Last night I presented on the Los Angeles Metro Rail history at UC Berkeley, and Dr. Martin Wachs provided his reaction. Dr. Wachs has had a distinguished and influential career as a transportation expert, having taught at both UCLA and UC Berkeley and worked for RAND for many years. But more than that, he was a big part of the actual history of Metro Rail, participating in policy discussions, hearings, lawsuits, and op-eds and other media in Los Angeles. So it was a treat for me to hear his take on the rail system, especially given the messy politics I describe in Railtown.
As a challenge to the audience, he asked us if we could answer the question of whether or not Metro Rail is a success or failure. To answer this question (or at least evaluate it), he offered some criteria, including the following: air quality, traffic congestion, economic development, and ridership.
On these four major criteria, which the politicians themselves used to sell the idea of rail to voters in the 1970s and 1980s, Metro Rail (according to Wachs) performs poorly. On air quality, innovations in pollution control and vehicle efficiency have done basically all of the work to clean L.A.’s air, not rail. On traffic congestion, it’s basically gotten worse, with a minor dip during this last recession; rail hasn’t taken cars off the road in any significant amount. On economic development, he pointed to the disappearance of major corporate headquarters from downtown L.A. and the fall in median income throughout Los Angeles. And on ridership, he noted that the Wilshire buses alone currently serve roughly two-thirds the ridership of the entire Metro Rail system, and for far cheaper.
To be sure, Wachs made it clear from the outset that he believes rail can be an appropriate transit technology in Los Angeles, and that in his own mind the question of success vs. failure is a subjective one, to which he doesn’t have an answer. However, the criteria and evidence he used to evaluate rail made it pretty clear that the system today is more failure than success. The real verdict, he said, will probably not come for decades, once the system is built out.
It’s hard to argue with this assessment. Metro Rail was clearly oversold, especially during the early years. Some of this may have been intentional, some of it may have been the product of naivete, given that nobody had yet built modern rail in Los Angeles, and some of it may just have been wishful thinking. But by the criteria the politicians used, Metro Rail has not yet been successful.
However, I’m not convinced that the present picture is as gloomy as Dr. Wachs presents it, and I am potentially more optimistic about its long-term prospects. On air quality, rail can play an important role in allowing more high-density living, which can slow the growth of vehicle miles traveled (already slowing nationwide, perhaps due to increased transit usage). Reducing vehicle miles traveled through more transit-oriented land use development is a critical strategy in the effort to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
On traffic, the political rhetoric at least has improved. Rail is now sold more as an alternative to traffic, not a cure for it. But more importantly, it’s a way to manage increasing population growth in our urban neighborhoods with additional capacity. As an analogy, it’s not like we have 100 freeway drivers, build rail, and now have 50 of those drivers taking rail and 50 drivers on a traffic-less freeway. Instead, we have 100 drivers today, with 50 more coming, so why not allow the new 50 people to live and work convenient to rail instead of driving all the time?
On economic development, rail has been a key investment to spur development in many urban areas of Los Angeles, from downtown to Hollywood to Long Beach. Politico describes this dynamic in downtown LA (with some quotes from me). So while corporations may be leaving downtown L.A., residents are moving in, which I think is a good thing for the economy. I’m also suspicious of median income figures. Los Angeles is a stratified place, with vast numbers of very poor people. They move to L.A. to begin their climb on the economic ladder. Median income statistics can be misleading in that respect.
On ridership, Dr. Wachs and I agree that the real verdict won’t come for decades. Why? Because Metro Rail still has not reached the areas of the city that it needs to in order to become a complete system. Santa Monica, Wilshire Boulevard, Crenshaw, the regional connector area, and West Hollywood all remain unserved by rail. But they will mostly get rail soon (if you define “soon” as before 2037), and the ridership numbers could increase dramatically as these neighborhoods come into the rail orbit.
Ultimately, Dr. Wachs offered a sobering look at the reality of rail in L.A. There is a lot at stake, and the system flirts with failure after decades and billions of dollars spent. But Angelenos have made their choice to pursue rail as the central (but not only) strategy to address the transportation and development challenges. It behooves us to help make sure the verdict, when it ultimately comes, is a good one.
For Los Angeles Metro Rail fans (or critics) in the Bay Area, or for those curious about the L.A. story, I’ll be speaking tonight on my book “Railtown” at the UC Berkeley Faculty Club. The talk will begin at 6pm, followed by a response by Dr. Martin Wachs. Wachs was himself involved in the history of rail, mostly as a critic of the effort to get Metro Rail built. I will be interested in hearing his response to the history. More information on the event can be found here.