You might expect that a Los Angeles mayor would bask in the credit for the speedy alternative to the clogged Hollywood Freeway, but when the final segment of Los Angeles subway system opened to the public on June 24, 2000, after thirteen years of construction, enthusiasm was decidedly muted. Mayor Richard Riordan stated at the dedication ceremony, "quite honestly, I would not have started it, but once you’ve started it, you’ve got to finish it." The Red Line is seen as such of a debacle that a voter initiative in 1998 banned the use of county sales tax money for any future subway projects. This dissatisfaction in Los Angeles is in surprising contrast with the San Francisco Bay Area, which seems to be falling over itself drawing up plans for more rail.
From the perspective of San Francisco Bay Area, it is easy to look down on Los Angeles as the city whose love affair with automobile makes any investment in transit futile. After all, there is BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), whose rush-hour trains are packed to the gills. Los Angeles, as the San Francisco Chronicle snidely noted in its coverage of the Red Line opening, has more automobiles than licensed drivers. This statistic bears a second look: the Bay Area, too, has more automobiles than licensed drivers. In fact the ratio is higher in the Bay Area than in Los Angeles. BART, after its record ridership growth of the past two years, still carries only half the number of passengers per route mile of Los Angeles’s brand new Red Line.
Poverty is a major reason that transit ridership is high in Los Angeles, even when the concept of public transportation is the stuff of Hollywood highjinx. There are simply more people in Los Angeles than in the Bay Area who cannot afford a car. Despite the fact that getting around Los Angeles without a car can be a grueling ordeal, many have no choice. Compounding the situation is the 1994 requirement that one must provide a social security number to obtain a California Driver’s License, inadvertently excluding illegal immigrants from driving. Representing the interests of the transit-dependent, the Bus Riders Union sued the Los Angeles County MTA. The union posited that the county’s rail- oriented transit policy was racist. Bus service, on which poor Latinos and blacks depend, had been drastically cut back while the region spent billions on rail construction. The Bus Riders Union argued that rail construction primarily benefits white suburbanites.
This claim, however, is belied by a look at the map: Los Angeles’s emerging light rail and subway network serves Watts, Long Beach, Compton, and Inglewood, and goes nowhere near Santa Monica, Woodland Hills or Malibu. Nevertheless, for Los Angeles to address its smog and steadily worsening congestion, those who drive must be provided with an attractive alternative. Even Los Angeles’s congested freeways are faster and more convenient than local bus service for anyone who has a choice.
Back up in the Bay Area bus service in urban areas has suffered even as BART built extensions to far- flung suburban. AC Transit (Alameda county’s surface bus system) forced to cut much of its night and weekend service; San Francisco’s Muni, on the other hand, has simply failed to get its scheduled buses out on the street. As in many cities across the nation, much of the blame lies in the cutbacks in federal operating subsidies. The attitude in Washington throughout the Clinton administration was that while the federal government will help cities with large construction projects that they might not be able to afford on their own, day-to-day operations should not be a federal responsibility. The result has been billions of dollars spent on the least cost-effective ways of moving people. The BART extension to the San Francisco Airport, for example, will cost at least $1.5 billion, while bringing, according the BART’s 1995 environmental impact report, the reduction in travel time between downtown San Francisco and the airport to precisely zero minutes.
Perhaps the most important factor in whether transit is successful is the density and design of the urban area it serves. While Bay Area residents like to feel superior to automotive sprawl of Los Angeles, the fact is that is both northern and southern California have many types of neighborhoods, with the primary factor in an area’s urban form being the period in which it was developed. Areas that were built before automobile ownership became widespread are more densely populated; both because of taller buildings and because of less space devoted to parking and roads. Not only does higher population density provide more potential transit riders per square mile; it makes walking to and waiting at transit stops more pleasant. Postwar suburban cities put pedestrians between eight lane roads of fast-moving vehicles on one side and acres of desolate parking lots on the other.
A major reason that the Red Line’s ridership is as high as it is that it serves the densely populated tenements of Westlake as well as the 1920’s pedestrian-oriented commercial district of Hollywood Boulevard. San Francisco’s nineteenth century density is reflected in Muni’s high ridership statistics, while sprawling Silicon Valley’s transit ridership is lower than LA’s. Transportation planners understand the connection between land use and transit, which is why two ridership figures were prepared for the proposed San Jose BART extension: one for current land use patterns, and another assuming dense development clustered around stations. Development so dense, in fact, that it would require tripling the office space of downtown San Jose, something never envisioned by San Jose’s city planning officials or permitted by the city’s zoning documents.
Although planners are aware of the connection between land use and transportation, there is a fundamental disconnect between the two in the way the government institutions are structured. Transportation agencies such as have no authority over zoning decisions, which are made by local city governments. The ballot measure authorizing BART to San Jose was sold to the voters on the basis of the 78,000 daily riders projected with massive development around stations, but nothing in the measure itself brings such development closer to being allowed by zoning laws. Indeed, any such plans would probably lead to voter revolt. Entire neighborhoods of historic single family houses would have to be leveled and replaced with high rise offices. This situation closely parallels the history of the Los Angeles Red Line the feasibility studies in Los Angeles promised 297,000 daily riders, based on massive development around stations. The city of Los Angeles never took any steps to make such development legal, and today the 17-mile Red Line carries 135,000 daily passengers.
Los Angeles is currently is the process of re-evaluating its long-range transportation plan in an effort to see how it can do more for less cash. Plans for extensions to the Red Line to the Mid Cities area and East Los Angeles have been shelved, despite funding agreements from the federal government. Surface light rail options is under evaluation and a relatively inexpensive busway is in planning for an unlikely place in the sprawl, the San Fernando Valley.
The popular conception that transit in Los Angeles is a futile proposition, and that the Bay Area is fundamentally different, does not hold up under scrutiny. Plans for massive expansion of the BART system in the Bay Area starkly contrast with Los Angeles attempts to pinch and save. Why has no such shift in public perception or public policy taken place in the Bay Area? One answer may be that they are simply behind the curve, and that twenty years from now, when BART has sucked up all transportation funding in the Bay Area, it we will be in the same position. A more complete answer requires a diffrent question: how important is it to provide effective transportation for those who cannot drive given that the infrastructure currently planned is so expensive that it will not pay for itself for generations?