Category Archives: Rail Transit
A Return To City-Focused Federalism

Richard Florida argues in Politico.com that the election of Trump should bolster calls to devolve more power to states and specifically cities.  While he acknowledges that some of this smacks of “sore loser” federalism, it would address a growing structural problem in governing a nation as large and diverse as the U.S.:

Even on the domestic level, though, the modern-day presidency is crazy when you think about it: Why would a nation of 300 million-plus people, 50 states, 350-plus metro areas, 3,000-plus counties, and thousands and thousands of cities and communities choose to vest so much power in one person and one office? If there were any doubt about it before, we now know for a certainty that our current governance system, with its packing of humongous power in a unitary executive, is vulnerable to catastrophic failure. In addition to our well-understood horizontal separation of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, the vertical separation of powers among the federal government, the states and the local level provides a further set of safeguards and protections that we can and must use better. As a number of large corporations have discovered, devolving decision-making from executive suites to work groups on the factory floor drives huge productivity gains.

I’m sympathetic with much of the progressive policy aims for the federal government over the last century or so, from basic social safety nets to labor and environmental standards to civil/women’s rights and infrastructure investment. But Florida’s point is hard to argue with. In a country as large and diverse as ours, with so much power now concentrated in the federal government, each election becomes a divisive tug-of-war now prone, as Florida says, to democratic (small “d”) catastrophe.

Some of this “devolution revolution” could be straightforward, such as allowing states more flexibility on infrastructure investment. As a pro-transit person, the federal government hasn’t been great on this issue anyway, mostly funding highways, and in recent years, not funding much of anything.

But Florida doesn’t grapple with some of the hard choices and trade-offs this approach would entail. Are we comfortable as a nation allowing some states to continue discriminating against women, minorities and religious groups? To pollute their environment, when the effects might spill over to neighboring states? To weaken labor and safety standards? And of course to roll back social safety nets like Medicare and Social Security?

The upside, perhaps, is that states would be freer to solve these problems themselves, and we’d get a true laboratory effect going. People would be free to move to more successful and tolerant states, as the Great Migration exemplified.  We’d also potentially ratchet down the growing tension in this country between affluent, urban areas and economically stagnant and declining rural regions.

But it would come at a cost to specific policies and policy goals that need to be addressed head on.

It’s worth considering as a long-term response to a problem that is much bigger than just one presidential election, and that won’t be resolved with just a change in leadership.

Budget Fight 2017 & Its Environmental Consequences For Transit And Clean Energy

With so much noise coming out of Washington DC these days, from phony bill signing ceremonies to endless provocative tweets and misinformation, it’s easy to lose sight of the real, consequential policy battles going on at the moment.

On the environment, the big battle in Congress will take place over the budget late this summer.  A temporary stopgap measure helped preserve funding for key environmental initiatives, such as clean energy research and transit projects like Caltrain electrification.  But that bill just kicked the can down the road to September, when the government must act to avoid a shutdown.

The Trump administration’s proposed budget would zero out basically all environmental programs, including all new transit projects. I’m following the fate of clean energy research at the uber-successful ARPA-E in particular, at the Department of Energy:

September is now the new showdown date for the future of federally-funded breakthrough energy research in the United States. And if Trump has his say, the September fight could be waged in a higher-stakes, post-filibuster, 51-votes-to-pass-a-bill Senate. (Regardless, apparently, of any consequences for Republicans when Democrats next control the White House and/or Congress.)

On transit, the administration wants to end all federal support for urban transit projects, essentially ending a half-century of federal involvement in this area. As Transportation for America writes:

The administration reiterates their belief that transit is just a minor, local concern.

“Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects,” they write, making it clear that they see no benefit in providing grants to cities of all sizes to build new bus rapid transit or rail lines, or expand existing, well-used lines so they can carry more passengers.

The administration even uses the example of local cities approving their own funding measures for transit as a reason to discontinue federal support, when those local measures were actually sold as ways to leverage federal dollars in this longstanding partnership.

The good news is that many of these programs and initiatives have bipartisan support.  We saw that in action with the stopgap measure passed this spring.  But that support will be put to the test as we witness an assault on federal dollars for the environment and public health like we’ve never seen before.

The Urgent Need For Parking Policy Reform — My L.A. Times Op-Ed

Perhaps no other local land use issue can be as important — and detrimental — to quality of life, convenience, and the environment as parking.  High local parking requirements for new development drive up home prices and rents, induce more traffic, and waste space.  And poor parking management of existing spaces leads to more air pollution and congestion.

Yet too often failed parking policies soldier on, based on zombie regulations from outdated planning guidelines and the fear of making destinations inconvenient to access by private cars.  It’s particularly a waste in transit-oriented, infill neighborhoods where convenient alternatives to driving exist.

With that in mind, I was pleased to co-author an op-ed in today’s Los Angeles Times with Mott Smith, director of the nonprofit Council of Infill Builders.  The organization just released a new report Wasted Spaces: Options to Reform Parking Policy in Los Angeles at Los Angeles City Hall a few weeks ago, and the op-ed contains recommendations based on that publication.

The issue of parking policy reform is particularly acute in Los Angeles, where 14% of the county — over 200 square miles — is now dedicated to parking. After over a half-century accommodating the automobile at all costs, the region now has 18.6 million spaces for 3.5 million housing units, or 3.3 spaces per vehicle.

To bring reform, Mott and I argue in the piece that:

Local leaders should prioritize urgent reform of L.A.’s parking policies, particularly in transit-oriented neighborhoods, with the following measures:

  • Eliminate or reduce parking requirements for any new development projects.

  • Ensure that revenue from parking benefits the local community.

  • Rather than mandate new parking requirements in the zoning code, promote shared parking and alternative transportation options.

Local leaders should start these reforms now, or risk continuing the failed legacy that has been so stifling for mobility, affordability, and air quality in the region.

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.

“Race Underground” PBS Documentary On Boston’s Subway History

Boston was the first city in America to have an underground subway, an effort to relieve congestion on the crowded downtown streets and avoid weather-related delays to transit.  The history of the Boston “T” railway, along with New York’s system, was covered in depth in Doug Most’s The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway, which I reviewed in 2014.

Now PBS American Experience has released a documentary on the Boston subway story, based on Most’s book.  It’s an engaging film that documents the amazing electric motor innovations by Frank Sprague, a disciple of Thomas Edison, and the bruising political and construction battles to actually build the line in the heart of downtown Boston.

You can watch the documentary below or via American Experience.

LA Parking Policy Reform Conference — May 16th At City Hall

If there’s one local land use policy most to blame for constricting transit-oriented development, killing the walkability of neighborhoods, adding to traffic, and encouraging sprawl, it’s excessive parking requirements.

How so? High parking requirements add tremendous costs to new developments, which get passed on to renters and home buyers. The extra parking stalls simultaneously limit how big a building most developers can build, which limits the number of units and therefore the available supply to stabilize prices.

High parking requirements also encourage driving, which hurts walkability and adds to the traffic. And they represent a waste of space, dedicating more land to asphalt than houses, stores, and offices, which encourages more development out in sprawl zones.

So why do local governments require so much of it? Simply put: ignorance and fear. Ignorance of how much parking is actually needed (most parking requirements come from boilerplate planning texts with no relationship to actual demand), and fear that there won’t be enough parking if government doesn’t require it.

My dislike for parking requirements is why I’m happy to help promote an upcoming conference at Los Angeles City Hall on parking policy reform options, on Tuesday May 16th. The event is being organized by the nonprofit Council of Infill Builders and Los Angeles City Councilmember Jose Huizar.

Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the L.A. Department of Transportation, will provide the keynote, and a panel of experts will discuss parking reform options for the various cities and county of Los Angeles.  Finally, the event will feature the release of the new report “Wasted Spaces” from the Council of Infill Builders with policy recommendations for L.A.

You can see the conference agenda for more details.  Register to attend soon, as space is limited in the room atop City Hall.

City Visions Conversation With Gov. Brown Senior Adviser Ken Alex, Tonight At 7pm

Pretty much everything boils down to land use, at one level or another. Certainly housing and office development is traditionally within that sphere, but so is energy development, when we think about siting new transmission lines or solar farms. Even electric vehicles involve permitting and siting public charging infrastructure.

Tonight on City Visions, KALW 91.7 FM, I’ll talk with Ken Alex, Governor Brown’s senior adviser and director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR), which helps the state set land use policy. We’ll talk transportation, housing policies, water, and climate change. And beyond local government matters, Ken also helps the state with its international climate efforts like the Under 2 MOU.

Tune in or stream at 7pm tonight, and please send in your questions or comments for Ken to address on the air.

UPDATE: audio available here.

L.A. County Bar Association Conference On Transportation — This Friday, April 7th

I’ll be on vacation this week and won’t be blogging (other than today).  However, for those in Los Angeles, I’ll be speaking on Friday at the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s 31st Annual Environmental Law Section Spring Super Symposium.  I’ll be part of an afternoon panel on transportation and climate change:

Description:  This panel will consider how climate change policies will affect transportation projects and technologies like driverless vehicles going forward. Panelists will discuss what policies, legal developments, and technological advancements will be most pressing and consider how those developments may impact California’s long-term planning.  Panelists will also discuss how the current federal landscape may influence state efforts to regulate air emissions from transportation.

Moderator:  Andrea Warren – Senior Associate, Alston & Bird LLP

Panelists:

  • Ryan Snyder – Principal, Transpogroup;
  • Jamey Wyman – Associate, Best Best & Krieger LLP;
  • Ethan Elkind – Director of Climate Program at Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at UC Berkeley Law; UCLA Law’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment

You can see the full program and register here.  Have a great week, and blogging will return next week.

My L.A. Times Op-Ed: How To Avoid Wasting Measure M Dollars On Bad Projects

Metro_Rail_Blue_LineMeasure M is one of the most promising ballot measures to pass in Los Angeles County in recent years.  It offers $120 billion in long-term sales tax revenue to fund transportation projects — the kind of money that can help transform mobility in the region.

But the money brings perils, too, which I describe in a Los Angeles Times op-ed today:

If history is any guide, L.A. transit leaders have a habit of prioritizing politically expedient projects over ones that would benefit more riders. Faced with NIMBY opposition, our leaders too often cave.

Just look at the Expo Line from downtown L.A. to Santa Monica, a route that remains hampered by slow travel times after transit leaders failed to give the train priority over automobiles along city streets. Additionally, failure to push through with adequate development projects along the route denied this expensive rail technology an easy ridership boost.

Will transportation leaders similarly compromise away good Measure M projects until they go bad?

To answer this question, it’s important to understand what a “good” project entails. Cost-effectiveness — using the fewest dollars to move the most people the greatest distance — is key. Projects should attract maximal ridership, based on existing population, job density and service quality. Potential ridership, based on the feasibility of building more housing, retail and offices within walking distance of stations, is another crucial determinant. (The failure of the anti-growth Measure S in the recent L.A. election adds even more weight to this component.) Finally, projects should maximize reductions in overall driving miles, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

The piece details some immediate tests facing Metro leaders and offers recommendations to ensure that they make smart decisions. The long-term future of LA in many ways will be determined by these short-term actions.

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