Category Archives: Rail Transit
Why Airports Lack Incentive To Support Transit: The LAX-Rail History

In my 2014 book Railtown, I covered the sad saga of Los Angeles rail transit planners’ failed attempt to bring rail to LAX (Los Angeles International Airport). While local conspiracy theorists argued that the taxi industry had scuttled the plan, the reality was that the region was running out of money for rail anyway and lacked consensus on the best route to the airport.

But transit officials at the time also cited resistance from airport officials, as I described in the book:

Many local leaders blamed the airport for the impasse, arguing that airport leaders should have been willing to contribute funds for the extension. “If [the airport] had used passenger facility funds to meet the line, we would have gone there and made it happen,” said [transportation commissioner Jacki] Bacharach. “But we never got help from the airport.”  According to Ruth Galanter, who represented the area at the Los Angeles City Council, airport officials cited a federal law that prevented airport revenues from funding anything other than airport improvements. “The airlines said, ‘No way. The people using the Green Line have nothing to do with the airport, so you can’t take this money.’ If Bradley had been around for another ten years, he probably could have worked out a compromise.”

I thought of that history when I saw today’s news in the San Francisco Chronicle that airports across the country are losing money from lost fee revenue with the advent of Uber and Lyft:

Travelers’ changing habits, in fact, have begun to shake the airports’ financial underpinnings. Fewer people are parking cars at airports, using taxis or renting cars, according to a recent report from the National Academies Press.

Those trends are hurting airports, which depend on fees from parking lots, rental-car companies and taxis as their biggest source of revenue other than the fees paid by the airlines. The money they collect from ride-hailing services does not compensate for the lower revenues from the other sources.

While LAX officials denied trying to shoot down a rail connection in the 1990s, this article makes it clear that rail transit connections are not exactly in their financial interest.

In the end, LAX is about to get a rail connection from the under-construction Crenshaw Line, which will connect to a parking lot nearby and an eventual people mover around the airport. But it comes a generation after a failed effort in the early 1990s, with the airport’s economic interest likely an important factor.

A Tale Of Two Subway Woes: Los Angeles & San Francisco

San Francisco and Los Angeles are both building subways below their downtown cores. And now both cities’ projects are over-budget and late. As Matier & Ross report in the San Francisco Chronicle:

San Francisco’s already behind-schedule Central Subway won’t be completed until 2021, more than a year later than the city insists the line will be ready, according to a new report by the big dig’s main contractor.

Construction giant Tutor Perini Corp. also says the $1.6 billion project is running tens of millions of dollars over budget.

Adding insult to injury, the former head of the agency that oversaw construction of the Transbay Transit Center, which went horribly over budget, is apparently lobbying the city for more money for Tutor Perini. The delay means the line won’t be able to serve the new Golden State Warriors arena for the first two seasons. For their part, city officials seem to think the contractor is bluffing to get more money. Either way, it’s not a good sign.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the downtown regional connector light rail line is also in trouble, as Laura Nelson reports in the Los Angeles Times. The new opening date is now December 2021, a year later than the agency’s original target date of December 2020. Its $1.75-billion budget is now 28% higher than originally forecast.

Residents in these two major cities are now spending a better part of a decade watching these relatively short rail lines get built, at increasing taxpayer expense. While I’m sympathetic to the challenge of building under old urban environments, I wonder how much of these challenges should have been foreseen. It’s almost a joke at this point that elected officials over-promise on cost and timelines to sell new rail lines at the outset. But it would be nice to see those those promises actually come true for once, especially for transit projects as important as these.

Bus-Only Solution To L.A.’s Transit Ridership Problems Ignores Context & Other Options

Some longtime rail opponents made an appearance in the Los Angeles Times op-ed pages last month, with a bus-only solution to recent transit ridership woes. James Moore from USC teamed up with former Southern California Rapid Transit District chief financial officer Tom Rubin to blame falling transit ridership on L.A. Metro’s lack of investment in buses compared to rail.

Moore and Rubin went to lengths to extol the benefits of the now-expired 1990s consent decree to settle a lawsuit against L.A. Metro by the Bus Riders Union. The settlement decree forced L.A. Metro to privilege spending on buses over rail:

The settlement allowed Metro to build all the rail it could afford, so long as specific bus service improvements were made too. Those improvements included reducing fares, increasing service on existing lines, establishing new lines, replacing old buses and keeping the fleet clean. Lo and behold, while the decree was in force L.A.’s transit ridership rose by 36%. When Metro was no longer bound by the settlement, it refocused its efforts almost exclusively on new rail projects. The quality of bus service began declining in almost every way measurable, and overall ridership again fell.

Moore and Rubin’s 2017 op-ed hasn’t actually changed much since their 2008 version in the same paper. But their claim that the consent decree boosted L.A.’s transit ridership by 36% sounds different from the 2008 op-ed. In that original piece, they acknowledged that the ridership boost during the consent decree also included rail riders, given the new lines being unveiled at the same time:

Over the next 11 years, [L.A. Metro] added buses, started new lines and held fares in check to improve the country’s most overcrowded bus system. As a result, users of public transit gradually started to increase again. Yes, some chose the Blue, Red, Green and new Gold rail lines, but the majority of riders returned to buses.

“Gradually started to increase” in 2008 doesn’t seem to match their 20017 claim of a 36% boost. Meanwhile, Bus Riders Union estimates of ridership during the consent decree years was evidently 1% per year increase, per the LA Weekly in a 2005 article.  That’s not much to get excited about, given the scale of the ridership problem and the amount of money L.A. Metro spent on consent decree compliance.

I certainly agree that lower bus fares can mean more ridership, and I support improved bus service. But the idea that the consent decree was a big ridership win seems like revisionist history. More importantly, Moore and Rubin’s arguments fail to put the L.A. transit ridership problem into the national context it deserves. With low gas prices and a booming economy, plus the impact of Uber and Lyft, transit ridership decreases are happening everywhere. This isn’t just about L.A. Metro’s decision to build a lot of rail.

A true response to the challenge involves multiple solutions, of which better bus service and lower fares are just one arrow in the quiver. More dense development around transit and congestion pricing also need to be in the mix, for example. Focusing only on ideologically motivated solutions, introduced regardless of context, is less likely to be an effective approach to tackling the problem.

California Finally Dumps Outdated Auto-Boosting Transportation Metric For New Transit & Infill Projects

It’s taken a long time, but California finally is ready to make a significant change to speed environmental review for new transit and infill projects. The Governor’s Office of Planning & Research (OPR) announced on Monday that a compromise has been reached to implement SB 743 (Steinberg, 2013), a law that made major amendments to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the state’s law governing environmental review of new projects.

Back in 2013, the legislature passed SB 743 to change how infill projects undergo environmental review. Under the traditional regime, project proponents had to measure transportation impacts by how much the project slowed car traffic in the immediate area. The perverse result was mitigation measures to privilege automobile traffic, like street widening or stoplights for rail transit in urban environments or new roadways over bike lanes in sprawl areas.

But the true transportation impacts are on overall regional driving miles. An urban infill project may create more traffic locally but can greatly reduce regional traffic overall by locating people within walking or biking distance of jobs and services. Meanwhile, a sprawl project may have no immediate traffic impacts, but it typically dumps a huge amount of cars on regional highways, leading to more traffic and air pollution. As a result, the switch from the “level of service” (auto delay) metric to “vehicle miles traveled (VMT)” made the most sense. Most infill projects are exempted entirely under this metric, while sprawl projects would have to mitigate their impacts on regional traffic.

But OPR’s implementing guidelines with this change were held up by highway interests and their government allies, who don’t want the law to apply to highways. You can probably see why: highways are designed to do one thing only — induce more driving. And that would score poorly under this change to CEQA.

State leaders finally reached a compromise this month: the new guidelines could apply statewide to all projects (something only suggested by the statute), but new highway projects can still use the old “level of service” metric, at the discretion of the lead agency (see the PDF of the guidelines for more details at p. 77).

It’s an unfortunate but probably necessary concession to powerful highway interests. Even though freeways have consistently failed to live up to their promise of fast travel at all times, and instead brought more traffic, sprawl and air pollution to the state, many California leaders are still wedded to this infrastructure investment.

My hope is that the compromise won’t actually mean that much new highway expansion in the state. First, California isn’t planning to build a lot of new highways, outside of the ill-advised “high desert corridor” project in northern Los Angeles County. Second, even for new highway projects, CEQA’s required air quality review may necessitate an analysis of (and mitigation for) increased driving miles.

Either way, smart growth advocates can at least celebrate the good news that CEQA will finally be in harmony with the state’s other climate goals on infill development, transit, and other active transportation modes.

The guidelines though still need to be finalized by the state’s Natural Resources Agency, which will take additional months. I’ll stay tuned in case anything changes with the proposal during this time.

California’s Big Climate Challenge Will Be Reducing Transportation Emissions

California is on track to meet its 2020 climate change goals, to reduce emissions by that year back to 1990 levels. Much of that success is due to the economic recession back in 2008 and significant progress reducing emissions from the electricity sector, due to the growth in renewables.

But the state is lagging in one key respect: transportation emissions. Bloomberg reported on the emissions data compiled by the nonpartisan research institute Next 10:

In 2015, the most recent year for which data are available, the state’s greenhouse gas emissions dropped at less than half the rate of the previous year, according to an August report from the San Francisco-based nonprofit Next 10. Low gas prices and a lack of affordable housing prompted more driving and contributed to a 3.1 percent increase in exhaust from cars, buses, and trucks, the report says. Census data show that more than 635,000 California workers had commutes of 90 minutes or more in 2015, a 40 percent jump from 2010.

The solutions are urgent: we need to reduce driving miles by building all of our new housing (an estimated 180,000 units needed per year) near transit, and we need to electrify our existing vehicle fleet and add in biofuels and hydrogen where appropriate. Otherwise, the state will not be as successful in meeting its much more aggressive climate goals for 2030, with a 40% reduction below 1990 levels called for that year.

The Expo Line Bait-And-Switch

First, advocate for a multi-billion transit line that will serve your home neighborhood. Then once it’s built, make sure nobody else can move to your neighborhood to take advantage of the taxpayer-funded transit line. It’s a classic bait-and-switch, and it’s happening now along the Expo Line in West L.A.

What’s at stake is an already-watered down city plan for rezoning Expo Line stations areas. The city’s “Exposition Corridor Transit Neighborhood Plan,” while rezoning some station-adjacent areas for higher density, still leaves a whopping 87% of the area, including most single-family neighborhoods, unchanged, and with too-high parking requirements to boot.

But this weak plan is still too much for Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz and his homeowner allies, including an exclusionary group of wealthy homeowners assembled under the name “Fix The City.” They oppose even these modest changes to land use in the transit-rich area. Essentially, they’ll get the financial and quality-of-life benefit of the Expo Line, while working to ensure no one else does.

As Laura Nelson details in the Los Angeles Times:

Koretz told the Planning Commission this month that the areas surrounding three Expo Line stations in his district “simply cannot support” more density without improvements to streets and other public infrastructure.

It’s a view shared by advocates from Fix the City, a group that has previously sued Los Angeles over development in Hollywood and has challenged the city’s sweeping transportation plan that calls for hundreds of bicycle- and bus-only lanes by 2035.

“It’s like when you buy a new appliance, you’d better read the fine print,” said Laura Lake, a Westwood resident and Fix the City board member. “This is not addressing the problems that it claims to be addressing.”

If Koretz and his allies have their way, their homeowner property values will go up with the transit access, but taxpayers around the region have to continue subsidizing the line even more because neighbors are not allowing more people to ride it. And to boot, they will keep regional traffic a mess by not allowing more people to live within an easy walk or bike ride of all the jobs near their neighborhood. Essentially, they force everyone else into long commutes while keeping housing prices high — an ongoing environmental and economic nightmare.

Thankfully there are others mobilizing against these homeowner interest groups, such as Abundant Housing L.A. But two things need to happen now: first, the Expo neighborhood plan needs serious strengthening, including elimination of parking requirements and an end to single-family home zoning near transit stops. Second, L.A. Metro needs to hold the hammer over these homeowners by threatening to curtail transit service to the area. I see no reason why taxpayers should continue to support service to an area that won’t do its part to boost ridership on the line.

Single-family zoning near transit is an idea that should have died long ago. It has no place in a bustling, modern, transit-rich environment like West L.A. The Expo Line bait-and-switch must end.

Interview With California State Senator Scott Wiener On City Visions, Tonight At 7pm

undefinedScott Wiener, San Francisco’s state senator elected in 2016, has already authored some landmark legislation on housing (SB 35), and he’s co-authored other measures related to transportation and leading the state resistance to the Trump administration.

I’ll be interviewing him tonight on City Visions at 7pm to discuss these issues and what Sen. Wiener sees on tap legislatively and politically for the state in 2018. Tune in on KALW 91.7 FM in the San Francisco Bay Area or stream it live. We welcome your questions and comments!

The Need For Spock On Transit

Riding transit can be a great way to be a part of your community, as you get a chance to mingle with people from all walks of life instead of traveling in an isolated vehicle. But humanity isn’t always grand, and sometimes transit can expose you to some obnoxious behavior.

When that happens, just imagine you’re traveling with your own Spock, from this classic scene of Spock and Captain Kirk time traveling to 1980s California in Star Trek 4:

If Done Right, Buses Can Bring All The Benefits Of Rail — Faster & Cheaper, Too

The Orange Line Bus Rapid Transit in the San Fernando Valley

So says a new study by researchers Jesper Ingvardson and Otto Nielsen from the Technical University of Denmark, as reported by The City Fix:

Ingvardson and Nielsen compare 86 metro, light rail transit (LRT) and bus rapid transit (BRT) corridors using several variables: travel time savings, increase in demand from riders, modal shift, and land use and urban development changes. In some cases, the much more economical BRTs matched and even outperformed rail.

The key for buses to match or exceed all of these major benefits of rail is to have “buses done right.” That means bus rapid transit in its own dedicated lanes, with fast boarding and frequent service.

The benefits for transit advocates and the public are huge: bus rapid transit is far cheaper than rail (often 1/5 the price) and can get built much more quickly (sometimes in 1/5 the years).

To be sure, rail is appropriate in densely populated environments and travel corridors. But most cities in the United States have many more moderate-density corridors than high-density ones. In these areas, the case for true bus rapid transit is looking more and more like a no-brainer.

What A Nobel Economist Can Teach Us On Congestion Pricing

Richard Thaler, one of the founders of modern behavioral economics, just won the 2017 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. His research holds some interesting lessons for transportation planners trying to reduce traffic.  Specifically, it highlights why people may be averse to policies that charge drivers more for peak-hour driving.

The goal of “congestion pricing” is to alleviate traffic and encourage more transit usage, walking and biking.  As I described last week, it tolls drivers during peak times for entering city centers.  It’s an important strategy for cities like Los Angeles that need to reduce traffic to increase mobility, while funding alternatives to driving with the revenue.

Yet Thaler’s research is a cautionary tale for congestion pricing.  He describes the “endowment effect,” which is closely related to loss aversion.  Basically, people try to avoid losses in their well-being, money, and so forth, much more (at least rationally so) than they try to pursue gains. As explained:

The endowment effect helps explain why businesses don’t engage in rational behavior if it’s likely to enrage their customers. Take, for instance, concert venues that know their events are likely to sell out quickly, and yet do not jack up ticket prices to hundreds or thousands of dollars to control the demand. Because jacking up the price would entail taking away something people are used to — reasonable ticket prices — it prompts a strong feeling of repulsion and injustice, which can lead to consumers turning on businesses and hurting them more than raising prices would help.

How does this apply to congestion pricing? Simply put, if drivers are used to driving somewhere for free, and now they’re being charged, the endowment effect indicates that many of them are going to be upset (potentially irrationally so) and react against the policy makers who are now charging them.

So what can be done to counter it? Well, first of all, policy makers can ensure that drivers have options to avoid the charges, such as the ability to drive off-peak to avoid getting charged as well as having access to easy transit, walking or biking alternatives.  Second, policy makers can present the pricing arrangement as a temporary pilot, in order to give drivers the opportunity to see the “gains” from such an arrangement through decreased traffic and travel times.

Either way, congestion pricing may prove to be a tough sell in Los Angeles, albeit a needed one.

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