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.