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This article appears in the Summer 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
On May 20, 2016, residents of downtown Los Angeles boarded a passenger rail car and traveled 15 miles west to the water’s edge—something no Angeleno had been able to do since the early 1950s. The new Expo Line extension, colored aqua because of its connection to the ocean, prompted memories of the old Pacific Electric streetcar, which traveled practically the same route before the line was shut down in 1953. “My grandparents talked about going to the beach on dates from Mid-City,” says Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “I wanted to do that for my grandkids.”
Denny Zane was on the Santa Monica platform at 4th Street and Colorado Avenue that day. He’d been mayor of the beach town in 1990, when the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (later known as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or Metro) had purchased the Expo Line right-of-way from the Southern Pacific Railroad. City fathers had been so sure the new line would get built that they bought space for a maintenance yard at Bergamot Station, temporarily leasing it out as an arts center. Twenty-six years later, nobody wanted to evict the galleries. “So the maintenance yard gets put on Stewart and Exposition, across the street from my house!” Zane says. “I’m really having to be the good citizen.”
The persistence of regional leaders has finally paid off. After the success of two recent tax-hiking ballot measures, Los Angeles County can finally embark upon “the largest local infrastructure initiative in this nation’s history, times two,” as Garcetti likes to say in speeches. Over the next 40 years, the region’s transportation map will be transformed, with $120 billion in tax revenue generated for 37 light rail, subway, bus rapid transit, bike, and highway improvement projects.
The voters who approved those measures clearly want relief from two of L.A.’s signature problems: smog and traffic. But the measures’ architects seek an even more fundamental transformation—a plan that would foster economic no less than spatial mobility. From local hiring initiatives to transit-oriented development, their goal is to reinvent the city, using transportation as both a job creator and a solution to such problems as inequality and gentrification. “It’s kind of a big-picture, modern Marshall Plan for Los Angeles,” says Madeline Janis, executive director of Jobs to Move America, a transit jobs advocacy coalition.
As politicians from Donald Trump on down profess a desire to rebuild America through infrastructure investment, Los Angeles can serve as a model for how to do it in a way that benefits riders, workers, and businesses alike. But can Los Angeles meet all these lofty goals? Or will remaking L.A. crash into the same neighborhood inequities, political infighting, and lack of Washington support that has bedeviled the city for decades?
One reason for optimism: Despite all the moments when it never looked more distant, Los Angeles rail has become the little engine that could.
AT ONE TIME, LOS ANGELES actually hosted the most extensive urban rail network in the world. In the late 1800s, real-estate developers like Henry Huntington wanted to entice homebuyers to move to far-flung properties across southern California. They built the Pacific Electric Railway in 1901, privately operated streetcars that enabled homeowners to commute into job centers. The red and yellow cars stretched farther than any system envisioned today, spanning four counties and hundreds of miles.
A popular conspiracy theory, most vividly illuminated in the animated classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit, suggests that a consortium of oil, auto, and tire interests bought up streetcar companies and dismantled them, building freeways where the trolleys once rode. The truth is more mundane but no less tragic. Real-estate tycoons developed the region haphazardly, using streetcars to connect diffuse populations to dispersed centers of work, rather than to the kind of dense downtown that characterized older cities. Paradoxically, a region designed for mass transit ended up receptive to sprawl.
“Automobile technology took over like smartphone technology,” says Ethan Elkind, a law professor at UC Berkeley and UCLA, and the author of Railtown, a history of Los Angeles mass transit. Beset by fare hikes, strikes, and slowness, and lacking public subsidies, the streetcars couldn’t compete with cars and freeways. Public money for infrastructure went to build roads for auto-hungry residents, not to rescue rail. The Pacific Electric took its last trip in 1961; buses became the only mass transit option left in the city.
Legendary Mayor Tom Bradley swept into office in 1973 promising to break ground on a high-speed rapid transit system within 18 months. But the public refused to support it; county voters rejected three separate ballot measures from 1968 to 1976. Suburban opponents didn’t feel they’d reap the benefits. “If voters had stepped in and agreed to fund it in ’68, there was an 80 percent federal matching grant on the table,” says Elkind. “Things were cheaper back then. The system would be two to three times larger than it is today.”
A 1920 map of Pacific Electric Rail routes
By the time voters finally approved a half-cent sales tax for transit in 1980, federal dollars had dried up considerably. And congestion had increased so pervasively that the 88 cities of Los Angeles County each vied for the relief that rail could bring. It took five years from the voters’ approval to even start a rail line, amid bureaucratic knife fights between the many competing interests, cities and neighborhoods. The first project, the Blue Line that connected the county’s biggest cities (Los Angeles and Long Beach), came about because it ran through powerful Supervisor Kenneth Hahn’s district. The Green Line resulted from an environmental lawsuit during the construction of the Century Freeway, which freed up a median strip on the freeway for rail. But the Green Line veered left as it approached LAX, the city’s car-congested mega-airport, delivering its riders instead to the aerospace factories of the South Bay. By the time the line was finished, however, the Cold War had ended and the aerospace plants had closed.
Meanwhile, the densest corridor in the western United States, along Wilshire Boulevard, couldn’t get a subway after a March 1985 methane gas explosion under a Ross Dress for Less store, which injured 23. Henry Waxman, the powerful congressman who represented the area, deemed the tunneling unsafe. Most experts thought the subsequent precautions planned for the Red Line subway ensured the line could proceed safely, but many suspected Waxman used safety as a pretext to side with constituents who didn’t want to give low-income, minority residents easy access to their communities. Waxman authored congressional legislation barring the subway from venturing into his district, stunting its reach and effectiveness. The ban didn’t get lifted for a generation.
In 1990, voters narrowly approved an additional half-cent sales tax, enabling Metro to purchase old rights-of-way from the streetcar days and move into the next phase of transit development. (This is why so much of L.A.’s transit is light rail without grade separation; existing corridors were already available, without the need for costly tunneling or elevated tracks.) But mismanagement and squabbling hampered progress. “Not in my backyard” community activists shut down proposed lines. A tunnel fire and a sinkhole along the Hollywood Boulevard section of the subway generated bad press. A decade-long legal fight between Metro and a coalition representing bus riders, who argued rail was a racist benefit for wealthy commuters at the expense of poor people of color, delayed construction, too. A resulting consent decree increased the bus fleet and improved service for existing riders, but did not appreciably increase ridership, and diverted money from other transit improvements.
By the turn of the millennium, Metro was debt-ridden, distrusted, and cowed into scaling back ambitions. Amazingly, most rail fares were based on the honor system; the city couldn’t afford turnstiles, and had scant personnel to check if riders actually paid. While a few lines did move forward—the subway from downtown to Hollywood, light rail to Pasadena and East L.A., and bus express service in the San Fernando Valley—they did little to reduce congestion or improve air quality. A growing population was sinking from the weight of too many cars. Something needed to change.
“I WAS STUCK IN TRAFFIC on Olympic,” Denny Zane says, recalling a moment in 2007. The worsening gridlock called to mind an image of ice cubes freezing. “You could see the future and it sucked.” As he sat, Zane heard on the radio that Metro had no available funds for new projects for the next 30 years. “I knew we had three million more people expected. It would be just as if Chicago came here today—we’re in near gridlock and Chicago descends upon us. Third-world status, here we come.”
Two years earlier, Antonio Villaraigosa had become the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles in more than 130 years, having pledged repeatedly during his campaign to build a “Subway to the Sea.” Villaraigosa had served on the Metro board in the 1990s, supporting bus riders in the bus-versus-rail fight. But he’d evolved on the issue. “What I was saying [during my mayoral campaign] was we have to reimagine L.A.,” Villaraigosa says. “If you can’t move around you can’t work.”
Early in his first term, Villaraigosa got Waxman to agree to lift the ban on tunneling under Wilshire Boulevard. But he knew that without revenues, it didn’t matter. And there had been one big change since 1990, the year of the last successful initiative for transit funding. Thanks to the notorious Proposition 13 and a separate ballot measure in 1996, local tax increases required a two-thirds majority of voters, far beyond what any transit initiative had ever received in Los Angeles. “You can exit the European Union with a bare majority, but you can’t get rail [in Los Angeles] without two-thirds,” quips Elkind.
The high threshold demanded a broad coalition, and that required more than just a subway to the sea. Transit advocates needed something comprehensive to appeal to voters throughout the county, a full-service measure to improve all modes of transportation, from railways to freeways. And it had to be specific: Vague notions of “improving transportation” would not fly.
But supporters had two things going for them. First, there was L.A.’s traffic nightmare. The city remains the world’s most congested, with the average commuter spending 104 hours in traffic per year. “You only had to sell the plan, because the need slaps you in the face every day,” says Gary Toebben, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. Second, the upcoming 2008 election promised high Democratic turnout, the best demographics for progressive initiatives in decades.
Zane got to work building the coalition. He brought together environmentalists looking to reduce carbon emissions from cars, labor unions seeking good jobs building rail, and business groups wanting better quality of life for employees and customers. He called the new organization Move LA. “We could have been laughed off, but we weren’t,” Zane says. “The first meeting, I invited 35 organizations and 34 showed up.” Some of these groups hadn’t worked together in years, if ever. They spent close to a year developing a workable plan.
Subsisting on a shoestring—this transformation of regional infrastructure for millions of people required Zane to scrounge a $15,000 grant for meeting space and $25,000 for a poll—the transit advocates got to work. With a county of ten million residents and overlapping jurisdictions at the city, county, and even state level, reaching consensus over which projects would get built appeared impossible, yet it was a necessary task. Light rail and busways proved more popular than subways, because they were cheaper and could be rolled out more quickly. Projects with the best ridership projections were subordinated to those that could help win voter support. Villaraigosa acknowledges that he put the Gold Line extension, in a relatively less populated corridor of the San Gabriel Valley, atop the list because the coalition couldn’t afford to lose those voters. Even certain stations were added as political compromises: Farmdale Station on the Expo Line was intentionally inserted to slow down the trains near two area schools, to ease the concerns of parents of kids who’d be crossing the tracks.
Move LA’s plan proved compelling enough to persuade the Metro board to devise Measure R (for “relief”), which would go before voters on the November 2008 ballot. Metro’s board settled on a 30-year, half-cent sales tax increase, raising $30 billion to $40 billion for 12 specific rail, subway, and road projects. Zane initially balked at the regressive tax choice, but studies showed that businesses and tourists paid more than half of all sales taxes because of California’s many exemptions for necessities.
Reimagining L.A.: Denny Zane formed a group called Move LA in 2007 to advocate for comprehensive public transportation throughout Los Angeles County. Here, Zane speaks at a press conference in 2014.
Even then, Measure R had to survive several near-death experiences. The state legislature needed to sign off, but two East Los Angeles lawmakers, Gil Cedillo and Gloria Romero, tried to block it, seeking better guarantees for their districts. Minutes before the deadline to qualify the measure for the ballot, Cedillo and Romero lifted their objections. Then the powerful county Board of Supervisors, whose support was required to place the measure on the November ballot, voted three to two against doing it. Metro had prepared a lawsuit to force Measure R onto the ballot, but then Supervisor Don Knabe changed his vote to yes.
Villaraigosa raised the lion’s share of the funds in the eight weeks before the election. At the same time, however, Lehman Brothers failed, the financial crisis exploded, and many thousands of Angelenos lost their jobs or homes, just as they were being asked to tax themselves for a distant hope of a modern transit system. “We all think the measure has no chance, it’s dead, but the spots are paid for, we’re going through with it,” Zane recalls. More optimistically, the Chamber of Commerce’s Gary Toebben believed that the recession provided an opportunity to argue that the region needed Measure R, not only to fix transit but to create economic stimulus in difficult times.
On election night, Measure R started out short in early returns. “It looked like it was going to go down,” Villaraigosa says. “I was ready for Plan B, ready to put it up again, figure something out.” But late that night, the measure crept past the two-thirds threshold. The outsized Obama turnout saved the day; Measure R passed with 67.9 percent of the vote.
The revenues gave Metro the ability to double its transit footprint. Almost immediately, Villaraigosa sought to accelerate construction, going to the federal government with a plan called the 30/10 Initiative, seeking a loan advance on sales tax revenue to shorten the time required to build projects from 30 years to 10. The government could offer far more favorable terms for those loans than the bond market. “I sat down with Obama. He said, ‘It’s an earmark.’ He kind of laughed me out,” the former mayor says.
Undaunted, Villaraigosa found champions in Congress, even after Republicans won the 2010 midterms. Led by Senator Barbara Boxer, a version of 30/10 called America Fast Forward got slipped into a 2012 transportation bill, expanding loans through the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA). Accelerating Measure R’s projects would prove critical to future ballot measures—though not in 2012.
In that year, concerned about running out of revenues, transit advocates hastily assembled a new proposition, Measure J, to extend the sales tax increase by another 30 years. Not only did lower presidential election turnout hurt, but the lack of a defined plan also made Measure J more vague than its predecessor. In the end it fell short of the required two-thirds support by about 15,000 votes.
“Losing J that way was the best thing that could have happened,” says Zane. “Metro would have had more money for operations, but J had no more projects funded.” A new proposition in 2016, Measure M, was more ambitious. It not only made the Measure R sales tax permanent and added an additional half a cent to the levy. Like Measure R, it also specified a new group of projects it would fund. The Move LA coalition collected ideas from nine sub-regions of the county, and ventured into new terrain: expanding into fare discounts for students and the elderly, and funding bike paths and pedestrian walkways, too. They even added a “local return” program to give cities a revenue stream for fixing potholes and synchronizing traffic lights. “Every city did a project dump; every capital improvement project they ever thought of got in,” Zane says.
Metro took these ideas and refined them into a coherent initiative, promoting it as a plan to build the city of the future. “I said in my previous life in the military, soldiers don’t charge a hill for money. People have to be inspired,” says Phil Washington, who was installed as Metro’s CEO in 2015. He specifically tied the build-out to economic opportunity. “When you start talking economic development, job creation, the ability through transportation investment to create a new middle class, you begin to talk people’s language,” he says.
Thanks to the 30/10 acceleration, in the months before Election Day 2016 four major projects rolled out, extending existing rail and express bus lines into East L.A., the northern San Fernando Valley, the San Gabriel Valley, and of course, including the Expo Line to the sea. “Delivering those on time and on budget, just before the vote, showed voters it was real,” says Garcetti, who led the campaign. Measure M ended up garnering 71.1 percent of the vote.
THE ECONOMIC BENEFITS of mass transit are numerous. Saving commuters time on the road increases productivity and worker morale. New job opportunities await workers who previously considered some commutes impractical. Transit helps break a mental barrier, the feeling people had that they were virtually imprisoned in their communities after midday. “You have communities of color living closer to the ocean than 99 percent of America, that had never been to the beach,” says Garcetti.
This freedom of movement can increase economic development along the lines, bringing with it new residents, customers, and workers. Investments in walkability and bike paths create a more livable and vibrant city. “Commercial areas will flourish where they have been stagnant before,” says Representative Karen Bass, regarding the new Crenshaw rail line through her district. “Tom Bradley struggled for 25 years to get a grocery store in here.”
The hundreds of miles of planned transit projects also should generate a full-fledged transportation industry for Los Angeles, creating careers rather than one-off construction project gigs. Citing a report from the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation, Garcetti expects 465,000 jobs—245,000 in construction—from Measure M improvements in future years.
The creation of so many new jobs has also impelled L.A.’s social justice advocates to ensure that a sizable share of them goes to the city’s poor and minority communities. Madeline Janis, whose earlier work at the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy had created the living-wage ordinances and community-hiring agreements that hundreds of American cities subsequently enacted, was particularly intrigued. In 2013, Janis founded a new group, Jobs to Move America, to ensure the new industry’s workforce reflected the city’s diversity, and that its jobs provided L.A.’s working poor with a path out of poverty. “We were asking, how do you harness the power of public purchasing and investment as part of larger strategy to rebuild the economy in a better way?” Janis says.
Building The City Of The Future: Phil Washington (here with Mayor Garcetti, right) has been Metro's CEO since 2015.
Initially working through community redevelopment agencies, Janis promoted a program that included multi-employer apprenticeships, which trained local workers for permanent construction careers. The apprenticeships would last between two and five years, with some of the funding for the apprenticeships borne by the workers themselves, who devote a portion of their wages to the program. “Especially with Measure M, people are able to raise families on these careers,” says Janis. Government agencies, she adds, could even lower the disproportionate cost of infrastructure projects in the United States by making project management more efficient.
Metro immediately recognized the benefits. “I grew up on the South Side of Chicago; I saw people building infrastructure in my community and they didn’t look like me,” says Metro CEO Washington, who is African American. Metro’s project labor agreement targets hiring 40 percent of its workers from residents of high-poverty ZIP codes in L.A. County; likewise 20 percent of workers must come from the apprenticeship programs, and 10 percent from a pool of “disadvantaged” workers, such as the homeless or recently incarcerated. Metro also funded community outreach and job coordinators for each project. “There’s nothing better than us going out on the Crenshaw project and seeing people living around the corner working on it,” Washington says.
The big stumbling block to getting these programs off the ground was a restriction on using federal dollars for projects that prioritize local hiring. Federal money is almost always used to top off transportation projects, either through the “New Starts” program that supplements local funding, or discretionary grants. Representative Bass introduced legislation to give cities the flexibility to prioritize local hiring. “It was a bipartisan issue,” Bass says. “Republicans want to reduce regulations where they are a burden.” In 2015, Bass got her bill passed as an appropriations rider, and the Obama administration adopted local hire as a pilot project. It later got extended to 2022.
Janis didn’t stop there; she wanted to extend local hiring to procurement—a particular knotty challenge, since no U.S.-based company manufactures rail cars. That said, in transportation infrastructure, 70 percent of all public dollars go to private companies. Jobs to Move America and other organizations created the U.S. Employment Plan, something government purchasers can insert into their bidding process as an extra credit on proposals. The plan commits manufacturers to prioritize local jobs with good wages and benefits, along with workforce training and hiring of disadvantaged and low-income employees. After a winning bid is selected by a transit agency, Janis and her colleagues negotiate a community benefit agreement that includes all these factors, with the goal of building a pipeline of permanent jobs.
Having adopted the U.S. Employment Plan in 2012, Metro gave a billion-dollar contract to Kinkisharyo, a Japanese rail car manufacturer, to build a factory in the L.A. County high desert town of Palmdale, creating 400 permanent union jobs averaging $21 an hour, with a notably diverse workforce (80 percent nonwhite, a quarter of whom were African American). This March, Metro signed a deal with China Railway for 64 new subway cars, which requires the company to build a new factory in the Los Angeles area for component parts, exceeding “Buy America” requirements that 60 percent of the parts be made domestically.
Another company with a Metro contract, New Flyer, opened a factory in the L.A. exurb of Ontario to build Metro buses, supplementing its St. Cloud, Minnesota, facility. But after buying a competitor in Alabama, New Flyer moved most of its work there, breaking its local jobs promise. Jobs to Move America rallied to prevent Metro from hiring the firm again for a clean-bus proposal currently accepting bids.
In addition to demanding local job creation, environmental justice activists want to fully electrify the city bus fleet, ending Metro’s current reliance on compressed natural gas vehicles. Expanding transit could tangibly contribute to better breathing, especially with a zero-emissions switch. (Eliminating cars from the gridlocked 405 Freeway for road maintenance one weekend in 2011 caused an 83 percent improvement in air quality.) With Los Angeles committed to the goals of the Paris climate agreement, clean transit is practically a necessity.
The requirement for sustainability augments the economic development strategy from the transit build-out. Metro’s 2016 contract with BYD, a Chinese firm, calls for building an electric bus factory in Lancaster, 75 miles northeast of Los Angeles, set to host up to 1,200 jobs. If Los Angeles can become the center for zero-emissions transit, it can flourish as a manufacturing hub, increasing the potential economic benefits.
“In Palmdale and Lancaster, [the new railcar manufacturers] are working in old aerospace hangars,” says Garcetti, who chairs an infrastructure task force of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Many of the workers there, he adds, are “people who had to vacate their homes during the recession. They now see a pathway to good jobs for their children without a college degree.”
THREE MORE TRANSIT projects should come online in the next decade: two phases of the Purple Line extension of the subway down Wilshire, the Crenshaw Line through South Central Los Angeles, and the regional connector downtown, which will allow commuters to go from Long Beach to Pasadena, or East L.A. to Santa Monica, without a transfer. The system will also finally make it to LAX, along with a people mover to get travelers from the Metro stop to their terminals. There are already as many feeder lines into downtown Los Angeles as there are into Chicago, with more improvements on the way. The holy grail of mass transit in L.A., scheduled for a later date, is a north-south route along the clogged 405 Freeway in the Sepulveda Pass; virtually every major highway feeds into the 405, and relieving congestion there would ripple out across the region.
In January, the city received $1.6 billion in federal support for the Purple Line, and Mayor Garcetti has asked the Trump administration for more, to move up subway completion from 2035 to 2024, in time for that year’s Summer Olympics, for which L.A. is one of the two finalists. “We have become the infrastructure capital of the world,” says Phil Washington. “With two NFL teams, a rail spur to that stadium, the possibility of the Olympics, it creates this economic bonanza, what I call a modern-day WPA [Works Progress Administration].”
But one possible drawback to this strategy now lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Though President Trump has talked up $200 billion in investments to “rebuild our crumbling infrastructure,” his first budget actually contained a net reduction in infrastructure spending, including a wipeout of the popular TIGER grants and the New Starts program. “I’m not confident at all, that’s why I’m working so hard,” says Garcetti.
Trump’s main infrastructure plan would encourage public-private partnerships (P3s) to give private investors equity stakes in infrastructure projects that could yield a long-term return. Los Angeles hasn’t shied away from considering P3s, with Washington insisting that all sources of funding need to remain in his toolbox. But Washington doesn’t envision the granting of equity stakes; he favors operations and maintenance contracts, with agreed-upon, performance-based payouts. “If they build a substandard facility, they’re not going to recoup,” he vows. If federal money dries up, however, and more aggressive P3s become the only way to access funds, Metro may be forced to undermine the promise of using public infrastructure for the public good.
Early ridership statistics show better-than-expected numbers for newer routes, like the Expo Line to the sea. But while 1.29 million boardings happen every weekday system-wide, that reflects a significant drop from two years ago. The culprit is bus ridership, which accounts for virtually all the decrease, and a 16 percent drop over the past three years.
Bus ridership is down nationally as well. You can come up with a lot of reasons: riders substituting rail for bus rides, cheaper gas prices, slow service from rising traffic, a state law allowing undocumented immigrants to acquire driver’s licenses. But the combination of a 2014 fare increase and the rise of Uber and Lyft for last-mile service could also be pricing the most vulnerable passengers off the bus, raising questions about a transit divide in Los Angeles. If rail continues to cannibalize the bus system, the poorest communities without access could be left behind. “My mother rode the bus all her life,” says Villaraigosa, now a candidate for California governor. “We’re going to have to put equity as a value and principle of Metro’s mission statement.”
Metro is concerned enough about the situation to begin a comprehensive review of bus fleet supply and route configuration, its first in 30 years. “We need to look at the connections, and see if we’re going to the right place,” says Washington. The response may include “micro-transit” systems, loops that serve high-density communities with more frequent buses.
Hire Local: Metro's labor agreement targets hiring 40 percent of its workers from high-poverty ZIP codes in L.A.
In coming years, dedicated bus lanes along Vermont Avenue and in Pasadena will improve ride times significantly. The city has also added 150 police officers to Metro to make bus riders feel safer, a major concern. Most buses should be Wi-Fi-enabled within a couple of years. And Metro has installed 32 solar-powered “smart benches” at bus shelters, with Wi-Fi hotspots, USB chargers, and real-time arrival information. There are also plans for jungle gyms and art exhibits to make the stops more attractive.
Because much of the city’s light rail runs at street-level, even these non-car trips stop for traffic lights and can be unnecessarily long, making them unattractive to potential riders. The Expo Line trip from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica takes about 50 minutes, the same amount of time it took the Pacific Electric 60 years ago. Elkind believes that trains should get signal preemption on busy routes, or even that the stations with fewer passengers be eliminated to improve travel times. “It’s a controversial step,” he says, “but if it’s in a low-density area and there are no plans to provide more riders, why should everyone have to stop?”
Washington is aiming for a doubling of “transit mode share” (which measures how many people take which modes of transportation) in the next five years. Eventually he wants 20 percent to 25 percent of the region’s residents to regularly use transit; right now that number is around 7 percent.
But that might happen only if Los Angeles tackles the final step in its transformation: transit-oriented development. The city’s inattention to building housing over the last several decades has led to a housing crisis, with rents rising at rates as high as anywhere in the nation. Homelessness jumped 23 percent last year, amid scarce options for the poor. The rise of transit provides an opportunity to reverse this trend by building large developments close to rail service, not only providing more housing supply but eliminating cars from the road. Locating office development near transit can also improve congestion.
Garcetti has noted that 35 percent of housing on Metro-owned land along transit lines must be affordable, in accordance with a Metro--adopted policy. Already, some historically low-rise neighborhoods, among them Hollywood and Koreatown, have grown higher as a result of significant transit--adjacent development. But affordable-housing advocates raise legitimate concerns that new luxury housing near transit lines, like that in the city’s now hip and gentrifying downtown, is pushing out the residents most dependent on public transportation. Cities like Santa Monica and the neighborhoods of West Los Angeles, moreover, are maintaining or even lowering height limits in transit corridors. If it was tough to get neighborhoods to accept rail lines, the perennial resistance to housing density could prove even more intractable. How housing policy interacts with transit could determine the shape of the new Los Angeles, as it did when developments sprouted up next to streetcar lines in the 1900s, or subdivisions near freeways in the 1950s.
If housing and office development can flourish around the lines, if more front doors open to a transit stop, if neighborhoods become hubs of economic activity, if local hiring creates a generation of middle-class transportation workers, the opportunity exists to revolutionize how people live in what was considered the ultimate home of the car. “It’s going to take time to change travel patterns,” says Gary Toebben. “But I have no doubt that the culture is changing in our city.”