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.