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.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Profiles in Transit: Washington D.C. vs. Los Angeles

I had the opportunity to ride Washington D.C.'s Metrorail again on Saturday on a brief visit to the region for a loved one's funeral.  Established only in the late-1970s (within ten years of Los Angeles' subway and light-rail system) but boasting the second-largest ridership by both raw numbers and mode share among the nation's heavy rail mass transit systems, D.C.'s Metrorail has long intrigued me as a potential model for Los Angeles to follow. Riding Washington's subway system for the first time since I became more involved in transit planning issues gave me the unique opportunity to compare, contrast and reflect. My journey involved taking the Red Line from Bethesda to Gallery Place-Chinatown station and then transferring to the Yellow Line to Archives station, on the way, and taking the Blue Line from Smithsonian to Metro Center before switching to the Red Line to Bethesda station, on the way back. Below are some takeaways.

(Slightly outdated) Map of Washington D.C.'s Metrorail system

1. Cleanliness
This was the first distinction I noticed when I stepped onto the Red Line Train at Bethesda. Whereas the Los Angeles Red Line usually greets riders' nosebuds with malodorous wafts of urine, tobacco and/or weed, its Washington counterpart is bereft of unpleasant smells. Except for a couple stains on the carpets, the Red Line's railcars were also surprisingly spotless compared to a typical Red Line car in LA (with no visible litter). I personally suspect (though I could be wrong) that the D.C. system's cleanliness has something to do with the region's lack of a large population of chronic homeless. Also, the upholstery used for railcar seats was not only more comfortable than the fabric used for seats on Los Angeles' trains but seemed to be less prone to retaining stains and smells.

2. Maintenance/Security 
During my journey, all four stations that I traversed (Bethesda, Gallery Place-Chinatown, Archives and Smithsonian) had a manned personnel booth on the ticketing level. In contrast, even 7th/metro station, arguably the most prominent hub in the Los Angeles MetroRail network, lacks a permanent personnel booth and hosts maintenance on only a sporadic basis (usually for the purpose of upkeep rather than customer assistance). The personnel presence in WAMTA stations not only enhanced my sense of security but allowed me to seek out advice on how to use the system's new "Smartcards" (reusable, plastic fare-holding cards akin to TAP cards). If only I had such assistance all the times the TAP-vending machines at the Civic Center Station malfunctioned.

3. Frequency
Based on the timetable monitors, trains had average headways of only about 5 minutes on the Red Line and 7 to 9 minutes on the Yellow and Silver Lines-when I rode on a Saturday morning. By contrast, Subway and Light Rail trains in Los Angeles have headways as gaping as 20 minutes on Weekends, with even weekday rush-hour headways decreasing to no less than 10 minutes. As the transit consultant Jarrett Walker famously notes, "Frequency is Freedom": the tight headways in D.C. allowed an 8+-mile suburb-to-city trip, with transfers, to be completed in as little as 25 minutes (on the return). In Los Angeles, an 8.5 mile trip from Downtown to my house in the "Central" area of the city (involving both subway and bus) takes an hour, at minimum, during rush hour due in part to the limited frequency.

This is not to say that the D.C. system does not have flaws of its own-particularly in infrastructure upkeep (as this past week's shutdown shows). But as the Los Angeles County Metro seeks to counter ridership drops and make LA a transit friendly city, it needs to consider factors that make D.C. shine comparatively.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Metro Gold Line opening: a gleaming Potemkin rail ine

I journeyed to Azusa for the first time yesterday. Why, you may ask? It was not to cheer on the Azusa Pacific volleyball team or to take a hike up to Mt. Baldy but to experience the "Foothill extension" of the Gold Line, which opened for service yesterday.

I had a lot of fun. I not only got to see new towns and landscapes (including stunning views of the San Gabriel mountains) but sample excellent beer at the various pubs placed conveniently along the route.

With that said, small but pertinent operational flaws checkered my experience (and my optimism for the line's success).

For one thing, getting to the Gold Line by public transit was not easy because bus service on arterials headed to Downtown was rather infrequent (due to scheduling) and prone to traffic delays. Though I am a fan of expanding Metro's rail coverage, I believe that such expansion must be coupled with initiatives to improve the utility of its buses, which carry three times the ridership of Metro's trains.

The litter arrayed around the seats on the Red Line (which I took for the second leg of my pre-ride journey) and the odious smells that permeated the train proved to be another blot on my experience. As I discussed in one of my recent posts (and as public commeters on articles like this have frequently brought up), Metro could boost transit use and ridership significantly simply by increasing maintenance (and heightening onboard security) on vehicles.

                                          Does clutter make for an appealing daily commute?                    

Then when I first boarded the Gold Line at Union Station, I was surprised (and a bit worried) to see Sierra Madre Villa listed as the destination on the train's front monitor, as well as on the maps posted in the interior. Even the programmed announcer which blared upon departure from each station still parrotted Sierra Madre Villa as the "final destination". Only when the train passed Sierra Madre Villa without making a "final stop" announcment (or dispensing of all its passengers) did I know for certain that this was not a "Short Line" service.  

Most disappointing of all, the neighborhoods the stations served displayed little semblance of the transit-oriented, walkable "third Los Angeles" Metro is supposed to work towards. The Duarte station was surrounded by suburban office parks. Monrovia station tempted with a grass-covered commons in the immediate vicinity (called "Station Park") but this gave way, as I moved away from the station along Myrtle Avenue, to a desolate strand of auto body shops, office park complexes and gas stations, encasing a sea of single-family homes: the Monrovia "Old Town", which wayfinding signs pointed to as if right at the station's doorstop, lay a good mile-long walk away, uphill (and under a freeway overpass). Irwindale station, as expected, amounted to little more than an island in an industrial wasteland. On the other hand, the Arcadia station is snug in the heart of a commercial strip that appeared nonetheless (on both approach and departure), depressingly car-centric.

Only the Azusa station opened out immediately onto a commercial and retail corridor along Azusa avenue, though this "downtown" was none-too impressive. There seemed to be as many vape shops as eateries (I counted only five restaurants and bars in three blocks). The early 20th-century Spanish Colonial-style buildings charmed but none integrated a residential use into the district (whether exclusively or as a mixed-use project). Copious parking suggested that most people drove here.

I shouldn't have been too surprised. Eric Brightwell's 2013 exploration of the line's course noted Arcadia's dearth of sidewalks and the Monrovia and Duarte stations' distance from those cities' pedestrian cores.

But I had hope that Metro learned in its 20-odd years of constructing rail lines from debacles such as the Green Line and that its planners had some awareness of the common (transport planning) knowledge that mass transit requires residential density and walkable urban design to be profitable.

With a subway along the region's densest commercial corridor not slated for completion until mid-century and the Sepulveda Pass rail project not even on the table of Metro's 25-year plan, one can only assume that Metro cares little about workable transit.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Thursday's talk with Joshua Schank: Promising with concern?

Thursday evening, I had the pleasure of listening to Joshua Schanck, Metro's first Chief Innnovation Officer, explain how he would use his new post to improve the way business is conducted at a transit agency that is currently grappling with a slump in ridership.

As the head of the "Office of Extraordinary Innovation" (created last spring), Schanck portrayed the emerging division as an "incubator" for innovation at Metro, that would solicit input from outside the transit bureaucracy. 

Through an "Unsolicited Proposal" policy, Schanck promised that the office would accept proposals from any group or individual for public transit improvement in the region. Schanck additionally hinted that a series of upcoming outreach events would allow Metro a broader conduit to solicit the public's opinion and experience.   

Moreover, the office would assist Metro in implementing new pilot projects and public-private partnerships  (P3), including an anticipatory hint that the latter would be used to help construct a "major infrastructure project." 

Schanck's emphasis on outreach is certainly a step in the right direction (as long as a NIMBY hijacking is averted): past service cuts and operational features (e.g. fabric seating) show that Metro planners and decision-makers aren't always on the same page as riders (as I have discussed before). I don't have the same enthusiasm for the public-private partnership idea, but whatever might help speed up Metro's woefully slow project construction timetables should be supported.

And yet, although Schanck's vision sounded hopeful, his talk also raised questions as to the extent to which his office could actually affect systematic change.

In the course of his talk, Schanck openly pointed to the fact that a conservative bureaucacy in Metro seeks to impede more radical change.

Afterwards, during the Q-and-A session, Schanck mentioned in one of his answers (to a question about regional agency fragmentation) that Metro's own bureaucracy is fragmented and discoordinated enough that it need to be put in shape. This hardly sounds like an entity that could affect radical change.

That fragmentation was on display when an audience member voiced a complaint about Metro's procurement policies. Schanck claimed not to know about procurement, stating something to the effect that Metro is a huge organization and it was in the hands of a different agency.

I let out a little sigh. What was I to expect? 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Autopia is deadly

The website Vox is a great resource for news junkies like myself. You can waste a whole Saturday browsing "card" sets explaining issues like the Flint Water Crisis  and the Hillary Clinton's email scandal. And the trivia you absorb not only helps for the cocktail event but can spark some profound thought.

Anyhow, the website's German Lopez wrote today about a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association inquiring why Americans, in the year 2012, had an average life expectancy 2.2 years less than that of their peers in other high-income industrial countries.

Lopez notes that the studied concluded that "guns, drugs and cars" were "three of the big drivers" for the gap.

Indeed, in the case of cars, the US' auto fatality rate per 100,000 persons was 15.60 people, more than three times the death rate in the other high-income countries studied.

 For all three factors, Lopez notes, cites weak or regressive government policies as a contributing factor. For cars, Lopez blames America's pursuit of policies that "encouraged sprawl and driving" even as European planners shifted towards a more multi-modal approach (that encouraged walking, cycling and public transportation) starting in the 1960s.

(Disclaimer: CityLab had a piece a few weeks ago specifically comparing transportation patterns in the US and Germany and the disparities are stark. I myself, having lived in a city of about 85,000 souls in Germany for a month can confirm that getting around by bus in a small city in Germany is easier than traveling by car in Los Angeles.)

Its not just the environment at stake, but lives.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Wednesday's Cityline Ride

I rode West Hollywood's "CitylineX", a complimentary shuttle that runs at peak hours to and from Hollywood/Highland station along Santa Monica Blvd (the city's main commercial drag) for the first time on Wednesday. and I had a few complaints to vent.

1. Duplication. Metros 704 and 4 local buses also head to the red line (at Santa Monica/Vermont station) with the same or better frequency. You end up paying the same 1.75 single-ride fare either way (since the fares now include bus-train transfers) so not why not just ride whichever bus comes first?

2. If you're going to compete with the 704 bus, at least be faster. Taking the Red Line and CitylineX shuttle from my work (at City Hall) to Weho's Hamburger Mary's restaurant took me about an hour and 10 minutes, only 10 minutes than it would take to ride the Metro and 704 (and walk) all the way to my apartment (about 1.6 miles further down Santa Monica). I have a feeling that this is because: a). You have to ride 6 minutes further up the line to get from Santa Monica/Vermont to Hollywood/Highland station, and b). You have to travel a mile south on one of the most congested stretches of Highland avenue to reach Santa Monica Blvd. from Hollywood/Highland, taking away from the 2.68 mile-westerly advantage of Hollywood/Highland station over Santa Monica/Vermont.

3. Is West Hollywood a 9-to-5 Business District or a sleepy bedrooom community? No! Then, why does the Cityride shuttle only during the peak workday commute times? Indeed, much of West Hollywood's travel activity (even during the week) is generated by late-night entertainment venues or mid-day and evening dining activity. Remember too, that the red line will only get you to either the Valley or Downtown and, given geography, it is just as easy for residents commuting Downtown to take the 704 to the train. A 24-hour service, that captures both evening and mid-day traffic, could benefit both travelers headed from the northeast valley to dine and dance in the city and the two-way club- and dining-bound traffic between Weho, Hollywood and the eastside.

4. What about the (notoriously-congested) Sunset Strip? Santa Monica Blvd is not Weho's only big arterial. (Personally I think a "loop" along both streets) would be ideal.

5. Why not just extend the pickup trolley to Hollywood/Highland and make it all-day?

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Thoughts on the Los Angeles Times' recent article on declining transit ridership

*Apologies for the delay. I was writing an article on great places to imbibe in West Hollywood for The Culture Trip last week, which should be available on that site within the next few days.

*Eleven days ago, Los Angeles Times ran an eye-grabbing headline on how transit ridership has declined in Los Angeles over the past few years, despite the "billions" spent on the system's expansion.

To me, the decline in metro ridership is far from being "news." I saw the grim statistics last June, when I analyzed Metro ridership figures over the past two years as part of a project at my internship.

The LA Weekly, following closely on my heels, caught on in October.

Not only is the Times late to the story but its piece rehashes the narrative of the Bus Riders Union and libertarian transit skeptics, that all that goddamn light-rail construction is bleeding Metro's bus system.

Early on, the article quotes long-time transit skeptic, highway fanatic and USC engineering professor James Moore.

"It's a bit perverse," said USC engineering professor James E. Moore II, who has been a critic of rail transit. "You're spending all this money and you're driving ridership down. If you're investing heavily in transit, you'd hope ridership would increase."
Further down, after briefly discussing Metro's long-term plans, the Staff writers double down on rail on behalf of buses.
Although buses account for about 75% of Metro's ridership, rail operations and construction receive more money than buses do from Measure R, the county's most recent half-cent sales tax to fund transportation projects.
Yada Yada yada. So 1990s.

At least at the very end of the article, the writers seek out the opinion of an actual former Metro rider, who had something different to say.
Suzan Mikiel moved from New York five years ago to Los Feliz, which has a Red Line subway stop. She took transit for four years as she auditioned for acting roles and worked temporary jobs as a caterer, a photographer and a writer's assistant.
Transit offered a chance to relax, people-watch or take photos during the day, she said. But at night, trying to get home was sometimes "horrible, if not impossible."
Mikiel occasionally found herself stranded in unfamiliar neighborhoods late at night. On less-traveled routes, connecting to another bus could take an hour. Finally, after being robbed near the Culver City Expo Line station, she bought a car.
"Driving has really opened up my experiences in L.A.," Mikiel said. "I love my car. I'm keeping it."

For Mikiel, like most actual transit users, the issue at stake is not bus vs. train (we use both you know) but safety and frequency.

Declining transit ridership does not demand a rollback of funds for Metro's rail expansion, so much as that these funds be spent more effectively,

This includes prioritizing expansion based on ridership and street design rather than on politics, and upzoning around new rail lines for requisite density of population of jobs.

Improving bus frequency is also important: LA's new Mobility Plan includes almost 300 miles of "transit-enhanced" streets, featuring bus lanes (both peak and all-day) and signaling changes intend to improve speed along major bus routes. Those who see bus lanes as an easy fix, though, should beware that they are subject to the same NIMBY obstructivism as rail.

Finally, improving the security and comfort on metro's system is important. As one commenter, in this streetsblog article noted, there is no permanent police presence at any of metro's stations or bus nodes, creating for an eerie feel at evening off-peak hours. Many bus stops, moreover, are either poorly located (the eastbound stop at La Cienaga and Beverly is in front of a strip parking lot), neglected in upkeep (e.g. the one I transfer to at Santa Monica and Vermont) or both. The Mobility Plan's Transit-enhanced network aims to improve the quality and comfort of bus stops, should it succeed.

Regardless, the answer to declining ridership is not for Los Angeles to shy away from transit but to better address transit's shortcomings, so that the vast majority will no longer have to fight their way through traffic and spew emissions in order to travel a meaningful distance from their homes. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Oscars' monochromatic nature reflects Hollywood's detachment from Greater Los Angeles

The #Oscarsowhite controversy hits close to home for me.

A college roommate and friend of mine, a talented young actor of Indian ancestry, was once told that he could only get ahead in hollywood by playing either a terrorist or a nerd. When I last caught up with him, I learned that he was focused on independent production of short films (rather than landing in mainstream auditions).

Indeed, it is widely known the ethnocentrism of Hollywood not only undervalues the talent of African-American actors but virtually erases Asian-American and Hispanic-American characters from the silver screen.

Being of Asian-american background, I find this frustrating enough on a personal level.

As a resident of Los Angeles, however, I find it far more irritating that Hollywood's whiteness is so out-of-sync with the demographics of its home region.

According to data from the 2010 census, only 26.8 percent of Los Angeles County residents identified as White Non-Hispanic. Indeed, the plurality of Angelenos identified (instead) as Hispanic or Latino, Significant minorities of the population identified as either Asian or black (14.8 percent or 9.2 percent respectively).

While Hollywood has no problem searching out new talent in England or Australia, it ignores the well-spring of potential talent in (predominantly-minority) municipalities like Sylmar and Norwalk that are right in its backyard.

Racism and ignorance aside, one may ask why it matters whether Hollywood's benefits accrue evenly throughout LA, especially when other regionally-focused industries (like Silicon Valley and Wall Street) similarly benefit a narrow segment of the population of their home regions?

A simple answer can be found in the 330-million dollar a year tax credit the state of California will soon award to film projects made in the state.

The primary rationale state lawmakers gave for approving this weighty expense of public revenue (which will amount to an increase over the previous 100-million-dollar a year tax credit) was the amount of jobs the film industry supposedly creates for the state of California. If the film shooting continues to leave Southern California, the thinking goes, the economy will suffer.

Of course, an industry does not benefit a region at a meaningful level if it only allocates jobs to members of a particular ethnic grouping.

Particularly in a region where race strongly coincides with geography (and economic well-being), Hollywood's government benefactors should take a closer look at how the industry actually benefits their own constituents.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Subprime auto lending: the revenge of auto-dependence

In the past year, several commentators  (and the US government's Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) have pointed to a worrisome rise in subprime auto loans, doled out to individuals with low credit scores and offering increasingly lengthy periods of repayment.

By spreading out interest payment over a longer amount of time, such loans provide an illusively small monthly payment to insolvent individuals, that obscures the high cumulative interest such individuals end up paying.

Of course, this hasn't stopped Wall Street from bundling these loans into securities. Nor has it prevented profit-hungry investors from snatching these securities up, as this Bloomberg News article from last June points out:

Of the subprime vehicle loans bundled into securities, 73 percent now exceed five years, up from 64 percent during the first three months of 2014, according to data from Citigroup Inc. Loans as long as seven years are increasingly being put into more bonds as auto-finance companies and Wall Street banks sell the securities at the fastest pace since 2007.The longer loans make it easier for consumers to afford rising new and used car prices by spreading out and lowering payments. While the securities are attracting plenty of buyers with high loss buffers and AAA ratings, some investors are beginning to question the wisdom of lending at terms that have never extended beyond five years.“Everyone has used the argument that borrowers pay car loans because they have to get to work,” said Anup Agarwal, a money manager who oversees $65 billion at Western Asset Management Co. and hasn’t bought a subprime auto bond in a year and a half. “But borrowers only pay loans if the car is working. We have not seen this cycle come through yet.

If Agarwal hints at a potential for implosion, Raj Date, the former head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, points to factors that make such a scenario likely:

The shift to longer-term loans makes it easy for borrowers to be duped into focusing on lower monthly payments rather than the costs over the life of the obligation, said Raj Date, former deputy director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau who now heads the Washington consulting firm Fenway Summer LLC.
While cars are lasting longer than in the past, regulators are concerned that the value of the vehicles will fall faster than borrowers can pay off the debt.
Because cars depreciate quickly, a borrower is typically upside down or underwater toward the end of a long loan term,” Date said. “If times are tough you might have to sell your car, but you’re still going to owe more than you can get through the sale.”
"Never worry", say investors. The ratings agencies back us up.

History is also on the side of investors. Since 2004, Standard & Poor’s has upgraded 371 classes of subprime auto deals and downgraded none, data from the company show. While delinquencies longer than 60 days have increased, net losses in the debt have dropped from a year ago, S&P said Wednesday in a report.
Even with the built-in protections, some market participants are starting to caution that buyers may be letting down their guard for the sake of higher yields.
If any of this sounds familiar, its because this is exactly the type of risk-taking (in houainf investment) that precipitated the 2008 recession.

This is not to state that auto loans represent the number one threat to the US economy. The economic slowdown in China will likely infect market performance in the near future regardless of the state of auto loan securities.

And yet, if the balloon in auto loans threatens financial stability, it does so because Americans continue to rely on the automobile even as car ownership becomes less economically sustainable for most.

Although the American job market has (by this point in time) rebounded from the last recession, wages have remained stagnant. For instance, jobs added to the economy in the first half of 2014 offered wages that were, on average, 23 percent lower than the jobs lost in 2008 and 2009.

At the same time, auto sales reached an all-time high in 2015, with more than 17.4 million vehicles sold.

The latter piece of news  may come across as a surprise to many readers (particularly those who are avid urbanists). After all, haven't per capita Vehicle Miles Traveled been on the decline since 20051? Aren't millenials, especially, driving at a later age and less frequently than previous generations?

For one thing, the past decade's decline in vehicle miles by no means implies that people are giving up driving altogether. Weary of incessant freeway gridlock (resulting from the broach of peak road capacity), people may simply be driving more locally2. Indeed, in Los Angeles, where per capita Vehicle miles have declined by nearly nine percent from 2002, more than 50 percent of personal trips currently have a range of three miles or less and 80 percent of these trips  are made by car.

As for the much-touted decline in youth driving over the past decade-and-a-half, research  from UCLA's Kelcie Ralph and the University of North Carolina's Noreen McDonald  indicates that more of the decline has stemmed from an increase in "carless" (in the phrasing of Ralph) individuals, whose lack of access to an automobile (often for economic reasons) constrains daily mobility, rather than in "multimodal" individuals, who purposefully substitute access to a car (by choice) with alternative modes such as walking and public transit. According to Ralph's study, the percentage of "drivers" among youth remained high at 79 percent.

Other data shows in the state of California alone (which is far from being a national leader in motorization), the single-occupancy automobile was the commute mode of choice for about 73 percent of the general population and 59 percent of the population under 20 (with an additional 18 percent of the under-20 population carpooling) in 20123, figures that changed little from 2007. Only slight fluctuations in the vehicle commute mode percentage occurred between these years).

Even though Americans now drive less frequently, they do not (yet) seem ready to give up driving for other modes of transportation.

Thus, Americans continue to buy cars although they can no longer afford them.

This paradox fuels risky lending practices. It also bodes ill for the environment

1. page 10.
2. As hinted in pages 12-13.
3. "Factors influencing Vehicle Miles Traveled in California: Measurement and Analysis." Pps. 25-26.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Happy 2016

I've been busy so this post was belated. My apologies if the language seems a little out of date. 

I celebrated the arrival of this year with 25 minutes of dreadful isolation on the roof of my apartment. 

Cascades of fireworks dazzled on the horizon, but none of my neighbors joined me on the rooftop to watch.

On the streets below, furthermore, one could hear the faintest echo (punctuated only on occasion by a rare ecstatic shout). 

Unlike on most nights at this time, barely one or two cars whizzed by on the street (during my duration on the roof).

And yet, an absence of cars did not entail the crowding of sidewalks, even on a night when everyone is relaxing or celebrating the arrival of the New Year.

Moments like these convey most directly the confinement of Los Angeles' population to cars. Two observations come to mind.

1. The block I live on is medium density, a mix of midrise (10-story) and lowrise apartment buildings and duplexes/triplexes. However, scanning (from my rooftop view) due north, a pitch black (mile long) expanse of spacious single-family housing separated my nook from the retail and entertainment district along Sunset Blvd. Looking to the west, a couple more blocks of apartments gave way to yet a vaster expanse of blackness (single-family homes), stretching to the faint lights of Westwood. Finally, to the east, I caught another block of apartments, the corner Ralphs, and then the design and office buildings along Robertson, a short distance away. Interspersed with all this dense development, I caught glimpses of still more patches of single-family homes! A thicker line separated my block from the towers in Wilshire. The problem with walking in Los Angeles is that despite the proliferation of density at a regional level (particularly in the central basin area), much of that density occurs in a patchwork matter, intermittant and dispersed across a wide area (and variety of uses). A person still needs a personal vehicle to access the full spectrum of places he or she needs to go.

2. Our city (and region) incentivizes driving even for short trips where walking and biking could do the job. From free parking, to wide roads (and crappy sidewalks) driving has become so convenient that we (think we) "can't" get around without our cars.

Just my observations. Nothing scientific today.

Have a good year!