Sunday, December 20, 2015

On the Mobility Plan and Rush hour Bus Bunching: Equity for Bus Riders?

I was waiting for the Santa Monica Bus at rush hour last week and was struck by the magnitude of delays caused by congestion.

The buses were backed up not for 10 or even 15 minutes but half an hour or more in the eastbound direction. The bus scheduled for a certain time (say 4:45) would show up later than the scheduled arrival of the following bus (say the 5:00 bus) or of the bus after the (scheduled) following bus.

Furthermore, such onerous delays strike at the busiest point of the day for bus ridership. Not a few but a dozen individuals milled the bus stop (in a part of West Hollywood where few locals likely ride). The bus arrives packed to the brim.

Indeed, (perhaps not so) ironically, the greater number of passengers were headed in the direction with more traffic. A stream of workers and housekeepers pile on the buses for East Hollywood at the same time as the motorist bourgeois head towards the 101 for the suburbs.

The biggest problem with rush hour-induced bus delays, such as that I experienced, is that they result in a woefully reduced supply at the height of the day's demand.

Worse yet, the reduced supply is not a result of the bus company providing either an insufficient number of vehicles (this is the time when the most buses are scheduled) or inadequate seating on each bus but the result of thousands of private drivers, over whom a transit agency like Metro has no control, taking over the right-of-way.

To illustrate with an analogy, its as if a clothing store had the least inventory available on Black Friday, because it was forced to give away its wares to other stores (for them to sell at their Black Friday sales) on that day. To make things more accurate, let's pretend this clothing store is Ross (i.e. catering to a lower-income clientele) and the rapacious thieves are Banana Republic and Bloomingdale's.

As with the clothing store's clients, the customers for Metro's bus services suffer competition over limited inventory (known as "cramming") and long waits for restocking of supplies when getting home from work or school.

The immense delays bus passengers must endure at a time of day when they are most in a hurry, not surprisingly turn many away once they can afford the more convenient mode of travel (sadly, in most cases, the private automobile).

This brings me back to the LA's new Mobility Plan.

Much brouhaha has been made about all the automobile lanes that will be lost to bicyclists, who supposedly comprise only 1% of the city's commuters (and who are also hipster elitists, at that).

However, what detractors conveniently ignore is the plan's sweeping Transit Enhanced Network, which will create all-day bus lanes (the ""comprehensive streets") along 13 of the city's most highly-traveled corridors (compare the Transit Enhanced Network map with this list by LetsgoLA) and peak-hour bus lanes on many more (the "moderate plus streets", including my favorite, Beverly Blvd.!).

By allowing for a faster frequency of bus arrivals (assuming that cars respect the bus lanes!) at a time when demand is highest (and speed most desired), Metro and other bus agencies operating in the city can more adequately serve the needs of their clientele.

That's not called elitism but equity.

On a side note:  To those who cry that drivers will suffer an even more severe loss of productive time if a lane is taken out for buses, I say:

 (1) Congestion is already bad enough as it is at rush hour on streets like Santa Monica. How much  worse can it get?

(2)  Cars don't have to pull over and wait for passengers to board every few blocks the way buses do, giving them a natural advantage under the same traffic conditions.

And (3) Cars can always use Waze to meander through side streets when traffic gets bad on arterials. Buses have to stick tho their arterial routes through thick and thin (at least until that far-off point in the future when large agencies like Metro acquire and implement the technology for on-demand scheduling).

Friday, December 11, 2015

Tram-trains for Los Angeles??

As many of you know, I have long been frustrated with the way in which Los Angeles County Metro handles transit expansion.

Its not just that the agency keeps determining construction based on political expediency (rather than ridership levels or trip reduction) but that the light-rail technologies it favors are wholly out-of-sync with Los Angeles' gargantuan urban form.

For instance, the trains on the Gold Line, which will soon offer service to Azusa through the Foothill Extension, currently have an average speed of only 21 miles per hour on its course from East Los Angeles to Pasadena. The entire journey takes about 54 minutes to complete (I frequently completed this route, back when I worked as I delivery driver, in as little than 25 minutes).

Part of the slowdown has to do with the numerous grade-level crossings the line must traverse. (something I could save a rant for at another time) But another is speed. The Ansaldobreda P2550 trains the agency uses have a top operating speed of 65 miles per hour, an upper speed limit typical for light rail (

Although this may seem high, one has to remember that this is the maximum speed! On a free-flowing freeway, by contrast, cars routinely average 70 miles per hour (even when the posted speeds say 65 miles per hour) or higher.

Light-rail makes a lot of sense on short to medium-length routes through dense inner-city neighborhoods (e.g. Downtown or Boyle Heights) where it complements urban form and allows for frequent stops. And yet, on long routes to more outlying neighborhoods, distances which drivers would travel by freeway, a grade-separated technology that travels at faster speeds is needed.

What I'm thinking of, on routes such as the Gold Line Extension and the Sepulveda Pass line is a high-frequency form of commuter rail.

Commuter rail generally has a higher speed limit than light rail (ranging between 83 miles per hour and 125 miles per hour on the EMD F59PH locomotives that predominate on the Metrolink system). Almost all of the railway right-of-ways that are slated for light rail lines have operated as conventional railroad lines so conversion to commuter rail would be cheaper than light rail.

In addition to the construction of new commuter rail lines, the solution will require increasing the pitifully low frequencies on the extant Metrolink system (which currently only serves peripheral suburbs outside Los Angeles County)  as well as adding both infill stations and outbound "reverse commute trains" (on the Orange County and Ventura County Lines).

In regards to commuter rail's interface with the light rail system, two options would be available.

One possible solution is to have light rail (and subway lines) serve the denser inner districts of Los Angeles County line (for instance, along the Wilshire Corridor and Gold Line to Pasadena) while having commuter rail take over for the outlying districts. For instance, one could ride the Gold Line  up to the Lake Station in Pasadena but then connect to a commuter rail line (running from Burbank to San Bernadino) for the journey to Monrovia.  In this sense, the transit system would mirror the historic division between the "Red Cars" and the "Yellow Cars" in Los Angeles' streetcar era.

A more exciting possibility would be the type of system found in the German city of Karlsruhe. The city's "Stadtbahn" seamlessly integrates tram lines in the city center with commuter lines to the suburbs, System cars are developed for compatibility with both tram and train tracks and electrification requiring only a quick change of wiring to transition between the two. It would be the equivalent (should an analagous "subway-train" vehicle be devised) of combining the purple line to Westwood with the Metrolink San Bernadino Line, so as to allow for a single journey from Miracle Mile to West Covina.

Is it a train? Is it a tram? No, its a tram-train!!

Given that such infrastructure would utilize existing infrastructure (both light rail or subway and rail), only minor improvements to bridge the gaps between the light-rail/subway and train tracks, besides the production of the vehicles themselves.

I don't know if a subway-rail interface is possible but the light rail-rail interface should be (given light-rail's similarity to a tramway).

Have the folks at Metro ever explored this possibility? Do they even know about Karlsruhe?

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thoughts on Paris and Brussels

The attacks in Paris the week before last, came as a tremendous shock to me, as I am sure they did to many others.

What brought the barbarism especially close to home for me was the fact that my sister was visiting Paris earlier that week. She left on the night of the 11th.

Had she stayed only 48 hours longer, she could have been out on the Place du Republique or Place de la Nation and been killed or injured. 

It is difficult to understand and impossible to condone the impulses that lead people to pursue such horrific slaughter.

And yet, going out on the offensive against Islamic State, as France seems to have chosen, may only accentuate the violence in the warlands of the Levant. while drawing thousands more testosterone-fueled 20-something's from Europe's marginalized muslim communities into the war against the west. 

What is needed is not conflict but containment, as Barry Posen of the Atlantic explains best (see link).

Friday, November 13, 2015

Reflections on yesterday evening's Transit Coalition event: a wake-up call for better governance?

Yesterday evening I attended a dinner talk, hosted by the Transit Coalition, with Metro's Chief Planning Officer, Martha Wellborne .

The food was ample and the attendees were cordial. And yet, I couldn't help but leave disappointed by the limited vision Welborne conveyed for Metro's Measure R transit projects.

I was already painfully aware that the Metro Crenshaw line will be truncated at the Expo Line, a good distance from Hollywood or the Wilshire Corridor (or anything except Leimert Park, really).

I had forgotten, however, that Metro not only had put the Sepulveda Pass rail project on a back-burner but that it was evaluating an "East San Fernando Valley Corridor," following the Sepulveda Pass rail project's logical extension into the valley (up Van Nuys Bulwevard), as an entirely separate project, that was taking priority over the Sepulveda Pass rail link...

Welborne acknowledged that she would "hope" to see the Van Nuys project integrated with the Sepulveda Pass project, indicating that the most viable and fruitful outcome was only aspirational, since one link would be evaluated separately and on a more advanced timetable than the other.

When I asked Welborne, why these projects, and similar sets of projects (e.g. Crenshaw Line and extension, Purple Line into the future) could not be integrated-even at the cost of delaying them further into the future, Welborne brought up the large price tag but added in, even more tellingly, the phrase "politics." People in other regions, she said, might not like billions of dollars pouring into a project on the Westside or Central La.

As she hinted, the Metro agency is responsible to the entire county of Los Angeles, not just its most densely populated areas. Its board, comprised of the five county supervisors and the mayors of Los Angeles and four other cities from different sections of the region, cannot help escape getting caught up in factional politics.

Conflict between the city of Los Angeles and outlying regions of the county requires that projects constructed in Los Angeles' denser, more congested urban corridors (like the Expo Line Phase 2 and Purple Line Extension) be "balanced" with projects in outlying peripheral suburbs (like the Gold Line Foothill extension).

The result is that Metro tends to avoid big price-tag projects (like the Sepulveda Pass Line)-even where benefits far exceed costs. At the same time, money flows towards many half-hearted measures (like the truncated Crenshaw Line, the East Valley Corridor and-in some previously discussed aspects-the Expo Line) as well as lines in areas that lack the housing or jobs density to support transit use. (not all, but much of the foothill extension).

Of course, this means of expansion is by no means sustainable. In order for Metro to adequately serve the LA area's public transit needs, it will need to dissolve or undergo a radical change of structure.

A particularly promising option, better tailored to Los Angeles County's vast (urban) geographies of scale would involve devolving certain transit operations (or construction) to either more localized transit operators. The former could be existing municipal operators, like Big Blue Bus, although I feel (given the sheer number of sizable municipalities in LA County) that geographically-rooted entities, like Foothill Transit (think "Valley transit" or "Westside Transit") would be better equipped for the task.

Metro might "offsource" operations on a geographic basis, giving up operations in areas like the San Gabriel Valley and South Bay and focusing on the denser "Central" area of the LA Basin (i.e. Central and South LA and the Westside).

Alternatively, Metro might choose to devolve a specific type of operation on a countywide level (either to local operators or private-sector contractors), say buses, while maintaining its subway and light rail network, much the way BART operates in the Bay Area. Like BART, Metro could even come to operate a "core" regional rail and bus rapid transit system (of priority routes), while allowing local operators to construct rapid transit projects that serve a more local clientele (the "Munis" of Greater LA).

In order for such a system to thrive, Metro and the local operators would have to agree on an integrated fare system and a certain level of service coordination. The Bay Area, unfortunately, does not offer a good example. Looking abroad however, Seoul, where two private and two public operators divide up the city's massive subway system while conforming to a single fare structure, offers a great example.

Unfortunately, getting two agencies in LA County to agree on anything can be difficult enough.

Maybe my proposed solution is a bit naive. And maybe I am being a bit too hard on Metro (which, as Welborne noted, already has the third highest ridership of any transit agency in the country).

And yet, as Metro prepares to request another half-cent sales tax increase, the eyes of LA (and the country) are on it to see if it can get serious about addressing LA's mobility challenges. And that will require more than a hodge-podge of compromises and stopgaps.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Six Rail and Bus Rapid Transit Lines that Metro should add to its List of Long-term Projects

This year Los Angeles County Metro Rail celebrated its 25th anniversary. Despite having constructed six rail lines and two bus rapid transit lines during this quarter century, public transit retains a mode share of just 10.8 percent of the city of Los Angeles’ commuting population (as of 2013) and traffic gridlock is a constant feature roadways throughout the region. Understandably, transit ridership follows no simple formula. The degree of patronage of a particular transit line depends on a host of environmental factors including surrounding residential and job density1, the level of roadway congestion and parking availability2. Operational aspects such as line frequency and upkeep of vehicles and waiting areas3 also influence line ridership, although these factors depend more on system management rather than the qualities of a particular line. Even strong patronage of a transit line, may not necessarily draw cars off the road, if more take their place. Nevertheless, of all the hypothetical rail and bus rapid transit routes (or line extensions) that Metro has not yet greenlighted (at least in the short term), the following offer the greatest potential in terms of ridership and environmental impact. Metro should, accordingly, incorporate these routes into its expansion efforts in the years to come.

An Integrated Sepulveda Pass rail project could ease traffic and improve mobility on one of the nation’s most congested corridors.
Sepulveda Pass or Westwood-Van Nuys Light Rail/Heavy Rail
The stretch of the 405 between Westwood and Sherman Oaks is one of the most congested freeway corridors in the country and for a good reason. To the west of the freeway, the rugged terrain of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreational Area impedes roadway development, resulting in no transmontane thoroughfare for over six miles (see measurement). To the east, narrow canyons provide for several roadways of limited width and capacity up until the Cahuenga Pass, eight miles distant. As such, the Sepulveda Pass freeway serves as a chokepoint, funneling almost all traffic between the coastal regions of the Los Angeles basin (containing significant job and entertainment clusters, as well as the airport)  and the entire San Fernando Valley (with a residential population of almost two million people and major employment centers in Warner Center, the Sherman Oaks-Encino area and along the old Southern Pacific Railroad line in Van Nuys), as well as regions further north and east (like the Antelope Valley and Pasadena). By forcing single-occupant vehicles into situations of congestion, chokepoints provide one of the best advantages over the automobile for grade separated mass transit vehicles3. Extending to LAX in the South and the Sylmar Metrolink (and future High Speed Rail station) station in the north (see metro’s map),  it is easy to see a transit line that passes through or tunnels near the Sepulveda Pass, becoming one of the most profitable in the system. Such a line can either take the form of heavy rail or light-rail, possibly combined with bus rapid transit (or in my preference, commuter rail).

“Pink” Line/Crenshaw Line Extension
A new urbanist’s paradise, dense, walkable West Hollywood would get light-rail connections to the airport, Wilshire Corridor and Hollywood with a Crenshaw Line Extension.
Hollywood is in many ways the epitome of Los Angeles, and for good reason. It is not only the place where the tourists flock to photograph “stars” (or crazy street musicians), but serves as the region’s high-energy nightlife hub.  As such, Hollywood deserves a link to LAX. Extending the Crenshaw Line (currently under construction) from its designated terminus at the Expo/Crenshaw station up to the Red Line would not only accomplish this but integrate West Hollywood (’s) main artery along Santa Monica Blvd., which boasts California’s most walkable commercial district and the LA area’s most prominent LGBT nightlife area, into the Metro rail network. By connecting with the extended Purple Line at either La Brea, Fairfax, or San Vicente (see the map on page 2-5 of this 2009 report), moreover, the northward extension would also feed off airport-bound (or night-life bound) travelers from a wide stretch of the central Wilshire corridor. Unfortunately, this project is not even listed in Metro’s Long-range Transportation Plan (see pg. 21 of the plan), so supporters of this project will need to up their lobby game.  

Beverly Bus Rapid Transit Line (see map):
According to renowned transit consultant, Jarrett Walker, the best-performing transit lines tend to service linear corridors, where activity and employment hubs are distributed evenly along an arterial4. The roughly 2-mile stretch of Beverly Boulevard from Robertson to La Brea fits this concept, as the street weaves together The Grove/Farmers Market shopping complex, CBS studios, the Fairfax retail district, the Beverly Center Mall, Cedars-Sinai Hospital and West Hollywood Design district (the West Third Restaurant District and the famed Melrose Avenue retail corridor lie within a half-mile of the street).  To the east, Beverly offers connections to Koreatown, Downtown and Union Station and to the west, to Beverly Hills and Westwood (should the Rapid Line turn down Santa Monica and Beverly Drive, like the current 14 bus, so that it intersects with the Wilshire Rapid and subway). To the north and south, moreover, the nearest rapid bus lines (the Santa Monica and Wilshire rapids, respectively), are a good mile away, about twice the maximum distance the average person will walk to a frequent bus line. Best of all, no freeway even comes close to this stretch of Beverly (thanks to 1960s-era freeway revolts, there are none within roughly 2.5 miles), while neither Beverly nor its parallel arterial streets (Melrose and Third) are particularly wide. Not surprisingly, Beverly, along with its parallel arterials and side streets, fills up with traffic on both weekdays and weekends. Reserving the outermost lane of Beverly Boulevard for bus travel (with restored Rapid Service), rather than parking would disincentivize further growth in traffic volume while offering an alternative to persisting congestion. Despite current lackluster bus ridership levels along Beverly’s western stretch, the pedestrian-friendly design of many of the storefronts in this area, which front the sidewalk directly, gives a bus rapid transit system with dedicated lanes and well-kept waiting areas all the more potential to mitigate traffic.    

Green Line Extension to Norwalk
One of the most frustrating defects in the current Metro Rail system is the 2.5 mile gap between the eastern terminus of the Green Line and the Orange County Line Metrolink station. This small gap stunts an important connectivity between Orange County’s tourist and commercial destinations and LAX (thereby helping create nasty traffic jams along the stretch of I-605 between I-105 and I-5) and also puts Norwalk’s significant complex of government offices (including the Los Angeles County Clerk’s Office) just beyond the light rail’s reach. Should the Sepulveda Pass project to LAX be completed, an extended Green Line would also offer one stop access-via a transfer at the 96th street station-from Orange and Riverside Counties to the entire Westside. As some point out, the Orange County Line’s current low frequencies (a product of heavy freight use on the tracks) threaten the viability of connection to an all-day light rail service: However, Metrolink can potentially relieve this problem through adding more tracks on the line (as has indeed been proposed by the LOSSAN rail authority, see pg. 34) and should (given the heavy two-way commute volumes). Though it might require tunneling, completing this project, if done right, could significantly boost the Green Line’s long-struggling ridership levels (which are less than that of the phase 1 segment of the Expo Line) and might shift some traffic off the neighboring freeways: a win in the long-term for both Metro and the environment.

The Harbor Subdivision rail corridor runs from Union Station to Inglewood. The black shading indicates the route of metro’s planned Active Transportation Corridor parallel to the tracks.
Harbor Subdivision
Running from Downtown Los Angeles to El Segundo along Slauson Avenue, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe’s abandoned Harbor Subdivision offers a prime route for heavy or light rail (especially with the construction of an adjacent active transportation corridor). A transit line along this abandoned railway would provide a one-seat ride from LAX to Downtown Los Angeles’ Union Station transit hub while creating a east-west transit artery through the heart of South Los Angeles, which has among the largest concentrations of transit-dependent and carless residents in Los Angeles County (but is only served by rail transit on the fringes). This line would not only connect South Los Angeles’ residents to three of Los Angeles’ largest jobs centers (the white collar-cores in Downtown LA and El Segundo and the blue collar, industrial core along the LA river in Vernon) but offer one-stop access to regional destinations through Union Station. A highly feasible (based on the track alignments near Slauson station) eastward branch off to Huntington Park, Maywood and Bell would bring one of LA County’s busiest shopping districts and most densely-populated residential areas within reach of both the airport and Westside. Metro has seriously explored this line in the past but has put it on the backburner since approving the Crenshaw Line. With Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti seeking to host thousands of Olympic athletes along the LA River in 2024, this line may get the opportunity for promotion.

Ventura Boulevard Bus Rapid Transit
The lower San Fernando Valley’s primary commercial artery, Ventura Blvd boasts a long stretch of medium-scale dining and retail business, punctuated by several clusters of large-scale office buildings (for instance, near the junctions with Laurel Canyon Blvd in Studio City or Sepulveda Boulevard in Sherman Oaks). Although the hillside neighborhoods to the south are characterized by sprawling McMansions, the north side of the arterial is flanked by medium-density neighborhoods comprised of duplexes and small apartment buildings at least as far as the 405. As the Valley’s southernmost east-west arterial, moreover, Ventura Blvd currently “funnels” bus routes that come down north-south arterials like Reseda, Van Nuys and Woodman, carrying these to transfer points (see map) for overhill travel. Should the Sepulveda Pass Line become reality, this “funnel” function will acquire increased importance as a means of dispersing passengers from the Sepulveda Pass Line across the valley (see Letsgola's map for an example of how this might work). Due to the need to operate multiple routes along this arterial, a bus rapid transit lane from Universal City City Station to Woodland Hills makes the most sense here. Because Ventura Blvd has so many damn automobile lanes already, a dedicated bus lane here will, hopefully, avoid the wrath aroused by the Wilshire Bus Lane. (hopefully…)

  1. Jarret Walker’s Human Transit provides a good, simple explanation for the layman of why (built) density matters for transit.
2. See Chatman, 2008, who suggests that “Network Load Density”, i.e. the number of roadway users per unit of roadway capacity, has a negetive effect on automobile use and a positive impact on alternative forms of travel like transit.

3. Walker. Human Transit. Page 51.
4. Walker. Human Transit. Page 205.

5. Walker. Human Transit. Page 169.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Should we build transit oriented development near transit or construct transit near (transit-friendly) development??

Los Angeles (like other cities around the world) has undertaken several initiatives in recent years to encourage denser commercial and mixed-use development around transit stations.

Such development is necessitated in part because of the dominance of auto-centric (low rise, strip mall style) commercial development near rail lines (for instance by the Vermont/Santa Monica Red Line Station), but even more so by the complete absence of commercial or even residential developments along rail lines (as is the case along much of the Blue and Gold Lines and most of the Orange and Green lines). 

About half of Metro's current rail and bus transit lines, and many of the transit agency's future expansion projects (the Gold Line Extension and West Santa Ana Branch, for instance), follow the old streetcar right-of-ways for some length. (compare the old Pacific Electric Map with the map of Metro's Short-Range Transportation Plan-with both planned and future lines (, pg. 11 and pg. 39)). .

Concentration of rail mass transit along streetcar right-of-ways makes sense from a cost perspective because the agency can forego the costs of either acquiring (and demolishing) property or tunneling. to build the line. In addition,  a transit line can often utilize the pre-existing rail infrastructure.

However, in the 50 plus years since the death of the Los Angeles Streetcar system, the dense commercial and multi-family residential development that best sustains rail use has frequently migrated away from the old street car corridors or reoriented itself in a more car-friendly fashion.

At the same time, the broad amount of right-of-way space that the old streetcar infrastructure occupied (along with the "divided" street layout that it engendered=e.g. Venice or San Vicente) has frequently transformed successor auto thoroughfares into intimidating highways, where one way through and turn lanes shepherd traffic along as quickly as possible to the detriment of pedestrians (try crossing Burton Way in one sitting). It should be added that those transit corridors which do not parallel railway right-of-ways generally follow broad arterials (such as the Crenshaw line and East San Fernando Valley Corridor) or freeways (the Green Line) that were similarly built out for maximum auto capacity in the postwar era.

Conversely (and indeed, surprisingly), much of LA's densest and most pedestrian-friendly commercial and retail development has arisen along corridor's without any rail history.

For a good hypothetical example, compare Beverly Bouelvard, in the Fairfax and Beverly Grove Districts, with Venice Boulevard on the Westside.

Westbound lanes of Venice Blvd, just west of Overland. Vast, low-density and hostile to pedestrians.

Beverly Boulevard at Vista Street. Clustered, medium-density development on a rather narrow arterial street. 

The former street, which never had any streetcar or rail line, is an arterial of modest width. (two lanes per direction and 70 feet wide) It is relatively easy to walk across (and has wide sidewalks) and runs through areas with a significant amount of multi-family housing. Even more importantly, the stretch from La Brea west to La Cienaga teems with small businesses and office spaces (in addition to larger spaces like the Grove and CBS Studios) that front the street directly rather than hide behind parking lots in a matter akin to so-called "transit-oriented development."  Not surprisingly, this area boasts a high density of jobs, according to the latest census.

Venice, on the other hand, once hosted a branch of the Pacific Electric Railway, whose streetcars ran through the median from Hill Street all the way to the ocean (see page).

Though serving a dense population immediately west of downtown (probably up until Western), the streetcar line's westward stretch served mainly as a commuter line, passing through expanses of low-density suburb and even farmland (see this old photo) en route to the independent city of Venice.

After the streetcar tracks were taken out in 1950, not only was the median paved over but the street widened to create a six-lane auto highway. Even as residential development in surrounding neighborhoods like Palms and Mid-City exploded in the ensuing decades, the new businesses that arose on Venice to serve the new residents' needs tended to be strip malls with generous parking lots.

Given both the street's more congested nature and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, a transit line along Beverly would better conform to the built environment than one along Venice (there are other reasons to build along Beverly as well that I will discuss in one of my upcoming posts), even though it is the latter that (given its right-of-way) is designated for upgraded Bus Rapid Transit and, possibly a streetcar system (in the long-term), by Los Angeles' Westside Mobility Plan.

Even more glaring, the Expo Line adheres to its railroad right-of-way as it crosses Westwood, passing through a single-family residential area, rather than make a slight northward (underground) detour to service the vibrant commercial district around Westside Pavillion.

The construction costs of deviating from a generous right-of-way may be high in the short-term. But if the development better suits transit, these costs could theoretically be recuperated through higher ridership levels, without the uncertain and often controversial endeavor of constructing dense development in a low density area.

I don't have the intricate knowledge of construction costs necessary to make a definitive policy recommendation for either of the cases I mentioned.

But as Metro still struggles, a quarter century after the opening of its rail system, to attract passengers to lines that do not necessarily get many where they need to go, it might be worth asking whether Metro should look beyond the right-of-way. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

LA's Olympic Bid: A boon for infrastructure?

Normally, I would be completely opposed to the idea of Los Angeles hosting the Olympics.

After all, the Games are notorious for shouldering host cities with a tremendous debt burden, much of which is directed towards building needless sport infrastructure, that may eventually serve as mundane a purpose as parking (if not becoming abandoned)

Nevertheless, according to today's Los Angeles times, the Olympics could provide Metro with the funding pitch (and the ego boost ) needed to (finally!!) make serious progress on its rail expansion efforts.

A Purple Line to Westwood and an LAX People Mover by 2024?

With the Crenshaw, Expo, Gold and Regional Lines also slated for completion by that point in time, Los Angeles might finally get somewhere. (though not nearly close to full transit connectivity.)

Let's hope that Metro tacks on a Crenshaw Line extension to Hollywood and the Sepulveda Pass subway to its fast track list.

And let's hope that Los Angeles at least stays in the Olympic running long enough for Metro to wriggle the funding dollars and the dynamic energy necessary to achieve a transit-friendly future.

If the 2024 LA Olympics spurs as much transit investment as logo snazziness, then I would be all in favor.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Uber and Lyft: a solution to Los Angeles' first mile, last mile dilemma?

The Los Angeles City Council should be commended for its approval, last week, of Uber and Lyft pick-ups at LAX. By recognizing these services' enduring appeal for airport travelers, Los Angeles' city government now stands at the forefront of municipal rideshare regulation.

And yet, merely adapting to these rideshare services' presence will deny the city a crucial opportunity.

As Los Angeles officially commits itself to a transport system untethered to the single-family automobile, the city should utilize the popularity of rideshare services to get more people out of their cars and on to public transit.

Given that Los Angeles is geographically-dispersed and that vast tracts of single-family residential zones that separate major arterials, the Los Angeles County Metro's burgeoning rail transit system has faced difficulty accomodating riders who reside or work at a distance from transit stations.

 Metro's attempts to solve the "first mile-last mile" gap have so far floundered, potentially jeopardizing the system's steady rise in ridership. The free parking at stations like North Hollywood fills to capacity early in the morning on weekdays. Proposals to charge for parking at North Hollywood and similar stations may free up some space, but will inevitably turn away a portion of drivers (particularly the all-day commuters who benefit from the current scenario). Building more parking space is unfeasible in most cases due to a combination of limited building space and exorbitant costs.   (note this article

At the same time, local bus service to a rail staton-constricted to major arterials-can be as difficult to access as the station itself and bears the added limitation of a fixed and limited schedule.

By offering on-demand service with compact vehicles, rideshare services are well-positioned to transport passengers from disparate locations to nearby transit stations on a flexible basis.

Though they can become costly for long-distance trips, rideshare services' low per-mile costs-particularly on their shared-ride services- make them incredibly reasonable on short journeys, A rideshare service like UberPool could shuttle transit riders with an origin or destination as distant as 4 miles away from a station for under 6 dollars, disregarding surge fares, for a complete trip of 8 dollars or less. By comparison, the average car ride in the United States costs around 5 dollars in gas and side costs (this does not account for the higher-than-average price of parking and gas

Across the six rail lines currently in existence, rideshare services can potentially offer flexible access to millions of households and jobs (this chart shows the population and job concentration within a half mile of every station in the network) beyond immediate walking distance from stations for a cost competitive with the automobile.

Anecdotal evidence from this former Lyft driver already suggests that a portion of the population uses rideshare services in this matter.

And yet because most stations have limited loading and parking space and because many drivers are unfamiliar with station layouts,  arranging a rideshare pick-up becomes difficult to those who do not plan carefully.

Rideshare companies can best assist public transit if Metro accomodates their presence at stations with infrastructure and information.

In terms of infrastructure, the city would create "Uberports," curb space near stations dedicate exclusively for rideshare pick-ups and drop-offs. The length of such designated curbspace would vary based on the station's level of traffic and parking availability. Bringing wireless service to underground trains, moreover, (as has been done already on much of the New York subway) would enable passengers to request pick-ups when approaching their destination station. Indeed, the transit agency could work with rideshare software designers to design apps to detect when a passenger is on a subway line and to arrange pick-up at a destination station in coordination with the train's arrival train.

As for information, public notices on trains could inform passengers of a rideshare service convenient means for getting home. Conversely Rideshare companies would have incentive to advertise their partnership with Metro rail as a reasonable means of traveling long distances.

 At an advanced degree of integration, Metro might even allow fares to be built it into rideshare operators' pricing.

Los Angeles has  already made amazing progress in the construction of subway and light-rail transit. And yet, even with the extensive long-term plans on the table, Los Angeles County would be a long-way from placing every residentwithin walking distance of a transit station.

Working together to place rail transit within convenient reach of residents who are out of walking distance from a transit station, Uber and Metro could usher in a true renaissance in Los Angeles' public transit while placing Los Angeles at the forefront of municipal transit policy.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Why don't more people in Beverly Grove ride the 14 bus?

Every day, when I board the 14 bus at Doheny, I take the seat, spread my legs out and lean back.

I've got lots of space..too much

Not until I get to Normandie do I feel a need to scootch over towards the window to make room.

That ridership should be so low on the 14 west of Koreatown, may surprise the conventional student of planning. Not only does the bus pass through West Hollywood and Beverly Grove-two of the densest neighborhoods in the Greater LA area (Don't take my word. Take the LA Times: but the route skirts regional retail and dining destinations such as the Grove, Farmer's Market and Beverly Center, connecting these with Downtown LA (on one end) and Downtown Beverly Hills (and the Wilshire Rapid Bus) on the other end.

Moreover, driving in the Beverly Grove neighborhood and other westerly neighborhoods serviced by the 14 is extremely difficult. The arterials and side streets in these neighborhoods are heavily congested for much of the day, owing to narrow streets (no east-west thoroughfares from the Hollywood Hills are wider than Avenue I), the lack of freeways (traffic heading west from the 101 gets diverted onto Melrose or Santa Monica) and the high-density of jobs and housing not only along the bus's route but in the area nearby. Draconian parking restrictions on side streets, particularly in the Beverly Grove area, make parking (that is not pricy) hard to come by.

The buses themselves are relatively clean and very efficient. What could be going wrong??

I think that one of the most difficult challenges for ridership on the 14 bus, as for bus ridership in the affluent "westside" of the city in general, is the perception that the bus is a mode of travel designed exclusively for people of a lower social strata.

Having grown up in this milieu, I myself never conceived of the bus as a viable form of transit until I went off to college.

Even though I was raised in the dense and congested neighborhoods of Miracle Mile, Pico-Robertson and Beverly Grove, neighborhoods where driving is difficult and bus service is frequent, my mother only spoke of the bus in occasional reference to the cleaning lady ("she was delayed because of her bus"). Remarks about the bus being "dirty" or "dangerous" could also be heard.

If Metro wants to get more Angelenos in Western and Central LA to ride its buses, it will need to make advertise them as much as it does walking or biking or rail. (and in a matter that is classy rather than cheesy)

Another issue with ridership may have to do with the direction I travel in. I have noticed that buses traveling in the opposite direction (i.e. west towards Beverly Hills in the morning and east towards downtown in the evening) tend to be more crowded.

This is ironic, considering that my commute follows the traditional commute pattern. But it makes sense in light of the fact that though Downtown may be a prominent jobs center, it is still one of many in Los Angeles.

The most prominent and significant jobs centers, indeed, extend to the west of Downtown along the Wilshire Corridor. In the Beverly Grove area, CBS Studios, the Grove and Beverly Center and the West Hollywood design districts are major hubs.

Despite the fact that commuting is as common (if not more so) away from the downtown as it is going to downtown, Los Angeles' Metro Bus system continues to be most directly centered around downtown.

The situation on the Beverly Bus reveals that Metro may be smartest tailoring bus frequency and service not based on the direction from downtown so much as the direction in which ridership flows. A system that is more polycentric, integrating the many job centers along the wilshire corridor and in the rest of the LA area with one another as tightly with downtown is needed more than anything.

And that means not cutting, for instance, the only direct north-south link between the Wilshire Corridor and Culver City.

Poorly-maintained sidewalks and free parking in most apartment complexes may also be issues as well. Nevertheless, I still see many people in my area walk to destinations nearby (or to get to their cars). In Beverly Grove and Fairfax, the sparse parking alloted by many duplexes already incentivizes residents to park their cars on the streeet.

In the case of the 14 bus (and the numerous routes like it), transit planners seeking to increase ridership need to go beyond the typical analyses of density, design and parking and examine the broader social and geographical structures.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Frequent service expansion: a victory for bus transit??

In a blog posting from last week, Jarret Walker drops the bomb on Metro's drafting of a new "Transit Service Policy," which seeks to streamline its operations by increasing the number of bus routes with frequent service while cutting off poorly performing routes.

In addition (to Walker's apparent delight), the new program will seek to raise the peak hour loading limit, allowing for fewer buses to serve more people.

Being as concerned as ever with the state of bus use in Los Angeles, I took a look at the maps Jarret had attached.

In the "core" of the city (i.e. the "Wilshire/Santa Monica Corridor"), where I live, almost all the transit service frequency will largely reflect the status quo, with frequent transit service being added on only one corridor San Vicente Blvd. (a much needed development, I should add).

Most of the "new" frequent service lines will be on corridors in more peripheral regions of the city such as along Laurel Canyon Blvd in the San Fernando Valley, Rosemead/Lakewood Blvd from Pasadena to around Lakewood (it was hard to tell from the map), Sepulveda/Pacific Coast Highway ( and Rosecrans Avenue from the South Bay to Norwalk.

It is understandable why the aforementioned arterials should obtain frequent service as they are major corridors that provide important links (e.g. Gateway Cities to Pasadena, Norwalk to the South Bay) and also serve large transit-dependent populations.

But it strikes me as surprising that the city, in seeking to eliminate gaps in high-frequency service, will continue to truncate the Santa Monica Rapid Bus  4 miles from Downtown Santa Monica (and at a corner that offers few amenities ).

The 704 runs along one of LA's densest transportation corridors (in both jobs and residency) and serves many of the city's busiest neighborhoods, including West Hollywood, Century City and Downtown. The connection to Santa Monica is key because it provides both tourists and locals a straight shot to the beach and job-seekers with access to a burgeoning jobs center (bolstered further by the recent growth of Silicon Beach). Moreover, terminating the line at Sepulveda Blvd (as Metro currently does) leaves passengers at a humdrum street corner marked by a few office buildings and an aged strip mall.

As Streetsblog's Alexander Friedman pointed out almost two years ago, the main destination for passengers on the route west of Century City is Santa Monica. By forcing passengers to transfer to a Big Blue Bus or wait for the more infrequent (every 40 mins on weekdays, every 20-25 minutes on weekends) buses continuing to the shoreline, Metro's cut not only made for more crowding on buses (BBB and Metro) coming from Santa Monica but encouraged those passengers who could to switch back to their cars.

This goes to show that "low demand" for a route may be as much a function of Metro providing poor service (e.g. low frequencies or dirty, crowded buses) as of some fixed, pre-existing demand.

This brings me to my second problem wiht the new service agenda, namely its inclusion of the 220 line along Robertson Blvd., from Beverly Hills south to Culver City, in the list of lines recommended to be cut.

With the Big Blue Bus also slated to cut its route along Robertson as part of its "Expo Integration Plan," Angelenos could be faced off the possibility of no (or very limited) bus service along Robertson Blvd.

At a time when the Expo Line is about to complete its course to Santa Monica, cutting off the only direct transit link between Beverly Hills (a major employment and entertainment hub)  and the light-rail line does not seem like a smart move. Culver City boasts its own significant share of jobs (e.g. Sony) and downtown Culver City has become a dining destination as well. Eliminating service on Robertson Blvd. (as if it's not limited enough) would compel those desiring to take transit in this direction go a mile or more out of their way to transfer the La Cienaga Bus and then transfer to the Expo Line to head another mile back (in the same direction) to Culver City.

I'm sure Metro (and possibly Walker) would justify the move by pointing to hard low ridership figures and noting the mostly low-density residential composition of the street south of Pico Blvd. Yet, though bordering the suburban single family-house mecca of Beverlywood on the western side, the tracts adjacent to Robertson Blvd. (from Pico to the freeway) are almost wholly multi-family units. To the east, lies a dense offshoot of Mid-City.

My past experiences riding the 14 bus on west Beverly Blvd suggest that the 220's low ridership (both its northern and southern ends) stems not from the neighborhood design but from negative attitudes towards the bus.

Middle-class Angelenos on the westside still tend to perceive buses as being dirty, dangerous and designed for people of a "different" social strata (and therefore "uncool").

Any person with a modicum of business sense knows that you do not sell a negatively-perceived product by making it more deficient.

By cutting services on arterials like Robertson Blvd.., Metro may save on costs in the short term but lose out on ridership in the long-run from the demographic that it needs to acquire.

By making the bus service even more unattractive to a skeptical middle class, Metro will encourage sustained growth in smog and congestion while perpetually limiting its share of revenues (given that the subway system will not reach a critical threshold in coverage outside of downtown any time soon).

Jarret Walker talks a good line when it comes to streamlining LA's bus system. But he and the folks at Metro should understand that Metro (which, along with other SoCal transit agencies, boasts a paltry 5.8 percent share of Commuter ridership in the LA area) needs growing rather than cutting.   

Low-performing lines that serve dense areas should be targeted for promotion and improvement (e.g. through better cleaning and use of plastic rather than fabric seating) not for scrapping.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Why Uber and Lyft are so big in Los Angeles

According to several articles, Los Angeles is one of the most profitable cities for the rideshare companies uber (and lyft).

That's right, not just New York Chicago and San Fran, but also. Los Angeles.

It is a fact that counters stereotypes that Angelenos are wedded to the automobiles that they own, and that Los Angeles is too sprawling to support transportation alternatives to the single-occupant vehicle.

Of course, that Los Angeles (quite notoriously) boasts the most congested freeway system in the nation may make this rideshare shift less surprising. Why make risky lane manuvers to avoid gridlock on the 10 westbound when you can ride with a guy who knows a short cut?

In addition, Los Angeles (despite Metro Rail's expansion in recent years) still lacks a transit system that is comprehensible or reliable enough to provide a viable alternative to commuters in all areas of the city (and at all hours of the day). Moreover, taxis have traditionally been harder to find in Los Angeles (and have cost more) than in other metropolises.

Surprisingly (though gridlock affects Los Angeles' freeways as much if not more than Los Angeles' streets), most  Lyft trips in Los Angeles (according to both the company website and personal experience as a driver) are under ten miles

This means that for Lyft (and Uber), the origin and destinations of the vast majority of rides have to be geographically concentrated in certain areas of the vast Southland metropolis: but where you may ask?

The answer can be discerned in the following "heat maps" produced by Lyft, whose pink shading shows where the "highest" demand for rides is.

Weekday morning "heat map"

Weekday evening (i.e. "rush hour") heat map

Weekend evening (i.e. "rush hour") heat map
Heat maps for all three main "peak" periods show that the area of high demand for Lyft rides primarily takes the form of an arc, starting in Downtown, extending up through Koreatown towards Hollywood and then curving back down through Westwood to reach Santa Monica.

Outside of this area, demand only clusters in much smaller "dots" or "patches", around some of the movie studios and business districts in the southeast Valley and Burbank and in entertainment districts in Pasadena or Manhattan Beach. Large swaths of areas like the South Bay, Harbor and San Gabriel Valley have no high-demand shading whatsoever.

Indeed, as a Lyft driver, I have mostly kept within confines of the Santa Monica to Downtown "corridor", leaving only a handful of times.

A few years ago, USC graduate student Samuel Krueger used a GIS modeling system to deduce whether the Los Angeles region has a "central" core.

Krueger, who conducted his analysis with a scale measuring the number of urban amenities (the so-called "centrality index"), found that Los Angeles indeed does have a large regional "core" that roughly follows the course of Wilshire and Santa Monica Blvds in a linear fashion from the LA River to the Santa Monica Bay.

This crescent-shaped "Wilshire-Santa Monica corridor" almost perfectly maps onto the main arc of high-demand Lyft activity in Los Angeles.

 For day travelers, this area boasts most of the Los Angeles region's main business centers (Downtown, Koreatown, Miracle Mile, etc.). For the late night, this area boasts the Southland's largest and busiest  entertainment centers of the region. (Hollywood, WeHo, Downtown)

Because this region (particularly east of La Cienaga Blvd.) has a compact grid street system, mostly developed before World War II, and lacks a central freeway, its major arterials suffer heavy traffic at all hours of the day (and many at night).

Finally public transport is sparse outside of Downtown and Koreatown, with the Purple Line to Westwood not slated for completion until 2040. The Expo Line, which will start service to Santa Monica in the middle of next year, only skirts the fringes of the "core".

In other words, the profitability of Lyft (and, most likely, other rideshare companies) in Los Angeles stems in large part from its ability to exploit a previously underserved demand for alternative forms of transport to the single-occupancy automobile in this "linear downtown."

That in and of itself, breaks another stereotype of the city of Los Angeles: that it lacks a dense, transit-friendly urban "center".

The private sector has responded. Will LA County Metro ever catch on?