Saturday, January 21, 2017

Trump the Caudillo and the Latin American-ization of US Politics

Top: Juan Peron, two-term president of Argentina     Bottom: Donald Trump


Donald Trump's authoritarian, demagogue-like tendencies frequently merit comparison to Hitler and Mussolini. On the morning after Il Orange entered the Oval Office, a search for "fascism" turned up about 285,000 listings on Google News, with the vast majority of results (on the first three pages) pertaining to the Cheato.  Unfortunately, the gross, genocidal excesses of both the fascist and Nazi regimes make these comparison a bit ineffective in my opinion (as long as he does not start a World War and commit mass murder of ethnic minorities, Trump will be "okay"). A more effective (and recent) parallel may be drawn to the Caudillos, or populist strongmen, of Latin America.

Often (but not always) emerging from the military, and including leaders as diverse as Augusto Pinochet, Juan Peron and, disputedly, Hugo Chavez, the Caudillo rises to power through brash appeal to the disaffected working classes. Once he takes control (sometimes through military coup but often through popular vote) the Caudillo dilutes or abolishes the legislative checks on his executive power (e.g. amending the constitution to run for additional terms or evicting the press from the Oval Office), without actually upending with the democratic system or its institutions of governance. When the political establishment cries foul, the Caudillo declares that he is "under attack" by the ruling (e.g. beltway) elites, thereby rallying support from disaffected segments of the lower or middle classes.

Furthermore, an essential component of a Caudillo's appeal (particularly for right-leaning ones) is the projection of masculine dominance--the image of the "macho" man who can get things done (and have his way with woman).

What is particularly striking about the comparison of Donald Trump and Latin American strongmen are the similar political contexts which have birthed them. Latin American countries are among the few in the world that share the United State's presidential form of democracy, where the executive branch is chosen independently from the legislative branch. In contrast to the form of parliamentary democracy dominant in Europe, the executive in a presidential republic does not leave office if an opposing gains control of the legislature. And yet, presidential republics naturally subject the executive's law-making authority to the legislature's approval as part of the system of checks-and-balances. Therefore, when the branches of government are divided, especially between ideologically-opposed parties, gridlock is the most likely outcome.

Since the president's derives his legitimacy independently from the legislature, arbitrary executive authority provides a convenient tool to break inaction, one that--unfortunately--subverts the legislative checks crucial to democracy's survival.


For a long time the American President did not need to override Congress because members of both parties could compromise to enact legislation with a broad centrist appeal. The ideological polarization of recent decades has changed this. Presidents Bush and Obama both came to rely on executive mandate. God only knows how Trump might wield his power on immigration policy or trade.

In Latin American countries, by contrast, the legacies of a colonial caste system have long produced sharp division between white criollo landowners and a mixed-race and indigenous laboring class. Thus presidential democracy has been tested from an early age by a combination of class- and race-based polarization (often augmented by geography), which has only afflicted the US political system for the last 50 years.

(Of course, the US political system largely muted racial divisions for much of its history by actively excluding the colored working classes from political participation. My argument is that such polarization did not previously manifest itself in politics, not that it did not previously exist).  

With sharp polarization, partisans on one side will believe the worst of the opposing party (even ludicrous mistruths). When their party secures the presidency, they will support any executive initiative to overcome opposition in the legislature (especially by a minority party). If their party controls the legislature (but not the presidency) they will demand obstruction of governance, to the point of a breakdown (or unilateral action).

Such contempt for minority rights (or, alternatively phrased, support for authoritarianism) is especially evident among classes that feel like their position of privilege is threatened.

Will Trump use the slightest threat to declare a state of emergency (with the military by his side)? Will he simply work to perpetuate GOP rule by appointing justices who strike down the remainder of our voting rights protections? Or will he alter libel laws so that he can stifle critical media coverage with lawsuits?

The future is uncertain, terrifyingly so.

Our country is not exceptional (i.e. destined to be a liberally democratic). The historical moment is not normal.

For the next four years, we must never let down our guard.

We must always resist.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016: What were you and where am I?

As the New Year approaches, I am at a bit of a loss for words.

Partly, I have been experiencing a bit of burnout the past few weeks after a 10-week quarter in which I wrote more than 50 pages worth of analytical material on planning history and theory and transportation policy.  

Even more broadly, 2016 has been an exceptionally surreal year, punctuated by unexpected and cataclysmic events that have been difficult to explain or to minimize out of my daily routine of existence.

The election of Donald Trump, the "Brexit" referendum results, the sabotage of the American election by Russian spies. Just like the string of celebrity deaths in the past week, these events numb one with shock (Listening to Obama's and Hillary's speeches in the back of an Uber on the morning of November 9th came the closest I have felt to living a hallucination).

But since my future career (as a Transportation planning and policy student) entails working with or on behalf of local governments the great "political" events or very much personal. If the Trump administration cuts off federal support for public transportation (and redirects such funding towards private toll roads) or strangles LA's wholesale sector by imposing tariffs, then not only will my job opportunities but the ideals I aspire towards in my career suffer a set back.  

Once upon a time, I shunned "Identity Politics" and though that racism did not affect me. I have evolved  a great deal since then, but until this November I did not feel as if my personal existence, as an American with Chinese ancestry, was threatened. Watching a middle-aged white male yell at an Asian undergrad to "go back to your own country," in the middle of my campus's Court of Sciences, shattered my blissful contentedness.

Sharing an Uber (back in March, believe it or not!) with a young man who complained about "Islam" and "cuck-servatism". Consoling a teary-eyed stranger in an Uber on election night.                          

Even watching the cities I had visited in Europe a few years back suffer both jihadi terrorist attacks and far right political rallies sent shivers up me.

For all the catastrophes that have shaped the world around me, however, I have been fortunate to have made good friends a part of my return to school. I have also managed to reconnect with a number of people from my undergrad days and earlier (particularly through the Olive Tree Initiative). It is in times like these that these personal connections matter most.

This is also the year that I first felt "old" in more than a relative sense. A few crazy nights back in February (which resulted in me getting a fever) revealed a liver that lacked its youthful pep. Having lost my uncle and a close friend in the previous year, I have given a lot more thought to my mortality. I officially reached a quarter century in age.

Time does not stand still but it does not necessarily progress or retreat.

That is my story of 2016.




Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Los Angeles: The Beautiful and the Ugly

It dawned on me this past May as I rode phase 2 of the Expo Line for the first time, over the bridge above Sepulveda Blvd. It was the very thought that would come to me frequently as I drove north on the 405 from the airport to UCLA, or that one time when I stood  on top of the Baldwin Hills Overlook....  I would peer out the side window, or over the dashboard, and catch sight of the Wilshire Corridor's skyscrapers arrayed against the parched Santa Monica Mountains, perhaps (at the overlook) also peering over boxy retail and commercial buildings and single-family homes in the foreground. The interjection of untamed nature among thick swathes of (bland) modernist development, and the erection of a concrete human presence in semi-arid steppeland have both exasperated and intrigued me...

Mid-century modernism ringed by sun-baked mountains and irrigated greenery

What these experiences have reminded me is that Los Angeles is simultaneously "beautiful", embodying many of the good qualities of cities, and "ugly", embodying many of the bad. As has been true from time immemorial (e.g. sunshine and noir), the city's positives and negatives interact more through means of paradox than juxtaposition.

Take for instance, the pristine nature, such as that I observed in the mountain views. Few other American cities (in fact, Portland, is the only other city that immediately comes to mind) have such expansive tracts of wilderness as the Santa Monica Mountains, Griffth Park and Runyon Canyon in such close proximity to the urban core. Mountain Lions and Coyotes scamper across the region's busy freeways, and hide behind apartment buildings in dense neighborhoods like Westlake. And yet, Los Angeles is notorious for its paucity of traditional urban "green space." Not only does LA have the fewest parks per square mile of any major American city, but (outside of Downtown), the parks it has do not provide the sort of social gathering space found in European or Eastern cities.

As if to compound the problems of deficient open space, Los Angeles is dense. The metropolitan area as a whole is the densest in the country, while, as of the year 20101, the city's planning sub-areas ranged in population density (measured in persons per square mile) from a figure just above Portland's (for West Los Angeles) to a figure almost equal to San Francisco's (South Los Angeles). With people of every race, color and creed jammed together into duplexes and townhouses from Encino to San Pedro, the region should be an urbanist's dream.

Nature, Los Angeles-style

Unfortunately, Greater Los Angeles' density is (for the most part) haphazardly dispersed rather than centrally-concentrated, justifying the region's reputation for "sprawl".  20-mile to 30-mile long swaths of the San Fernando, San Bernadino and San Gabriel Valleys are blanketed by a morass of dingbats and pre-fabricated apartment buildings: with millions commuting between each of these valleys and the coastal business centers or office parks further inland (along geographically-constricted corridors), the end result is notorious congestion. The prevalence of car-centered strip mall commercial corridors in "urban" Koreatown as much as in "suburban" Covina adds to the all-around blight and congestion.  You can get the two-story suburban house with a backyard and (maybe) a pool, or the compact two-bedroom apartment: but the former does not offer tranquil seclusion and the latter lacks vibrant architecture or public space. Instead, urban life manifests in jam-packed highways...and smog.  

And then there's walking. An 80s-pop song reminds New Yorkers that "Nobody walks in LA" but this is far from the truth. Indeed, perhaps no other city in America ritualizes walking as much as LA does. From 7am to 8am and 5pm to 7pm each weekday, an army of joggers and dogwalkers fans out across the sidewalks of every single-family residential zoned neighborhood in the region. Like clockwork, the pedestrian legion dissipates at the end of the timeframe almost as quickly as it appears (though activity is somewhat more constant at some of the Regional Parks, e.g. Runyon Canyon). Outside of some isolated tourist hotspots (e.g. Hollywood, downtown Beverly Hills), nobody walks in LA to get places but everybody does their daily "walk" for a healthy heart and lower cholesteral.

To be more accurate, the above applies to middle and upper-class Angelenos (the cohort which I live among). The places in LA that boast the most throngs of pedestrians are the lower-income, predominantly Latino and Asian neighborhoods that ring Downtown. Stand for a few minutes at the corner of Western Avenue and 6th Street in Koreatown or Alvarado and 7th Street in Westlake and you can easily fool yourself into thinking you are in Manhattan (for the former) or Mexico City (for the latter). Supporting the pedestrian throngs are a cohort of street vendors, one of the largest in the Western Hemisphere (who are kept a safe distance from bourgeois districts, due to city ordinances that officially "outlaw" such activity). Los Angeles is one of the few major cities in the world in which the liveliest neighborhoods tend to be the most impoverished.

That being said, the gentrification of Downtown's Historic Core changes the picture a little, though I see that area as more of a hipster Hollywood (predominantly a nightlife destination) than a genuinely walkable neighborhood. Spring Street now even has a dog park...

A lack of public space and human interaction, as well as a vast physical geography, cause (middle- to upper-class) Los Angeles residents to suffer from personal isolation to an extent unknown in any other world city. If you have your circle of friends from college, you'll make the weekly drive to cling together. If not, then good luck (You're as likely to run into a tourist from Shanghai or Dusseldorf as you are a resident from the neighboring apartment block, when frequenting the Grove). Visitors from the East Coast and Europe are always impressed by the outward "friendliness" of our residents--especially those who work in restaurants or coffee shops. Little do they remember that many of us are professional actors, who do their best to conceal how much all of us suffer.  

And finally, there's the human diversity. I once encountered a statistic stating that the students of the Los Angeles Unified School District speak 120-something languages at home. From personal experience, I can attest that the LA area is one of the few in the country (if not the world) which boasts eateries featuring almost every cuisine imaginable (see my new food blog for more on this). And yet, thanks to the lack of public space and communal interaction, Los Angeles' diversity results more in atomization than cross-pollination. Jane Jacobs famously remarked on a Los Angeles resident who had "never laid eyes on a Mexican"2, despite its significant Mexican population. I myself never ate at a taco at one of the city's iconic loncheras until I started venturing to the Eastside as a Lyft driver after college. As food critic Jonathan Gold once said, in Los Angeles the (different) ethnic groups "cook for themselves" and not for one another or the city as a whole. Such an attitude contributes to the city in raw variety and authenticity, but deprives the city of social cohesion, personal enrichment (for its individual citizens) and a unique sense of place.

 Having recently left the city for a week-long vacation, I understand how much I love LA. The vast expanse of urbanity, the variety of people and places, the mountain vistas and ocean sunsets, the taco trucks and loncheras... Each of these qualities is intertwined with such social ills as sprawl, traffic, or conflict. It is true that Los Angeles has long-lacked in quality long-term city planning, though maybe Los Angeles is too complex or too "real". to reduce to a perfected form. Regardless of whether I can live to see that ideal implemented, I can ponder a better future while cherishing the present.


1. Based on calculations I made as part of a project for work, in June.  
2. Jacobs, Jane. The Life and Death of Great American Cities, pg. 72. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

An Angeleno visits the Twin Cities

Both in my work and private life (i.e. on this blog), I have spent much of the past two years critiquing transportation and land use planning here in Los Angeles.  A recent visit to the Twin Cities metropolis, a region  that is seen as a national model for multi-modal transportation planning (as well as in affordable housing and economic development) gave me the opportunity to assess Los Angeles' shortcomings with a more rounded perspective. I arrived at the following observations.

1. As in Los Angeles, the Twin Cities' gestating Metro system anchors on the city of Minneapolis' downtown core (the system's planned expansion aims to keep things this way). Besides the fact that such a system marginalizes the downtown of the region's second anchor city, St. Paul (served by a single line leading to Downtown Minneapolis), it also ignores the importance of the numerous urban commercial, retail and entertainment centers outside of either city's downtown, like Minneapolis's Uptown District and St. Paul's Grand Avenue. Indeed, I noticed that much like Downtown Los Angeles of the 1980s and 1990s, Downtown Minneapolis serves primarily as a weekday employment center: outside of narrow corridors along the Nicollet Mall, First Avenue and Washington Avenue, almost all restaurants and shops closed all-day on Saturdays and Sundays and at 6 pm on weekdays. By contrast, when I visited Uptown and Grand Avenue, at 8 pm on a Monday and on a Saturday morning respectively, I encountered a healthy mix of shops, restaurants and bars open to business (and serving patrons), in settings that were just as walkable and compact. Luckily, Downtown Los Angeles is no longer so fixated around the workweek (except in the vicinity of the Civic Center). And, yet, a general problem for downtown-centric transportation planning still applies: by focusing on only one of several regional "centers", each of which may serve as important (or specialized) of a use as the other, a transit system will only capture a segment of one flow of regional commuter traffic.    

2. By running light-rail lines on at-grade (streetcar-esque) alignments through a heavily-trafficked downtown core, a transit operator limits the line's convenience. In Downtown Minneapolis, it takes at least 7 minutes (according to the schedule: It felt even longer each time I rode) for the Green or Blue Lines to travel the 1.5 mile distance from Target Field to the US Bank Center station, almost as much as the amount of time it takes the Blue Line to traverse the ensuing 3.4 miles from US Bank Center station to 38th Street station. At-grade, street-level track layouts have a similarly-retarding effect on the Expo Line's journey along Flower between Pico and Jefferson and on the Gold Line's crawl along Marmion Way in Highland Park. My experiences in Minneapolis reaffirmed my belief that tunneling or bridging expenses are justified for transit line segments through dense or heavily-trafficked areas, where such improvements result in commute time savings (which translate, in turn, to increased ridership) and fatality reductions.

3. Minneapolis's Blue Line also slows dramatically just south of the International Airport, in the stretch between the Terminal 2 and Mall of America stations. In the span of only half a mile, the Blue Line makes 3 stops (American Boulevard, Bloomington Central and 28th Avenue) as it winds through an agglomeration of parking lots and suburban office parks, before terminating inside the Mall of America. That's right: three stops within the classic half-mile walk circle! Since I traveled on a Saturday, the entire district (and each of the three stations) was deserted, but I am sure that even during the week, the copious free parking and lack of pedestrian infrastructure ensure that the vast majority of the persons employed in the district drive to work. Of course, the lack of walkability might be cited in support of placing the three stations (each in proximity to a major hotel or corporate complex) so close together but this begs the question: why build stations to serve an auto-centric, weekday-exclusive business center in the first place (retarding the Blue Line's speed on this stretch)?

 As with Los Angeles' prioritization of the Foothill Gold Line extension over the Crenshaw Line or Purple Line to Westwood, the answer probably lies in politics (i.e. appeasing suburban constituencies), not revenue or ridership.

4. Minneapolis's Grand Rounds Scenic Byway bicycle "highway" is truly impressive, both in its scope and scenery. However, I would hesitate to assert (as the folks at WalkScore do) that Minneapolis is America's most bike-friendly city, based on its bike paths, since the bike lane network seemed lacking. Compared to Portland, bike lanes in Minneapolis were thinly distributed (as far as a mile apart outside Downtown). Many important bike connections (e.g. along Riverside Avenue between the Franklin Bridge and the University of Minnesota's West Bank Campus) teetered rather precariously (none were protected) on the edge of 4- to 6-lane speedways, which teemed with sedans dashing to enter the Interstate. Much like Los Angeles, Minneapolis gave way too much street space too cars back in the 1950s and 1960s and still acts too timidly in reclaiming space for bikes. While the Grand Rounds bike path system is great for joyriding, it fails to provide mobility since it runs mostly through residential areas on the edge of the city, with few urban amenities nearby (Portions of the Chain of Lakes and Mississippi River segments get pretty close to Uptown and Downtown, but lie in parkland areas separated by a few blocks from the main commercial strips). In terms of bicycle planning, Minneapolis is no model for Los Angeles.

5. My line of reasoning in point 4 leads to my final conclusion: That Minneapolis-St. Paul felt (*gasp), on the whole. less walkable than LA. Not only did the region's arterials and local streets devote disproportionate space to cars (like ours) but many signaled intersections in outlying neighborhoods, partuicularly at intersections between arterial and local streets, lacked demarcated crosswalks. The absence of this feature, which I have come to take for granted in my hometown, made it difficult to get right-turing cars to slow down and enabled cars in the through lanes (without a visible reference) to block the pedestrian crossing space. In addition, Minneapolis's Skyway system seems to deplete much of Downtown Minneapolis of street-level retail and dining amenities, making it more difficult to sightsee the city's urban core on foot. Minneapolis's city leaders should take some advice from this urbanist.

The moral of the trip? Maybe LA is not so doomed after all.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

4 glaring gaps in the Los Angeles County Metro's bus network

About 9 months ago, I singled out 5 lines that I thought Metro should prioritize as part of its short-term list of rail and bus rapid transit project. When looking again at a Metro system map the other day, I was reminded that even with the rail expansion I desire, the backbone of public transit in LA will remain the Metro and municipal bus networks (which offer a crucial "first mile-last mile" connection for rail transit users). The map showed me the extensiveness of the bus system but also revealed deficiencies on some crucial transportation corridors. The following list presents the five most glaring of these "gaps".

1. Valley to Basin (Especially on the Westside)

After losing a morning (or afternoon) appointment on the "other side of the hill" due to bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 405, valley residents frequently start petitions like this one demanding that Metro construct the long-awaited rail (or light-rail) line through the Sepulveda Pass. While I bemoan the prolonged timetable of the Sepulveda Pass rail connection, I find the inadequacy of bus connections between the Valley and the LA basin to be equally disconcerting. The Rapid 734 bus that runs along Sepulveda down from Sylmar and over the Sepulveda only goes as far south as the Sepulveda Expo station on the basin side. This forces those traveling further south to not merely change buses but switch to the Culver City Bus system's rapid 6 line (with a different fare structure) if traveling down to Culver City or the airport. Furthermore, the Sepulveda rapid 734 and local 234 are the only two bus lines that traverse Sepulveda Pass (aside from a peak-only express bus service between Arleta and Westwood): those who need to get between any two destinations not on Sepulveda, say from the corner Bundy and Santa Monica to the corner of Van Nuys and Oxnard (where the Van Nuys Civic Center is located) have to change twice. This routing ignores the fact that, as a "chokepoint," the Sepulveda Pass "funnels" traffic from multiple major activity hubs on both sides of the hill, few of which border Sepulveda. Ideally, bus lines from Bundy, Van Nuys, and Reseda might converge at Sepulveda and travel over the pass from there.
The situation is even worse for bus service over the Cahuenga Pass. Metro's "156" and 222 Locals, the only buses that cross the pass, both terminate south of the pass in Hollywood (the former at Santa Monica and Highland and the latter at Hollywood and Highland), rather than continuing to, say, La Brea or Vine and Rossmore (close to the heart of the Wilshire Corridor). Fortunately, the Red Line (which interfaces at Hollywood/Highland with the La Brea and Fairfax rapid and local busses) provides reliable service under the pass (from the basin to Universal City--and points beyond), though it does not help one if he or she needs to get to locations within the pass, like the Ford Theater or the famed Joe's Falafel. Sigh.

2. Culver City/Palms to Wilshire Corridor and West Hollywood
Home to some of the Los Angeles area's most cutting-edge art galleries and trendiest restaurants (including the infamous Father's Office), Downtown Culver City is as much of a regional destination on the weekends as during the week (when the Sony studios and light industrial district along Ballona Creek draw in thousands of employee commuters from across the region). A steady flow of Bobo traffic between here and the Beverly Hills segment of the Wilshire Corridor (which houses a considerable bulk of Los Angeles' financial and medical office space and is a magnet for well-heeled tourists)--three miles to the north-- is highly predictable, and can be confirmed, in part, by the daily traffic pile-ups on Robertson Blvd (which is the most direct arterial link between these two areas, given that the Beverlywood and Cheviot Hills residential neighborhoods to the west denies another north-south arterial link before Motor) starting just south of the Pico. Adding to the potential demand for public transit along the corridor is the Culver City Expo Line station, which provides residents of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood an alternative (for getting to University Park or Santa Monica) to the 10 freeway, so long as they can avoid the station's crowded parking lot. Despite this, Metro currently runs only hourly local service on Robertson Blvd, and only during the week. Supplementary Big Blue Bus service along this arterial was cut as part of service realignments implemented in connection with the Expo phase II opening.

3. Hollywood/Mid-Wilshire area to LAX
Driving through the Baldwin Hills on La Cienaga or La Brea at 4pm on a weekday is a hellish experience, not far behind that of the Sepulveda Pass. Like the Santa Monica Mountains, the Baldwin Hills create a chokepoint on an important corridor: all traffic between the airport and its surrounding jobs centers, and the tourist hotspot of Hollywood and (entertainment and financial) jobs centers of Mid-Wilshire, Beverly Hills and Fairfax gets funneled onto one of two arterials. To an even greater extent than the Sepulveda Pass Corridor, the Baldwin Hills thoroughfares lack bus connections that provide a viable alternative to aggressive driving. The 705 Rapid and 105 Local Busses, which service La Cienaga through the basin, both swerve eastward to Vernon Ave (by way of Rodeo Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.) at the foot of the Baldwin Hills, leaving only the 217 local (which joins La Cienaga from Fairfax north of Jefferson) to traverse the transmontane portion of La Cienaga (and only on weekdays) . Once over the hill, the 217 does not veer southwest (onto La Tijera) towards the LAX City Bus Center, as logic would dictate, but heads one mile west (on Centinela) to the Fox Hills Mall, ultimately ending at the Howard Hughes Center: technically, you can change from the 217 to the 102 at the junction of La Cienaga to continue the journey but the latter route has such low frequencies as to not even consitute a real option. On La Brea, the 212 and 312 routes offer a direct path of service from Hollywood to Inglewood, but stay a good two-and-a-half miles east of the LAX terminals (since La Brea Avenue itself keeps this distance from the airport). The Flyaway bus service provides a nonstop connection to the Airport terminals from the heart of Hollywood, but is inconvenient for travelers originating from intermediate points and costs a hefty 10 dollars per ride.

4. Central Los Angeles to the Far Westside (i.e. West of the 405)

This link would seem obvious to anyone who knows about Los Angeles' "linear downtown" (along Wilshire and Santa Monica Blvds.). After all, the apartment section of Brentwood south of Wilshire is as much of a bedroom community for UCLA (to the east) as Palms is. Tourists who start off their day in Hollywood gravitate towards Santa Monica Pier or the Venice beachfront like cells engaged in osmosis, while Santa Monica's software designers and chefs drift en masse , nightly, back to their Beverly Hills mansions, Silver Lake apartments or Downtown restaurants. Sadly, traveling by bus to the coast along either Santa Monica or Wilshire from points west of Sepulveda often requires a transfer on weekdays, not merely between busses but between the LA County Metro and Santa Monica Big Blue Bus systems (since half of the rapid 704 and 720 buses --and virtually all of the local 4 and 20 buses--that travel these arterials, end at Westwood or Sepulveda): unlike with transfers from one Metro bus to another (which are included in Metro's regular fare), an intersystem transfer requires either the purchase of a paper transfer (when starting on Big Blue Bus) or adding a special municipal transfer fee to one's TAP card (when coming from Metro).  Moreover, such manuevers are necessary for those traveling to Santa Monica on Olympic Blvd from any point west of Century City (where the Metro 728 rapid, that services the arterial from Downtown, ends and the Big Blue Bus 5 takes over). Traveling east from the coastal area on Pico Blvd., the number 7 and Rapid 7 Big Blue Bus routes get one as far as the Rimpau Transit Center or Wilshire/Western metro station (thus offering access to West LA and Pico-Robertson), but require transferring to the Metro bus or rail system to get all the way Downtown. The completion of the Expo Line has eased the connection from Santa Monica to Downtown (and to areas along the 10 Freeway), but runs a good distance south of the "heart" of the Wilshire Corridor.





Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Expo Phase II Opening

*This article was originally slated for publication last Sunday but got delayed by more pressing obligations. I apologize if any language appears outdated. 
Last Saturday, I rode the Expo Line Phase II Extension to Santa Monica, lured by the offer of free rides for the opening weekend.

As I waited for the train at Palms Station, I felt an urge to pinch myself. Could I really be waiting for a train at Palms and National, within only two miles of my old synagogue and childhood school? Less than a mile downhill from the homes in Beverlywood I visited for playdates? 

Since I visited Tokyo -and rode on many of the city's extensive and efficient commuter rail networks-, the summer before I entered fifth grade, I had dreamed of rail tracks criscrossing Los Angeles (one of the hypothetical lines I envisioned followed the Expo Line, actually). And now, here I was?

So what did I think?

Firstly, the trains were crowded. The first train I took, from Palms to Bergamot Station around 5 pm, was standing room only-with limited space. The second, which I rode from Bergamot Station to Downtown Santa Monica at around 6-offered hardly enough room to stand straight. In my recollection, the latter train had to have been one of the most crowded I have ridden in the United States, outside of New York.

And the "queue" for those getting back on the train in Downtown Santa Monica was a gargantuan cluster.

Not only were the trains packed but the crowds riding them were pleasantly diverse. This being the Westside, you had more upper middle-class types, whose gestures and comments indicated this was there first time ever using public transit in LA, than on your typical Metro bus or subway. And yet they had to share close quarters with restaurant workers, domestic maids and families from South Central heading to the beach. In a city where the elites traditionally clustered within gated communities in remote hillside canyons, this intermingling was truly revolutionary.

As for the drawbacks....

The trains moved more slowly than I expected on the stretch from Palms Station to the 405. The at-grade crossings at Overland, Westwood and Military seemed to be responsible for slowing the train down here (as well as, possibly, back up from the Westwood and Sepulveda stations). With slow-downs in the at-grade sections along Flower Street and Colorado already piling on time, the train can't afford yet another delay like this (and remain competitive)>

Furthermore, when the crossing gates at 26th street (or "Bergamot") station (from which I boarded my return train back Culver City) failed to go up after trains departed. Only after two consecutive Los Angeles-bound trains had passed by (without the gate going up), did I manage to dash across the platform through the emergency gates (looking both ways for oncoming traffic). Not only did the crossing gates hold up passengers getting between platforms but northbound traffic on 26th street. If these crossing gates prove to be a nuisance for the driving classes, then Metro could find itself faced with a backlash (at a time when it needs voter support).

While on the subject of 26th street station..., the sub-par walking environment in the station vicinity was another bummer. The stoplight at Olympic and 26th offered no pedestrian walk-signal in one cycle (presumably to allow a smooth flow of left-turn traffic from 26th street southbound). How are people supposed to get to the station from the office complexes to the north if they can't cross Olympic!

Finally, except for Downtown Santa Monica station, 26th street station (not withstanding the walking infrastructure) and, perhaps, Bundy Station, the station locations seemed to be a bit off. Santa Monica's 17th street station is just a few blocks too far south of the Santa Monica commercial corridor and is separated by the 10 freeway (and five blocks to the south) from Santa Monica College (which, somehow, still makes it in the name). The Sepulveda and Westwood Stations are both close to but spatially disconnected from (one by a freeway and busy arterial, the other by a stretch of single-family homes) the Sawtelle retail area and Westside Pavillion mall. As I have mentioned before, transit planners would ideally plan routes around development rather than confining them to a given right-of-way and the location of these Expo Stations provides a good case in point.

All in all, its exciting to see trains running again through the Westside (and lots of people riding them). The question is whether it can evolve from a symbol into a catalyst for changing the Westside's transportation landscape.

Update: I rode the Expo Line again the following Thursday afternoon to go from my office in downtown to a dentist's appointment. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the train was quite full, west of Culver City, despite it being an hour or two ahead of the rush hour peak. Unfortunately, the state-of-the-art automated announcer malfunctioned.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Neoconservatism's death knell

A specter is haunting Washington's Republican establishment this election season. The specter of a deceased neoconservativism.

That blinding faith in American power as a force to promote democracy and capitalism and showcase American exceptionalism is surprisingly absent from the discourse of the current campaign, on both sides of the aisle.

Donald Trump bluntly castigates Bush the Younger's invasion of Iraq, at a Republican debate, and receives applause. The Republican front-runner has also gone on the record as supporting "neutrality" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (in stark contrast to neoconservative tradition of fawning adulation for the Jewish state, a stalwart ally and "lone democracy") and expressed praise for neocon pariah Vladimir Putin. None of this has managed to seriously dent Trump's bluster or popularity.

Ted Cruz, Trump's most viable rival, sounds lukewarm about efforts for democracy promotion (another pillar of traditional Republican foreign policy doctrine). He generally expresses the belief that American foreign policy should adhere to the country's national interest rather than to ideological crusades for free elections and markets.

Meanwhile, over on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is similarly presumed to adhere to the "Powell Doctrine", namely that the US should only use military force when it has clear objectives and knows what force can achieve. Such force, in Sanders' view, should be limited to "last resort" scenarios: in debates with Hillary, Sanders touts his vote against the Iraq War.

Only the drastic underperformer, Marco Rubio (who has already been booted off the stage), and stale perennial Hillary Clinton have expressed support for a greater projection of American power overseas.

The opinions of the most dynamic candidates in the race reflect upon widespread skepticism among the population writ large towards America's capacity to play "world police".

A Pew poll taken two-and-a-half years ago, when it appeared that Obama might use force against Syria to stop the Assad regime's use chemical weapons, showed record low levels of support  for such a hypothetical action, with high levels of opposition emanating from both liberal and conservative respondents.

A poll conducted by the Brookings Institute's Shibley Telhami in May 2015, by which point ISIS had spread its cringe-inducing reign of terror to the far reaches the Middle East (and had begun lone wolf attacks in the West), showed that a majority (57 percent) of Americans opposed sending US ground troops into Syria to defeat ISIS, even as more than 72 percent responded that ISIS was the "number one threat" in the Middle East (a second set of questions indicated that opponents of military action believed such action would fail to effectively stem the threat). Moreover, the poll showed that a supermajority (of 72 percent) opposed the use of force against Assad (a level of opposition no doubt aggrevated by the rise of a deadlier force in Syria).

And its not just the Middle East. Obama's promise to lift the embargo on Cuba, a position that would once have been considered untenable for any national political figure, now enjoys the support of nearly three-quarters of the American population, according to to a Pew poll from last July, including not only 83 percent of registered Democrats but 59 percent of registered Republicans (and 56 percent of self-identified conservative Republicans).

I've expressed (hopeful) alarm bells over neoconservatism's health before, but this time, the affliction appears genuinely fatal.

With the Robert Kagans and Max Boots of the world pledging to back Hillary in a general election against Trump, while the William Kristols vow to abstain from voting, the movement is in fragmented disarray with no projection on the national stage.

Regardless of who wins, the neoconservatives will face political exile for at least the next term or two (or more), stranded between a Democratic party with an antiwar bent and a Republican party marked by resurgent isolationism.

Such is the price of hubris.