The Disconnect Between L.A. Rail Leaders and Academics

The old joke about transportation scholars is that their research can be summed up in four words: “Rail bad, bus good.”  In Los Angeles, especially during the early years of the effort to start a rail transit system, that joke certainly rang true.  Scholars at UCLA and USC campaigned against the idea of starting a rail system in Los Angeles, repeatedly arguing in public and to elected officials that rail was a waste of money, would not achieve the results that officials predicted, and was a bad idea compared to investments in buses, shuttles, jitneys and the like.

But elected leaders, and eventually most of the voting public, essentially ignored these pleas.  The experts involved were left to lick their wounds, or in the case of scholar Jonathan Richmond, devote almost an entire book trying to explain through psychology research why everyone was basically too dumb to understand the anti-rail argument.

Rail or bus -- guess which one the public likes more?

Rail or bus — guess which one the public likes more?

Dr. Wachs, one of the experts involved in the Los Angeles efforts, lamented this dynamic in his comments on Tuesday night. He was struck, in reviewing my book on the history of Metro Rail, at how little politicians seemed to pay attention to the experts.

Dr. Wachs is right, although admittedly my book may have overemphasized the role of politics in determining the system. Certainly planners and the experts who influenced them suggested and determined much of the system. But the big decisions on the system were left to politicians, who were typically more concerned with political factors, rivalries, and bringing home (or not bringing) services to their constituents, rather than listening to academics.

Assuming the experts had valuable insights to offer (and this was not always the case), this disconnect represented a lost opportunity.

So who is to blame? It’s easy to disparage elected officials for dismissing the experts and possibly catering to special interests, like labor unions, corporations, and construction firms, rather than prioritizing cost-effective solutions. But a lot of politicians truly wanted to do the right thing and believed rail was the right thing for Los Angeles. They acted accordingly, even if it meant disregarding scholars’ advice. And scholars have recently been more successful at recommending solutions, as the proliferation of bus-only lanes, bus rapid transit, and high occupancy toll lanes can attest. Ironically, the lack of immediate success of Metro Rail may have opened these opportunities up.

However, the academic community bears some responsibility for its lack of relevance in shaping at least the early Metro Rail debate. The general stance of anti-rail, pro-bus recommendations ignored an overarching political dynamic in Los Angeles: rail was politically popular, and buses simply were (and still are) not. Most people associate buses with crowded, dirty, unpleasant conditions, whereas rail is perceived as a pleasant and modern way to get around. Around the country, the effort to raise public money to develop new, comprehensive urban transit systems was always sold with rail. From BART to MARTA to Metro Rail, voters wanted a big vision to solve the big problems of traffic and sprawl. Recommending low-cost options like buses captured nobody’s imagination. So the academic recommendations were often politically infeasible and therefore largely irrelevant.

I don’t mean to suggest that academics should not have spoken their truths or censored their recommendations in some way. Society benefits from hearing alternative opinions, and academics have a role in challenging popular public perceptions and shifting public opinion.

But perhaps academics could have helped their cause by recognizing political realities and tailoring their recommendations accordingly. For example, if buses are a superior option, but the public reacts viscerally to the idea of a bus, why not emphasize the positive attributes of a bus vision that counters public misperceptions? Emphasize a clean, fast, reliable, and modern bus system as an antidote to the stereotype. To some extent, this happened with the San Fernando Valley bus rapid transit line, which officials smartly dubbed “rail on rubber tires” or “rail on wheels.” Academics could similarly package and develop their arguments to acknowledge these political realities.

Yes, academics are not politicians, and it’s the politicians’ job to do this packaging to some extent. But politicians also need to be persuaded, just like the public. Academics would therefore benefit from merging their “data” silo with the “political” silo. Really, not just academics would benefit, but the public would as well. Because the result would be a greater likelihood that elected leaders will make the best, most well-informed decisions on behalf of the region.


4 thoughts on “The Disconnect Between L.A. Rail Leaders and Academics

  1. I wonder if L.A. and other American cities have considered a system like the Transmelinio system in Bogota, Columbia ( ), which was featured in the documentary “Urbanized.” That system involved buses that were boarded from platforms, with bus doors that were more like NYC subway car doors. Passengers paid to get onto the platform, eliminating the pay as you board process which is always frustratingly slow and a for some reason a little bit degrading. When the bus arrived, the doors opened (like subway doors) allowing a hundred passengers to board within a minute.
    The best part of this system was that the city undertook to build/modify dedicated bus lanes. This meant that buses were exempted from traffic and stops (for the most part) and that the city was able to modify, abandon, or create new routes without huge infrastructure outlays.
    I don’t know if this system has ultimately been a success (though Urbanized certainly made it look fantastic), but it seems like a system like this could piggy back on the broad system of HOV lanes that are already in place on a significant number of California freeways. It also seems like a system like this could penetrate urban areas and some of the denser officer parks which exist in California cities with greater ease than trolley or light rail systems.
    I am curious as to your take on this type of system based on your comments in this post regarding the continued and now somewhat successful technical and academic pushing of bus systems into the political discourse.

  2. LA leaders certainly looked to Curitiba, Brazil’s BRT system for inspiration on the Orange Line. Curitiba’s BRT functions as you describe in Bogota. I think these South American examples have definitely inspired North American counterparts, although BRT has had a tough time gaining approval in places like Berkeley and Fresno. BRT on freeway lanes would be the way to go, but politically it would be challenging. Just getting HOV lanes established, let alone toll access, has been a decades-long fight in many places. Many are already at capacity.

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