LA. The initials conjure up many things, but everyone knows — the traffic sucks. Why it’s the most heinously congested city in the entire world has been covered thoroughly. At Friday’s Move LA Transportation Conversation, we learned what’s being done to fix that. Hint — the solution will not drive itself.
The conference focused on continued improvement of our public transit system and the desperate need for more affordable housing in the city. It was nice to also hear at least one panelist, Amanda Eaken of NRDC, talk about the value of congestion charges. Back in 2014, MetroLA was planning a fare hike. I did the math and saw they could get the money they need from a mere $20/month tax on commuter parking in downtown LA. That still hasn’t happened, but we can dream.
The first panel was uplifting, focused on what’s being done right. While the global transport sector scores an F (or a generous D) in Improvement, as reported here, LA Metro is hoping to be Valedictorian. Los Angeles Trade Technical College has been very active in making TAP cards more easily available to all students, not just theirs. The U-Pass (pilot) program gives schools the option to sell students an RFID tag they can stick onto their student ID. Some also let students add it to their tuition bill. Because when did a student ever have $200 in the bank at once? LATT was also responsible for making the U-Pass available to part-time students as well. At schools where the pass cost is bundled with tuition, and sold in the bookstores, more students ride the bus now. People might not think of LA as a “college town” but there are 3 million students living here.
Can a public utility innovate extraordinarily?
Metro LA is developing its first ever strategic plan. Its Chief Innovation Officer, of the Office of Extraordinary Innovation (seriously), was on hand to give us a teaser. Dr. Schank told us the goal is not to increase ridership, it’s to increase mobility. We’re all glad they figured that one out. He added: “The route to better mobility is to get fewer people driving alone, any way we can. Initiatives like Measure M will take 40 years to really pay off. So we are working on innovative financing via the private sector.”
As I’ve mentioned before, Metro LA is open to public/private partnerships. The real game-changer for them, however, is how they’ll disrupt Uber. Bus ridership is down because Uber is faster and cheap. Buses are slower primarily because there are too many cars on the road. But buses are also slower because they don’t go where you need to go. Many trips in LA require 2–3 transfers, or more! The bus routes are dumb. Dr. Schank intends to smarten them up. It doesn’t help that Google Maps makes it worse by showing you how much faster you could get there if you took Uber or Lyft, when you just want to check when your bus is coming!
If Metro created an Uber-pool killer, that would be awesome. Like the Dodger Stadium Express, only all year, and all over LA. Because there’s nothing like Dodger traffic to bring out the best in Angelenos.
So, if you live in LA, and care about traffic, look for Metro’s draft of its strategic plan in early 2018 and comment on it! That’s where it faces a real challenge going up against nimble disruptors like Uber. Uber probably didn’t draft a strategic plan, wait for public comment, water it down, then launch a pilot that wasn’t comprehensive enough to succeed.
Metro has to act like a disruptive startup if it really wants to get this city moving again. Maybe it needs to hold more rallies, like this ladies event last January (pic below). Everyone decided to take Metro downtown, and Metro didn’t have nearly enough train cars to handle it. It was a beautiful moment in LA’s history. We drove the electric car to the rally and there was no traffic.
I asked CicLAvia’s Executive Director Romel Pascual how he can remain hopeful when brand-new road diets are being reversed. He said, “We just have to push back harder.” Which sounds nice, but I’ve tried “pushing back” while on my bicycle, and the car always wins. Always.
Eaken piped in to say that in London, they wanted to create better bike & ped infrastructure, but had to make driving less attractive first. So they started with the congestion charge, then created the Go Zones, car-free areas. But making car ownership more expensive requires bold politicians.
Meanwhile, Mayor Garcetti couldn’t even stand up for his own Vision Zero against a few angry motorists in a recent public hearing. Luckily, LA’s city council has a bit more power than the mayor, and they’re the ones to look to for real change. Councilman Mike Bonin is avidly fighting for Vision Zero. But this has the same motorists mentioned above trying to have him recalled. So far they’ve managed to gather a whopping 4 signatures for this initiative. Clearly, some people really, really love just sitting in their cars going nowhere. They could be enjoying a ride-through taco truck instead, on the new protected bike lane on Venice Boulevard!
Can LA County create a truly equitable community development model while building out our transit system?
This was the title of the second panel, which featured a lively mix of NGOs, government, and business. I learned a lot about my city, the most depressing fact being that we lose an average of five RSO (rent-stabilized ordinance) units per day, and gain only one housing unit for every 6 new LA residents. The good news is, there’s a LOT more housing coming up, and the city makes it very attractive for developers to build close to Metro stations.
They’re also letting developers build less parking (which costs $20,000 per space to build) in exchange for providing more affordable units. The other good news about all this new housing is that new buildings are required to collect and use stormwater, as well as recharge groundwater instead of sending water into sewers. The only problem with the construction boom is that the disappearing middle class can’t afford luxury apartments or qualify for low-income support. And most Californians can’t even dream about owning their primary residence, because the super-rich use our housing stock as their savings accounts.
Still, basic economics work here — as supply exceeds demand, prices have to fall. And as the city increases density and starts growing up into a real city, our GHG footprint will decrease. While all those Metro lines get dug and new apartment buildings rise up, we can at least dream of a future LA that looks more like the one in Her than in Blade Runner 2049.
As a resident of this fine megacity for a couple of decades, I know traffic is worse. But I didn’t think it was that much worse — I just thought I was getting too old to be this badass every day. As one of the 1% who actually commutes via two wheels here, I get around faster than most. But it’s only fun for adrenaline junkies. It’s war out there. I wish I could feel as safe on my bicycle here as I did pedaling around Copenhagen. And even NYC recently. The big reason so many Angelenos drive hybrids and electric cars isn’t because they care about the planet. Most of them don’t. It’s not because they like the government payola. That’s a nice perk.
Why hybrids and EVs make so much sense here is that if you’re spending 104 hours a year averaging 7 mph in stop-and-go traffic, it saves a bundle on gasoline. But the price is in losing one’s mind. People hate driving in traffic so much that they think a car that drives itself is the answer. But it’s not. The answer is in creating more walkable, bike-friendly hubs around Metro stations. This is why average rents in Downtown LA are higher than in Beverly Hills. People want to walk to work, and dinner, and the gym, etc. Sitting alone in a car going nowhere is dehumanizing and soul-crushing. Ride there instead, and have a better day.