Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Fixing Transit - Can We Do It?

In an interesting article series in the LA Times, reporter David Lazarus is reporting out on traffic conditions in Los Angeles and highlighting the angst of the commuters trying to negotiate the complex fragments of transit systems in the LA basin in order to get from one side of town to another. Well, you can't get there from here. While the article is based upon interviews, anecdotal experience and some good research, it amounts to a one-person poll with the standard suggestions that are made for all transit issues across the country. But it seems the Mayor wants "professional" advice from someone who is not involved with the transit network design, strategy or maintenance. This is astonishing because it takes a deep understanding of transit networks as well as urban form, and experience with the costs and efforts to keep transportation systems operational. I don't know if this means a complete loss of confidence in the MTA, pushback at LADOT, or if this is simply meant to be a PR exercise, but this seems to be shirking the actual transportation planning responsibility from the top.

There are urban transportation experts out there who understand the structure of transit networks, how the geography of a region is critical to successful transit strategies, and how all the forms of transit form a network of systems that have to be balanced. It's not about throwing various disconnected schemes at an existing dysfunctional urban form and transit network, it has to be about coming to grips with the fundamental geographic issues. One of these folks is Jarrett Walker, a transit planner who has studied many urban transit systems, including Los Angeles. He has a blog up, Human Transit, which is linked to just about every resource of consequence on this subject, including the article linked here which talks about how the form of the city is crucial, and mentions that LA is the extreme example of a sprawled out urban form to the point of dissolution.

However, there is an old backbone that is being built upon by the MTA's light rail system to a large extent, and that drove the development into the areas that we see as subregional centers today. That's the old Red Line system built by Henry Huntington to create land development opportunities all over the region. It followed geographies and linked inland areas to the beaches, and worked well until the population grew out of scale and the highway system replaced it with sprawl-generating freeways out to distant urban fringe areas that became the subdivisions.

In an article on the Transport Politic blog in October of 2008, Yonah Freeman lays out the overall political and funding transit situation in Los Angeles, and asks for voter approval of the County's Measure R, which would fund some of the necessary transportation system expansion. Measure R passed, and is now in the implementation phase. Again, not without significant controversy and required local review of CEQA.

The current transit snarl has created another agenda for development, as well. There's tremendous pressure by the Redevelopment agency in Los Angeles to create the public impression that redevelopment monies should be spent along transitways to take down historic neighborhoods and replace them with high density development. Los Angeles is one city that has a historic legacy along these transitways because of its growth along the old commuter lines. This is a legacy that should not be obliterated by new developments, but rather enhanced and preserved as distinct neighborhoods so that the transit system consists of destinations that people actually want to go to and live in.