Back in 2008, and then again in 2016, transit advocates in Los Angeles came together to get county residents to fork over $160 billion over 30 years in new sales taxes revenue for transportation investments. A sizeable chunk of that money goes to major transit capital projects, including new rail and bus rapid transit lines.
They successfully secured approval for these tax hikes with 2/3 voter support. But now transit ridership is plummeting in Los Angeles. It’s a nationwide phenomenon, but it’s particularly severe in L.A. While there a few ways to counter-act these trends, the most proven and sensible one is to boost transit-oriented development of all types.
Yet given recent public debate on SB 827, which would upzone residential areas within a few blocks of major transit stops, it’s clear that many of these advocates are not committed to the land use changes necessary to achieve this density. Despite SB 827’s promise to accomplish the very increase in residential density needed to support transit, they remain opposed.
So who are the culprits? Most prominently, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti (who championed the 2016 measure) still refuses to support SB 827, despite the recent amendments to address his legitimate displacement concerns. Instead, he stated concern for the area’s single-family homeowners, professing a desire to “protect” these mostly affluent residents from mid-rise apartment buildings near major transit.
And it gets worse. Move LA, the organization that has probably done the most to launch these voter sales tax measures, actually came out against the bill in a joint letter with various community groups. This opposition comes after their executive director Denny Zane already helped sink a major transit-oriented project near an Expo Line station that would have added more than 400 hundred badly needed homes in the area, including 50 affordable units. His main concern at the time was too much car traffic.
Even Sierra Club California used the fear of these land use changes in SB 827 as a reason not to support the measure. Specifically, the organization wants to see a new rail transit line in Sacramento, even though the line will be a massive money-loser without more density around the stations.
Based on these transit advocates’ arguments, it seems clear that many are only focused on one thing: building new transit lines. They don’t seem to care how cost-effective they are, and in many cases they actively don’t want to see much new development around the stations — especially not market-rate housing, and especially not in “quiet” affluent areas that are benefiting financially from these publicly funded investments.
So despite SB 827 being one of the most important pro-transit measures put forth by the legislature in recent years, some key transit advocates seem unlikely to join a coalition in support.
It’s a disheartening — though clarifying — turn of events. What it means is that the help to save transit agencies from plummeting ridership may not come from advocates for expanding new lines. It will instead come from those who favor more density of homes near transit in general, which is apparently a distinct cause for many in the “transit advocacy” community.
In the run-up to this November’s big ballot initiative in Los Angeles County to raise revenue for transit through a higher sales tax, the pro-transit nonprofit Move LA argues that improved connectivity will boost ridership:
The new measure could deliver the necessary votes because it more than quadruples the connectivity of the rail system: Before Measure R riders could transfer from one line to another at 7 stations in the system, but the new measure would build projects that increase the number of transfer points to 32, enabling people to get from one corner of the county to any other corner. This is the secret sauce that will make ridership grow!
It’s a relatively minor quibble, but the real secret sauce to boosting ridership is to build more homes and offices within walking distance of the transit stations. Certainly more connectivity and faster service helps. But in the meantime, the region has plenty of transit stations that are operating now that could be leveraged to boost ridership.
And if the measure passes, it would be helpful if transit leaders could offer some guarantee that new spending on transit lines will be conditioned on this supportive land use development. Otherwise, the region will be replicating a pattern of under-performance that is still a major challenge for ridership in the existing system.