Category Archives: high density
Redundant Rail Service In L.A.’s San Gabriel Valley Wastes Limited Transit Dollars

Los Angeles County is a big place, with lots of urban centers to connect with rapid rail transit. Funding is limited for these expensive trains, despite the passage of two recent sales tax increases and two others passed in 1980 and 1990 respectively.

So why is the region spending these limited dollars on two rail lines in the mostly suburban, auto-oriented, low-density San Gabriel Valley? The issue is now front-and-center with the June approval of a $1.4 billion extension of the Foothill Gold Line light rail to Montclair.

The problem is that the line dovetails with an existing Metrolink line, which is a diesel train for commuters into downtown Los Angeles. This map tells the story:

Image result for metrolink map gold line

The existing Gold Line extension to Azusa already is cannibalizing nearby Metrolink service, as Urbanize LA reported:

In a report prepared for the Planning and Programming Committee, Metro staff notes that there has been a precipitous drop in ridership at a nearby station on the San Bernardino Metrolink line. In the year since the completion of the extension, which Metro calls the Gold Line Extension Phase 2A, boardings at Covina station have fallen 25 percent, despite being several miles from the Gold Line terminus at Azusa Pacific University.

Even more worrying for the future of Metrolink’s highest ridership line is the Gold Line Extension Phase 2B, which will extend the light rail line from Glendora to Claremont, and with a potential contribution from the County of San Bernardino, across the County line into Montclair. Three of the new stations, in the cities of Pomona, Claremont and Montclair, will be built in the Metrolink right-of-way and have stations directly adjacent to their commuter rail counterparts, offering perhaps an alluring alternative to the existing service. While Gold Line trains will take about 15 minutes longer to travel from Montclair to Union Station, they will be far cheaper and offer service every 7-12 minutes for most of the day.

I discussed this issue with KPCC radio recently, explaining that the reason for this extra rail service is simply politics.  To secure two-thirds voter approval on the recent sales tax measures for transit, local leaders had to essentially buy off San Gabriel Valley leaders with a gold-plated rail line promise, even though the region doesn’t have the ridership to justify the expense.

That’s not to say that duplicative rail service is a bad thing by definition.  If the population and job density is sufficient, two rail lines in proximity can make sense.  But in this case, the density isn’t there.  Metro leaders should have stood up to the San Gabriel Valley and funded a right-sized transit line.  That would have most likely meant bus rapid transit and not light rail, which still would have been a big transit win for the region.

It may be too late to downsize the train route, but perhaps in the meantime Metro can develop adequate policies to ensure that San Gabriel Valley and Inland Empire leaders encourage maximum densities along the route.  More dense development will not only give local residents more housing and commercial service options, it will provide more riders to minimize the losses on this unfortunate decision.

L.A.’s Radical Rail Transformation

David Dayen in the American Prospect has a long piece describing the “revolt” in Los Angeles against the automobile and how the city is transforming before our eyes:

In January, the city received $1.6 billion in federal support for the Purple Line, and Mayor Garcetti has asked the Trump administration for more, to move up subway completion from 2035 to 2024, in time for that year’s Summer Olympics, for which L.A. is one of the two finalists. “We have become the infrastructure capital of the world,” says Phil Washington. “With two NFL teams, a rail spur to that stadium, the possibility of the Olympics, it creates this economic bonanza, what I call a modern-day WPA [Works Progress Administration].”

The risk, as Dayen points out, is that the Trump administration will withdraw federal funds, leaving Los Angeles to pay for much of this transformation on its own and essentially backfill the missing the federal dollars.

But cities have gone that way before. The Bay Area, for example, largely built BART on its own in the 1960s and 1970s, as the federal government didn’t provide funding for rail transit at the time.

The difference now is that costs have gone way up, making it harder for a region like Los Angeles to fund this transformation without getting its share of federal tax dollars back to reinvest locally.

The article also rightly points out (with some quotes from yours truly) that the great unanswered question is whether the region will allow growth to follow this new transportation infrastructure. Poor land use decision-making is what got the region into the mobility and air quality mess its in. Only smart growth near rail transit will provide residents the option of a way out.

But the necessary transit backbone, as Dayen describes, is finally coming into place, giving local leaders a viable foundation for rebirth.

Cap-And-Trade Extension A Lifeline For High Speed Rail

Last night the California Legislature scored a super-majority victory to extend the state’s signature cap-and-trade program through 2030.  It was a rare bipartisan vote, although it leaned mostly on Democrats.  My UCLA Law colleague Cara Horowitz has a nice rundown of the vote and its implications, as does my Berkeley Law colleague Eric Biber on the bill.

Lost in the politics is what this means for high speed rail.  The system has a fixed and dwindling amount of federal and state funds at this point, and it’s relying on continued funding from the auction of allowances under cap-and-trade to build the first segment from Fresno to San Jose and San Francisco.

If the auction was declared invalid or ended at 2020 with depressed sales, the system would be in major jeopardy of collapsing before construction even finished on the first viable segment.  Now it has some assurance of access to funds.

But of course it’s not that simple.  The bill that passed yesterday has diminished available funds set aside for the programs that have been funded to date with cap-and-trade dollars.  As part of the political compromises, more auction money will now go to certain carve-outs, like to backfill a now-canceled program for wildfire fees on rural development.

And another compromise may put a ballot measure before the voters, passage of which would require a two-thirds vote for any legislative spending plan for these funds going forward.  That means Republicans — who generally hate high speed rail — would be empowered to veto future spending proposals.

Still, high speed rail once again has a lifeline, as do the other programs funded by cap-and-trade, such as transit improvements, weatherization, and affordable housing near transit.  It’s an additional victory beyond the emissions reductions that will take place under this extended program.

Tiny Homes In Hawaii Could Be A Large-Scale Solution For The Mainland

Hawaii’s energy and land use challenges are very much a postcard from the future for mainland USA. I’ve written before about how renewables and EVs in Hawaii are trend-setting for the rest of the country. But it’s true on land use, too.

Native Hawaiians are allotted homesteads on lands that were property of the dethroned Hawaiian crown. Yet many Native Hawaiian have waited years to be able secure lands and affordable homes. Now pre-fabricated, tiny homes may offer the solution, thanks to financing from the nonprofit Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement.  Hawaii News Now covered the story recently:

Hawaii News Now – KGMB and KHNL

Why is this useful for the mainland? Here in California, high construction costs are part of the reason for our housing shortage. Prefabricated homes, like those in Hawaii, represent a promising way to bring down the costs and ensure more affordable and ample homes for everyone.

We’ve already seen the movement start to take hold, such as tiny apartments in San Francisco and Sacramento. And prominent developers like the Bay Area’s Rick Holliday have begun building modular homes for the likes of companies like Facebook, all to bring down construction costs but still deliver high-quality homes.

If it can work in Hawaii, it can certainly work across the country.

The Most & Least Cost-Effective Rail Transit Systems In The U.S.

We don’t need rail transit systems to make money.  None of them do, and neither do roadways for that matter (gas taxes pay for most of that infrastructure).

What’s more, rail transit systems have huge economic and environmental benefits that aren’t captured in the fares.  They can mean less driving, more downtown and station-area investment, less pollution, and better quality of life.  Plus they provide convenient alternatives for those who don’t or can’t drive.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about how cost effective these systems are.  To that end, Eric Jaffe at CityLab points to a Hamilton Project chart showing how much the major rail transit systems in the U.S. lose:

Some interesting things jump out at me from the chart:

  • Los Angeles is a bit of an outlier (in a bad way) with relatively high ridership but heavy losses compared to its nearby peers, like BART and the Philadelphia system.  My guess it’s related to the lack of distance-based fares on the trains, as people can take long rides on LA rail but pay as if they just went one stop.
  • San Francisco’s MUNI system is a surprising money loser.  Those trains are packed, so I’m not sure what the problem is.  It could be high operating expenses, rather than a revenue problem.  The same dynamic could also be affecting New Jersey transit and New York’s PATH.
  • Santa Clara’s VTA is one of the worst in the country.  Not surprising.  We graded it and its station-area development harshly in our 2015 report comparing California urban rail transit systems and their station neighborhoods (although San Diego’s system also graded poorly but does not have heavy losses, per this chart).

The bottom line: transit systems need to keep their operating expenses down while boosting revenue.  My guess is operating costs are mostly about labor and security expenses.  But regardless, a straightforward way to boost revenue is to increase ridership by serving only densely populated neighborhoods.

If transit systems can achieve those two goals, they’ll rate highly on charts like these.

How The Wealthy Use Zoning To Keep Their Families Rich

Richard Reeves, a U.K. native, takes Americans to task in a New York Times op-ed for pretending that we’re not a classless society.  He points out how the wealthy use local housing policies to protect their wealth, advantage their children, and prevent the lower classes from accessing educational and job opportunities:

Things turn ugly, however, when the upper middle class starts to rig markets in its own favor, to the detriment of others. Take housing, perhaps the most significant example. Exclusionary zoning practices allow the upper middle class to live in enclaves. Gated communities, in effect, even if the gates are not visible. Since schools typically draw from their surrounding area, the physical separation of upper-middle-class neighborhoods is replicated in the classroom. Good schools make the area more desirable, further inflating the value of our houses. The federal tax system gives us a handout, through the mortgage-interest deduction, to help us purchase these pricey homes. For the upper middle classes, regardless of their professed political preferences, zoning, wealth, tax deductions and educational opportunity reinforce one another in a virtuous cycle.

It takes a brave politician to question the privileges enjoyed by the upper middle class. Recently, there have been failed attempts to make zoning laws more inclusive in supposedly liberal cities like Seattle and states like California and Massachusetts. The handout on mortgage interest appears to be an indestructible deduction (unlike in Britain, where the equivalent tax break was phased out under both Conservative and Labour governments by 2000).

Considering that zoning was essentially invented as a tool for racial exclusion and white supremacy back in the 1920s, Reeves’ argument is pretty damning. As America’s income inequality worsens, local housing policies that prevent new multifamily developments only exacerbate the problem, from a moral, economic and environmental standpoint.

Google Goes Infill, While Apple Goes Full Donut Sprawl

Perhaps a metaphor for their approach to innovation, Apple is fully embracing the sprawl office model of the past, while Google embraces the future with talks to build a downtown San Jose campus near rail.

Apple’s soon-to-open donut office.

The Apple “donut” campus (photo right), set to open soon in Cupertino, is a giant parking lot with an office building on top, no matter how many solar panels and EV charging stations the company boasts about adding.  It was Steve Jobs’ last vanity project, and at heart it’s firmly of the decade he was born — the auto-oriented suburban office campus of the 1950s.

Meanwhile, Google looks to be following other advanced tech companies, like Amazon, LinkedIn, and Salesforce, by exploring options for a high-rise, infill mixed-use office right next to the future high speed rail stop and current Amtrak and Caltrain depot in downtown San Jose.

Silicon Valley is an an absolute housing and traffic crunch, due to those cities’ willingness to permit office sprawl but no accompanying housing.  The choice by Apple will only reinforce that failed dynamic, while Google’s efforts show that the worker of tomorrow does not want to repeat the insanity.

How To Persuade NIMBYs
One of the frustrating aspects of arguing with those who oppose new housing in their neighborhood is the typical dodge-and-weave around Econ 101 issues.  As any first-year econ student will tell you, more supply of housing will lower prices.  But many NIMBYs instead argue that more housing just drives up prices by gentrifying neighborhoods, when the exact opposite is true.
Noah Smith describes these typical arguments made by housing opponents and offers these suggestions on how to respond to them:
1. Econ 101 supply-and-demand theory is helpful in discussing these issues, but don’t rely on it exclusively. Instead, use a mix of data, simple theory, thought experiments, and references to more complex theories.
2. Always remind people that the price of an apartment is not fixed, and doesn’t come built into its walls and floors.
3. Remind NIMBYs to think about the effect of new housing on whole regions, states, and the country itself, instead of just on one city or one neighborhood. If NIMBYs say they only care about one city or neighborhood, ask them why.
4. Ask NIMBYs what they think would be the result of destroying rich people’s current residences.

5. Acknowledge that induced demand is a real thing, and think seriously about how new housing supply within a city changes the location decisions of people not currently living in that city.

6. NIMBYs care about the character of a city, so it’s good to be able to paint a positive, enticing picture of what a city would look and feel like with more development.

For a less politic take on how to advocate for housing, Seattle’s (aptly named) Dan Savage pulls no punches when it comes to what it will take to improve housing and rapid transit in our urban centers:
Housing scarcity—exacerbated by the ridiculous amount of this city zoned for single-family housing—deserves as much blame for the displacement crisis as gentrification. More. And unlike gentrification (“a once in a lifetime tectonic shift in consumer preferences”), scarcity and single-family zoning are two things we can actually do something about. Rezone huge swaths of the city. Build more units of affordable housing, borrow the social housing model discussed in the Rick Jacobus’ piece I quote from above (“Why We Must Build“), do away with parking requirements, and—yes—let developers develop. (This is the point where someone jumps into comments to point out that I live in a big house on Capitol Hill. It’s true! And my house is worth a lot of money—a lot more than what we paid for it a dozen years ago. But the value of my house is tied to its scarcity. Want to cut the value of my property in half? Great! Join me in calling for a radical rezone of all of Capitol Hill—every single block—for multi-family housing, apartment blocks and towers. That’ll show me!)

Both pieces are worth reading in full, especially for those concerned about the lack of new housing supply in our job- and transit-rich urban centers.

LA Metro Will Slowly Re-evaluate Its Entire Bus System In Light Of Declining Ridership

Falling transit ridership is a nationwide problem, but it’s particularly a setback in Los Angeles, which is investing like crazy in transit due to two recently passed transportation sales tax measures.  Laura Nelson covered the recent ridership decline in the Los Angeles Times and what L.A. Metro plans to do about:

Metro bus ridership fell 18% in April compared with April 2015. The number of trips taken on Metro buses annually fell by more than 59 million, or 16%, between 2013 and 2016.

A recent survey of more than 2,000 former riders underscores the challenge Metro faces. Many passengers said buses didn’t go where they were going — or, if they did, the bus didn’t come often enough, or stopped running too early, or the trip required multiple transfers. Of those surveyed, 79% now primarily drive alone.

In an attempt to stem the declines, Metro is embarking on a study to “re-imagine” the system’s 170 lines and 15,000 stops, officials said. Researchers will consider how to better serve current riders and how to attract new customers, and will examine factors including demographics, travel patterns and employment centers.

Meanwhile, as Metro explains in its outlet The Source:

Metro has not embarked on such a systemwide effort since the 1990s so it is timely given the significant expansion of the Metro Rail system this century, growth of municipal operator services and the popularity of other transportation options (i.e. ride hailing services such as Lyft and Uber).

As I blogged earlier, it was easy to dismiss prior reports of falling ridership, but now is definitely a good time to take it seriously.

But Metro won’t exactly be hurrying to get to the bottom of this.  The bus system review isn’t planned to be completed until April 2019, which will then require public hearings later that year.  So any actual changes won’t go into effect until December 2019 — at the earliest.

Two years seems like a really long time to study this issue, although Los Angeles does have an enormous system.  Still, a little urgency could be in order.  And in the meantime, the agency could focus on one immediate step that is guaranteed to boost ridership: require local governments with major transit stations to relax restrictions on adjacent development.

And Metro could start with the recalcitrant neighborhoods around the new Expo Line.

Otherwise, we’ll have to wait a while on any results from the bus study.

Expo Line Station Neighborhoods Have Weak Plans For Development

New apartments by the downtown Santa Monica station, which ain’t happening hear other stations along the Expo Line.

The Expo Line from Downtown L.A. to Downtown Santa Monica travels a highly congested corridor in the job-rich but housing-poor Westside of L.A.  While the multibillion rail line has been successful so far in exceeding ridership projections, it could still fail to live up to its full potential unless the station neighborhoods allow more compact, rail-oriented development to generate enough riders for the line and minimize the taxpayer costs.  Not to mention this part of town badly needs housing in areas that don’t require car commuting.

So it was a big deal last month when the City of Los Angeles released the draft Exposition Corridor Transit Neighborhood Plan, which governs the land use for the neighborhoods around the line within the City of Los Angeles.

Steven Sharp over at Urbanize LA took a deep dive into document.  His verdict?  The plans are tepid at best with no strong vision for the kind of density required to make good use of the multi-billion rail line:

While a small but significant step towards a more transit-oriented future for communities surrounding the Expo Line, the Expo TNP [transit neighborhood plan] falls short in terms of scale and scope when compared to planning around rail lines in other major cities.

On the opposite side of the country, Washington Metro stations are surrounded by dozens of walkable town centers in southern Maryland and northern Virginia.  Other existing commercial hubs, such as Tyson’s Corner, are being gradually retrofitted for pedestrians following the introduction of passenger rail service.

In contrast, the proposed Expo TNP walks a fine line between maintaining the status quo and creating the transit-oriented communities implied by the project’s name.  The station subareas which would be rezoned for higher density development represent less than 13 percent of the total land area encompassed by the Expo TNP, as the vast majority of properties are excluded from land use changes on account of their R1 and R2 zoning.

The properties that would be upzoned under the plan are almost exclusively commercial and industrial sites, where current occupants are less likely to oppose new construction.  Although a change in land use may be appropriate for these properties due to the arrival of the Expo Line, the fact that wealthier residential blocks nearby were left untouched speaks to the continued political clout of Los Angeles’ homeowners.  This is perhaps best highlighted by the Westwood/Rancho Park Station, which is surrounded on all sides by million-dollar houses, and was more-or-less ignored by the Expo TNP.

All of which makes me want to renew my call to shut down or otherwise reduce service to under-performing stations along the line. If the locals are not going to allow appropriate development in these choice areas, then these stations shouldn’t slow riders traveling from the dense downtowns on either end.

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