The Pros and Cons of Rail Transit to LAX

The New York Times ran an article today discussing the challenges of bringing rail transit to Los Angeles International Airport (good ol’ LAX), and it features a quote from me about I why I think rail to the airport is more of a psychological victory than a ridership victory. Without further explanation, this quote may be confusing or controversial, so let me clarify.

The Crenshaw Line may somehow connect to LAX one day.

The Crenshaw Line may somehow connect to LAX one day.

Generally speaking, rail to airports is not the most desired mode of choice for travelers. If you’re lugging suitcases, and even worse if you’re traveling with small children, rail is logistically challenging and often quite stressful, especially before a big air trip. (Unfortunately I know this from experience, having traveled with all three of my young kids on long BART rides to SFO or via AirBART to Oakland.) It’s often cheaper, faster, and easier to drive and park at an economy, off-site lot.

Meanwhile, wealthy travelers often prefer to take expensive cabs or luxury cars to the airport, and many other travelers have friends who can give them rides. In addition, super-shuttles are popular, as are some inexpensive bus connections (AC Transit to Oakland for example or the Santa Monica Big Blue or Culver City bus to LAX).

So right off the bat, rail to the airport is only going to appeal to a relatively small subset of passengers — probably the relatively less-affluent solo passengers.

Second, and more specific to Los Angeles, most travelers’ destinations and origins are so spread out across the metropolitan region that the likelihood of living, working, or recreating near an existing rail station to connect to LAX is not huge. Even worse, the spread-out nature of the urbanized city means that even if you did live, work, or recreate near rail, you would likely have to transfer a number of times to get to LAX, resulting in a trip that could often take hours and be fairly expensive, at least under the current fare structure. For example, if you lived in Pasadena, you would take the Gold Line to the Red Line to the Blue Line to the Green Line, which I’m guessing is about a two-hour trip.

By contrast, the flyaway shuttle from Union Station is cheap and convenient for those near or accessible to downtown LA. Travel modes like the shuttle are likely to get more usage than rail for far cheaper and without the big infrastructure build-out time and expense.

However, all is not doom and gloom when it comes to connecting LAX to rail. Here are some reasons for optimism: it will generate ridership, even if not the huge amount some might expect. In particular, airport employees will benefit as daily commuters. There will also be travelers for whom the Crenshaw line will provide quick service to their desired destinations (although that will probably be a small number of people). For example, in addition to destinations along the Crenshaw rail line, you could transfer from there to Santa Monica via a somewhat circuitous route or to downtown LA.

And more importantly, as Metro Rail gets fully built-out to reach major population, commercial and entertainment centers, the value of an airport connection will increase for both visitors and locals. The regional light rail connector through downtown will make possible a one-seat ride to Pasadena from LAX, eliminating the transfer mess I described above. A Crenshaw light rail connection to the Purple Line subway (not currently in the plans) could get travelers to Westwood, albeit circa 2037. And as I mention in the Times article, the psychological “branding” or image boost from rail to the airport will get Angelenos and visitors from around the world used to a new idea of an LA that is oriented around rail. More people will be curious about the system and may decide to ride it.

All good things.

But the point of my quote and perspective here is that rail enthusiasts should not overstate the importance of connecting the airport. It will be a slow, inconvenient journey for most people. Rather, advocates should focus on connecting high-density areas by rail and getting more high-density projects built around existing rail stations. Those advancements will benefit more people over the long-term than a rail-to-LAX project.

Remembering the Old Los Angeles Trolley Lines

I received an email from Robert L. Davis, a longtime Angeleno who remembers the original Pacific Electric streetcar lines from his boyhood. He grew up near the old Monrovia line, which shared the Pasadena lines as far as South Pasadena and San Marino. The old line is defunct and now filling up with housing units. Here is an edited, abridged version of his recollections:

I grew up on Fifth Ave. in Monrovia, on the north side of the Pacific Electric (PE) right-of-way. From the time I was old enough to notice, to the sad days in 1952 when the track and trolley wire were ripped out, PE was part of my life. Typical weekday service was a car every half-hour to Monrovia, with every other car continuing to Glendora. Rush hours would see two and three car trains running on ten or fifteen minute headways. Add to this a daily freight train, a daily “box motor”, and assorted work cars, and there was a lot to watch.

Two PE "home-brew" cars (built in Torrance in 1925) and the big brown tower car (built in Los Angeles in 1915) with the author running it.

Two PE “home-brew” cars (built in Torrance in 1925) and the big brown tower car (built in Los Angeles in 1915) with the author running it.

When I was in fourth grade at Monroe School, the westbound freight rumbled past around 1:30 PM on its way to Los Angeles. The City of Monrovia had installed a stop sign at Olive and Mayflower, where the track left street-running and resumed private right-of-way, and I’d hear the hiss of air brakes and the clanking of the train coming to a halt. The head brakeman probably got off to flag the crossing, and the engineer (by this time the electrics had given way to diesel power) would turn on the air-operated bell and start up with more rattling and clanking as the slack pulled out. Whatever was under discussion in class was totally lost to me.

Diesel locomotives started appearing on freights in the late 1940′s. As late as the mid-1970′s, diesels used on former PE lines in Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and West Hollywood had interurban-style whistles, and engineers (some of whom were ex-PE motormen) were forbidden to use regular air horns on the “Westside”. Back in 1968 I decided to check out the Hollywood Midnight Switcher. I found the crew switching on Santa Monica Blvd. After the switching was completed, I followed the unit all the way through Beverly Hills, soaking up the mellow toot of the air whistle and the rumble of wheels on well-worn rails.

Pacific Electric’s track through Monrovia was in poor condition and was mostly original 1903 steel. Any plans for retaining rail service past 1951 would have had to include completely rebuilding the track. Construction of the Santa Ana/San Bernardino Freeway past Union Station canceled any hope of that happening by taking PE’s exit from downtown toward the San Gabriel Valley. The idea of building a grade-separated rapid transit line was discussed, but no business or political entity would ante-up the money.

Today the Red Car era lives on, especially during special events, such as “Pacific Electric Weekend,” which has been observed during June in 2006 and 2007 and may become an annual event. Every ex-PE unit that runs comes out for photo ops and (if feasible) passenger service. In addition, visitors to the west side of the Los Angeles Harbor at San Pedro can ride replica Red Cars built under the sponsorship of the L.A. Harbor Department. The cars, which represent PE suburban cars from 1915 or thereabouts, run Friday through Sunday from the Cruise Ship Terminal to 22nd St.

Thirty years ago, if someone had said, “The Long Beach Line, parts of the San Bernardino Line, and a section of the San Fernando Valley Line will reappear,” such predictions would be greeted with “dream on” and “what have you been smoking lately?” Traction fan gatherings would be devoted to slides and movies of long-vanished trolley lines and plans for trips to San Francisco to ride the west coast’s last outpost of streetcar service. Today, between the four Metro Rail electric lines and the seven Metrolink services, it would take a long day to cover even a good percentage of the original Pacific Electric lines.

Game of Goats

I hope HBO considers using this goat-themed retooling of the Game of Thrones theme music:

Discussing Rail in L.A. — I Gotta Say It Was A Good Day
A free lunch and conversation about rail is hard to beat

A free lunch and conversation about rail is hard to top

Yesterday was an especially nice homecoming to UCLA Law for me, to be able to speak about Railtown, the book that I started as a law student there and was only able to continue due to the support of the environmental law program. I got to see former classmates, law school staff members, interviewees for the book, colleagues, and of course the next generation of law and planning students who are deeply engaged with the issues of transportation and development in Los Angeles. Plus, you can’t beat talking about rail in the city where it’s happening, to the people directly affected by the decisions that have been and will be made on Metro Rail.

Susan Prager and Sean Hecht, the two people most responsible for helping me write Railtown

Susan Prager and Sean Hecht, the two people most responsible for helping me write Railtown

A big thank you to Sean Hecht, who facilitated the grant funding I needed to complete the book (and organized yesterday’s event), and especially Susan Prager, now dean of Southwestern Law School and my former professor at UCLA Law, who taught the seminar that started this book (a seminar paper that I kind of went nuclear on). Giving a talk with the two of them in the room was a truly meaningful way to complete the circle on the project.

Overall, I enjoyed hearing people’s questions about the topic. Like: why does it take so long to build these rail lines?  (Answer: in part, lack of political pressure to speed them up.)  What routes should be built that aren’t under immediate consideration?  (Answer: West Hollywood.)  Any chance of connecting Westwood to the Valley by rail?  (Answer: possibly, via a privately funded toll-road tunnel with rail attached.)  And many other good ones.

Earlier in the day I recorded a podcast on the book, so stay tuned for that unveiling. And later in the day I guest-taught a seminar at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment, with any incredibly attentive and impressive group of undergrads.  So it was a full day.

Hopefully I’ll be back down in L.A. again soon to talk rail. But it will be hard to beat yesterday.

Electric Vehicles on the Radio — A Recap

It was a fun show on KALW radio yesterday. You can listen to it here. We got a number of questions comparing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to electric vehicles. Marc Geller, my fellow panelist, was quite adamant that battery electrics offer better environmental and cost benefits overall, given the expense of building a hydrogen fueling infrastructure and the energy it takes to produce the hydrogen fuel (not to mention the carbon footprint of that process).

People also asked about the toxic footprint of the battery, from creation to disposal. I’m always happy to dispel misconceptions about EVs, as it’s a new technology and even educated, well-meaning people have heard misleading information about EVs. The toxic footprint is one of them. First of all, battery-manufacturing impacts pale in comparison to the offsetting pollution from driving EVs compared to fossil fuel vehicles. Second, the batteries can be completely recycled (as hybrid batteries currently are) and even repurposed to go back into the vehicle or used in other applications, like home energy storage.

Another myth is that electricity is as dirty as oil. Not true. In about 16% of the country, the grid is quite dirty, and driving a hybrid car would be better than an EV. However, besides those places (like Wyoming), in the vast majority of the country, you are far better off driving an EV.

You can listen to the show for more. One interesting note, the moderator was David Onek, who happens to be the son-in-law of Michael Dukakis, who happens to have been my instructor at UCLA and who influenced my research and conclusions in Railtown. So it’s a small world, and it all seems to boil down (in this case) to electrifying transportation, from rail to EVs.

Radio Tonight at 7pm on Electric Vehicles

I’ll be on KALW radio tonight at 7pm discussing California’s electric vehicle policies. Joining me will be Marc Geller, co-founder of Plug-In America, a non-profit group that promotes the use of electric vehicles. Marc appeared in the 2006 film “Who Killed the Electric Car.” Also on the show will be Bob Hayden, manager of clean transportation programs for the San Francisco Department of the Environment. Bob is one of the foremost experts on what local governments can do to promote electric vehicles.

Feel free to call in for Q&A during the show at 415.841.4134 or email questions to You can also post a web comment, get more information, and access live streaming here.

UCLA Talks on Railtown, Wednesday April 9th

It’s been three months since Railtown was released, and I’m finally scheduled to speak in Los Angeles about the history of rail in that city. Please join me at UCLA School of Law on Wednesday April 9th. Lunch will be served with registration (free!). More details here.

Later that afternoon, I’ll be speaking at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability’s Environmental Science Colloquia (Env 170) at 4pm, La Kretz Hall, Room 110. The class is open to the public.

Railtown Lunchtime Talk at UC Berkeley Law, Thursday April 3rd

I’ll be speaking on Railtown and the future of transit-oriented development more generally on Thursday April 3rd at UC Berkeley School of Law.  More information can be found here.

Joining me will be Patrick Kennedy, a Berkeley infill builder now famous for constructing micro housing in San Francisco, and Erin Chalmers, an attorney at Shute, Mihaly and Weinberger in San Francisco who is litigating the case against San Diego’s extremely lame transportation plan. Lunch will be provided.

I hope to see you there!

The Politics of High Speed Rail Route Selection

Robert Cruickshank over at the California High Speed Rail blog took issue with my call for political reform to ensure that rail routes, including high speed rail, are as cost-effective and efficient as possible, as defined by maximizing ridership.  Actually he never disagreed with my calls for political reform because he evidently never made it to the end of my blog post. Once I criticized the high speed rail route (as evidence for the need for said political reforms), he apparently stopped reading further and took to Twitter to denounce the post.

I argued in the post that California’s highly decentralized system of government leads to political compromises that undermine the effectiveness of rail routes, including high speed rail. This is what set off Cruickshank, who runs a blog supporting high speed rail. As a result, he never addressed the multiple examples I gave of inefficiencies based on political compromise in the LA and Washington, DC rail systems.

But he did take issue with my assertions about the politically motivated inefficiencies of the high speed rail route.  I call them “inefficiencies” because they hurt system ridership.  The basic idea is that we maximize high speed rail ridership by having the fastest travel time between the two major population centers in the state — Los Angeles and San Francisco.  Any changes from the most direct route possible need to be justified based on ridership increases elsewhere.

Right off the bat, Cruickshank seems confused about how best to maximize high speed rail ridership. “Elkind cannot decide whether he supports increasing ridership overall, or just getting from SF to LA as fast as possible regardless of the consequences,” he writes.  But these are not mutually exclusive concepts. High speed rail should serve the highest population centers in the most efficient way possible in order to maximize ridership.

So here are my three examples of high speed rail route changes that were done for political — not ridership — reasons:

  1. The Pacheco Pass alignment via San Benito County instead of the Altamount Pass along I-580;
  2. The Palmdale/Mojave Desert alignment instead of the Tejon Pass by I-5; and
  3. The eastern Highway 99 San Joaquin Valley route instead of along I-5 in the Valley.

All three routes were designed to serve important political constituencies but not necessarily to serve the maximum number of riders.

Of the three examples, Cruickshank ignored the Palmdale example completely, I assume because it so clearly proves my point and undermines his.  Instead, Cruickshank attacked me for arguing against the Pacheco and Valley alignments.

On Pacheco vs. Altamont, Cruickshank is simply wrong.  The alternate Altamont alignment would serve more people and provide faster service to San Francisco.  It also allows faster service to Sacramento from San Jose and Los Angeles.  Cruickshank never addressed those points and instead fixated on how the Altamont route would “skip” San Jose.  But a spur line to San Jose fixes that problem and leads to faster service to Sacramento from San Jose and Los Angeles.  I don’t see any reason for an overall ridership drop-off with the spur, as Cruickshank fears, especially since it does not preclude electrifying CalTrain to San Francisco and achieving the same medium-speed service already projected for that corridor now.  And meanwhile you get the ridership benefits of faster service elsewhere for more people.

Next he attacks me for the criticizing the Valley route, and here is where it gets more complicated.  To be clear, I stand by my argument that the Valley section was politically chosen, although the greater tragedy is that Valley representatives forced the system to begin there in no-man’s land, leading to a system that will be useless for most Californians for decades to come.

Yet despite the unsavory political origins, I actually agree with this route choice.  Cruickshank describes me as inconsistent here but never asked for my rationale (it wasn’t the point of my blog post so I never spelled it out).  I support high speed rail serving Valley cities like Fresno and Bakersfield, despite slowing the San Francisco to Los Angeles route.  Why?  Because the Valley is the fastest-growing part of California, with long-term population growth projections that would lead to high ridership in the future, and because of the value of connecting medium-distanced cities like Fresno to L.A. and San Francisco, which are too close to fly but too far to drive conveniently.  System ridership overall should benefit in the long-term from this route and make up for lost ridership from the slower service between San Francisco and L.A.

I suppose this is an instance where political negotiations unintentionally produce an acceptable result, although it’s still ‘no way to run a railroad.’  As an aside, you could make a similar argument about Henry Waxman’s opposition to the L.A. Metro Rail as actually producing a positive result: faster service between Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles.  Although it doesn’t justify skipping the Wilshire corridor in Los Angeles.

But even with the Valley alignment, we run the risk that growth-inducing impacts from high speed rail will encourage Los Angeles-like sprawl that will undermine ridership, worsen air quality, chew up open space and farmland, and destroy the point of the system.  That prospect reinforces the need for the political reforms I recommend, particularly regarding density requirements for selected routes.

But then Cruickshank begins arguing with me over something I never said or believed:

Elkind’s post falls into the rather common trap of believing that if the California High Speed Rail Authority had just made different route choices, all would be well. The problem is that his recommendations are contradictory, and even if adopted they’d do nothing to improve the project’s political fortunes.

I made no such claim that my recommendations would solve the high speed rail political problems.  Precisely the opposite: I was showing how in our current system these kind of negative compromises are required to build a train like high speed rail.  My recommendations, clearly stated at the bottom of my post, have nothing to do with route changes and everything to do with political reforms to ensure that we get the best rail route for our money. Cruickshank never addressed those recommendations, which call for density requirements on the route, litigation restrictions, and campaign finance reform.

But his primary interest seems to be to insist that planners, not voters or elected officials, have the final say on what goes where.

Again, Cruickshank puts words in my mouth.  My primary interest is having the most efficient HSR service possible.  We need to reform our decentralized political process that empowers random elected officials to twist the route over the one that benefits the most people.  And part of that decentralization comes from the legal system, with ongoing court challenges to the best routes.

Ultimately, Cruickshank doesn’t seem to think we need any political reforms, although he never addressed the ones I recommended:

California’s democratic processes have produced repeated support for the bullet train. Those who oppose the train have had to resort to end runs around the democratic process, primarily by going to court to try and reverse the decisions of the voters and their legislators.

I assume he’s referring to the ballot initiative in 2008, which would not pass today, and the Legislature disbursing the funds, which required a significant amount of arm-twisting.  With these examples, Cruickshank does not grapple with my point about project implementation: when it comes to actually building and routing the projects, it’s horse-trading and arm-twisting every time, and the public loses.  The result is a less-efficient system that wastes money, time, and opportunities for the millions of people who could otherwise be benefiting from the system.

Cruickshank is clearly a cheerleader for the system route as it currently stands.  And high speed rail clearly needs cheerleaders like Cruickshank.  But sometimes advocates have stronger positions if they are willing to admit — and work to correct — obvious flaws.

The Crucial Ingredient for Transit-Oriented Development: Political Will

Urban Scale has interesting case studies of successful transit-oriented development around the country, listing Washington DC, Portland, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Cleveland as the (perhaps surprising) leaders. The article concludes that the “4 key ingredients” for successful transit oriented development (TOD) are:

  • TOD Ingredient #1: Connect dense employment centers
  • TOD Ingredient #2: Regional collaboration
  • TOD Ingredient #3: Proactive planning and public policies to encourage TOD
  • TOD Ingredient #4: Public-private partnerships for joint development

Two interesting findings from this list: first, the quality of the transit system matters less than the commitment by the local or regional government to TOD.  In fact, Cleveland did TOD with bus rapid transit, which is a great example of how lower-cost (but still nice) bus service can bring many if not most of the benefits of rail.  Second, related to the first, you need a strong commitment from government leaders that results in government intervention to make the TOD happen.  In these examples, small public investments have unlocked billions of private dollars.

The article points out that some of these cities are in conservative areas and concludes that politics doesn’t matter.  But notice no traditionally liberal California cities are on the list.  Politics does matter, but it’s not the traditional blue/red divide.  It’s the politics of local land use.  Where residents fear neighborhood development and have a disproportionate influence on local decision-making, TOD will not happen.

California exemplifies this dynamic.  The state’s land use decisions are decentralized and empower the few at the expense of the many.  With that structure in place, local leaders are unlikely to green-light the government interventions necessary to see TOD take hold, with its attendant economic benefits.  Interventions like downtown planning for infill, public-private partnership development, and new infrastructure investments rarely happen.

To be sure, a number of California cities have taken the lead to make TOD happen.  But the state is pitifully behind other metropolitan regions in making the most of our great urban spaces and transit infrastructure.  And given the fast-growing population and beauty of the state at risk, it’s a situation that we need to remedy.

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