Give Metro a Chance

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? 

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6 thoughts on “Give Metro a Chance”

  1. I agree that people in Los Angeles should attempt to rely more on public transportation. Taking the Metro lines could actually take less travel time than traveling by car during the times of day when there is high traffic, and overall, public transportation is healthier for the environment. Although the southern California culture is definitely more car-oriented, I believe it is worth pushing for more people to utilize public transportation just from an environmental standpoint. Perhaps if people can recognize the need to utilize public transportation, then that would allow for the improvement of the transportation system as well.

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  2. I think that the topic of metro in Los Angeles is hard to compare to other places in the United States for a few reasons. Firstly, as you mentioned, it is hard to create the infrastructure and put into place an efficient metro system when Los Angeles has the topography that it does. Secondly, the city is so large and spread out. It is clear that California is car oriented and designed for cars. But I think that with baby steps, California can improve its transit system. Even if it’s only over smaller distances, if people began using the bus, this would reduce the number of cars on the street. If there were education curriculum put into place to teach people about the benefits of public transportation and the reduction of our emissions, I think that people would begin to ditch their cars.

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  3. I’ve lived in central Los Angeles for some time now and I can certainly say that the Metro is vastly improved over the situation even 10 years ago.

    Ridership is down as you point out. And this is not a phenomenon isolated to Los Angeles. I wonder if there is a link to a stronger economy–I know that traffic has been shown to be worse when the economy is doing well so I wonder if people are using cars more because they can afford to.

    This leads to another thought. Why do people use cars? Convenience is part of it. So part of the solution is cultural. However, if I had the choice between train and car I would take the train every time. (If I’m being honest, I prefer not to take a bus unless it is for a limited stretch–they are slow and often unreliable and subject to traffic just like other cars.) But…many times I don’t have an option.

    If I need to go to the San Fernando Valley, the time savings from driving are extreme. I could make it to the west Valley in 35-45 minutes in a car. By Metro I would need to ride to NoHo by Red Line — no problem and only 30 minutes. But then I have to get on the Orange Line–a busway–which takes about an hour and a half. After the last stop I would still have to walk for 20 to 30 minutes or hire an Uber/Lyft. That goes well beyond an inconvenience, it’s more of an ordeal.

    I do think that the adage “If You Build It They Will Come” does apply to the Metro. However, there has to be a threshold of usability that we haven’t crossed in LA yet. Unfortunately, that threshold is much higher than other cities because of geography.

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  4. It is no secret that, like many US cities, the highest and lowest socioeconomic classes are very much intertwined in Los Angeles. By this I mean that on any given car ride, I am likely to pass through extremely poor and extremely wealthy parts of town as I go from A to B. With that being said, I think the current metro riders tend to be on the lower end of the spectrum, which greatly deters more financially comfortable riders. I have never ridden the metro but friends of mine that have say they didn’t quite feel safe and definitely would not want to be riding alone at night.
    At one point you questioned why citizens are not willing to sacrifice the immediate benefits of car-centric transportation. I think the answer is that human beings by nature are selfish, myself included. I think in any sort of policy meeting/press release etc. where an elected official mentions all the negatives that would come with creating reliable, sustainable transportation would be immediately dismissed.
    I will say that I LOVE getting around by foot. I grew up in a walking-friendly city and miss that leisure, convenience, and sneaky exercise. I love your idea of implementing mixed-use zoning to redesign crowded cities. This would allow for an alternate mode of transportation without forcing wealthier people to take public transportation as well as creating disincentives. All in all, something does need to change, LA traffic is horrible.

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  5. Personally, I do not think the LA trains are bad but there are gaps in certain service areas which causes many people to rely on the bus. It is definitely effective in filling in many of those service gaps that the train overlooks. As someone mentioned above SoCal culture is very car-oriented making traffic insufferable. I think only way to gurantee fast and convenient bus transportation in Los Angeles is to make sure those buses don’t get stuck in traffic. This means prioritizing buses over cars, which some public officials have hesitated to do. I’m pretty sure if you try to replace a lane of traffic or on-street parking for a bus-only lane, and you’ll be met with public pushback and possibly even lawsuits. I think once Angelenos recognize that the city is becoming increasingly populated and that more people will rely on public transportation, prioritizing public transportation will resonate in their minds.

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  6. Just speaking from my own personal traveling experience around the states I think LA has a lot to learn from New York and perhaps Atlanta. New York metro is infamous for being late all the time, always having work done on it – it’s old, it needs an update – /but people still use it/. If people are intoxicated, they have public transportation to rely on rather than choosing to drink and drive – a phenomena I have encountered in more occurrence in LA than in any other city I have traveled to or lived in. People love their cars in LA – it’s quicker and it’s safer. Metro could be a solution out of that if done right – and it has to be a solution out of that.
    I mention Atlanta earlier because Atlanta was originally built as a city for cars. In recent years, they have been moving toward becoming a more pedestrian friendly city that is walkable and bike-able. Universities, organizations and companies have been investing into the city, and the citizens have responded extremely well. People are spending more time outside, and there are more community events throughout the city.
    Making LA more walkable with bigger access to public transportation could transform the community. I’m eager to see LA years from now with more metro, with hopefully more people using it as a cost-effective and not too time-sacrificial option.

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