.
Further, we really ought to give Metro a chance. Their latest Vision 2028 plan, a culmination of months of research, discussion, and outreach, gets many things right. As it states:
“…while an adequate, safe, and efficient network of roads and highways will always be an essential component of our transportation system, building new roadway capacity without managing the long-term demand for solo driving is not an enduring strategy for meeting the region’s rapidly evolving mobility needs. An approach primarily geared to serving single-occupancy vehicles is neither economically nor environmentally sustainable, nor would it advance other widely shared goals for improving quality of life in the region. Instead, the focus of this Plan is to address increased mobility demands by improving the variety and quality of transportation options available to people. Specifically, the actions set forth in this Plan aim to double the percent usage of transportation options other than driving alone, including taking transit, walking, biking, sharing rides, and carpooling.”
Such actions include assigning exclusive street space to high-capacity vehicles in order to increase average bus speed and achieve a minimum service frequency of 15 minutes along each service corridor; equipping its buses and trains with a data system that would improve arrival time predictions in bettering legibility of its transit services for ease of use; as well as prioritizing and preserving transit-adjacent affordable housing to establish transit-oriented communities.
This plan is evidence that Metro recognizes our needs – frequency of service, an emphasis on local transport networks, and the presence of affordable housing in urban areas.
Now, it is our turn to invest in these needs as well. So why not try going Metro?