The Expo Line, and five other reasons Los Angeles may finally shed its car-centric reputation

The LA Metro in action. Image: Getty.

Los Angeles, a city not particularly known for its mass transit, has been surprisingly active this year in opening new mass transit. Early in the year, the city opened an extension of a light rail line to its northeastern suburbs.

But this was quickly overshadowed by the extension of the Expo Line, opened in May, connecting the city’s centre with the beachside town and burgeoning tech centre and long-standing tourist trap of Santa Monica. LA’s mayor celebrated the occasion by riding the full length of the line and then posing for a photo op with a surfboard .

Nonetheless, old habits die hard, and it’s still very early to say that the city is ready to shake off its nearly century-old reputation of car mania. While the opening of the Expo Line may have drawn crowds, it’s hard to say how many of those people will translate into regular riders of the line. And low gas prices aren’t helping: while LA’s metro system showed steady gains in ridership up until 2015, it quickly declined after the global petroleum bubble burst that year.

The current network map. Click to expand. 

Despite all this, there are plenty of other indicators that suggest the city may – slowly – be ridding itself of its reputation as a place where the only way to get from point A to point B is behind the wheel. Here are a few:

The city’s “hidden” density

Want to guess how Los Angeles scores on the website walkscore.com – a site that, as you may have guessed, scores cities on how easy it is to walk places? It ranks 13th, out of the hundreds of US cities they rank.

That begs an important question: if so many cities are objectively worse for walking and non-car transportation, why does Los Angeles still have the reputation as being the absolute worst of the worst in terms of getting around without a car?

To answer this, we need a short history lesson. Though surprisingly few people know this, LA’s original development was based on streetcars and commuter trains (a fact which I have plenty to say about in a recent CityMetric podcast). At one point, the future car capital of the world had one of the world’s longest urban rail networks.


This pattern of growth was later dwarfed by the massive sprawl that was created in the 1940s and 1950s. The denser areas of the city remained, but were left to languish. On paper, LA still looked fairly accessible on foot; in practice, all the desirable places to be in the city were inaccessible 

But those dense areas – places like Westlake, Koreatown, Pico Union, and West Adams – are still there. In fact, their density is already supporting high transit ridership, in the form of buses, used by over 1m riders per day. It’s just that, since people in these areas tend to be economically disadvantaged – and are rarely in touch with tastemakers in the film industry or the media – no one pays much attention to them.

Of course, buses are slow, and in some cases, unreliable. Newer rail lines have a high potential to attract ridership due to the existence of dense neighbourhoods the city’s more well off tend to forget about. If they can abandon the current hub-and-spoke pattern that LA Metro has built centring on downtown LA, and adopt a more grid-like structure, all the better.

This could, of course, raise sticky issues of gentrification. But, as far as making the city more accessible without a car, these dense areas would give new rail lines plenty of immediate impact.

House prices

Housing is a nasty affair in pretty much all of the world’s  major cities – but in Los Angeles, it’s a unique kind of nastiness. LA holds the distinction of being the only city in the US – anywhere – that is both suburban and unaffordable.

The reasons for this are complicated. Mostly, though, they come down to aging NIMBYs who see any building over three floors as salacious hotbeds of vice that will just “ruin the character of our neighbourhoods”. It’s gotten to the point where a 22-story condo building on Sunset Boulevard is currently sitting empty because homeowners with deep pockets bombarded the building’s owners with lawsuits.

But it’s possible that LA has reached a turning point in how it addresses housing issues. Whereas people in the city used to look outward for cheap housing, demand is slowly building for housing in areas closer to the centre of town. This process is slow going, but it does point towards a denser layout for the city – one which favours transit, walking, and other ways of getting around that don’t involve cars.

Uber

For all its flaws – blatant disrespect for legitimate safety codes,  a management team that puts Gordon Gekko to shame, and so on – Uber has provided a transportation option with the potential to radically change how people get around.

This might not be obvious to people living in cities like London or New York, where conventional taxis were always plentiful. But in lower density cities, the ability to quickly call a cab from a cell phone app drastically reduces wait times, and thus the viability of being able to leave home and come back without your own car.

Many LA metro lines parallel the city's freeways. Image: Getty.

Services like Uber are still new, and it’s hard to say what long term effects they will have on mobility patterns in the city. But there’s a consensus that these services can help to fill the still massive gaps in the city’s transit system. The New York Times (whose attitude toward LA is legendary among locals) mused that Uber might finally end the reign of the private car in the city. And LA’s metro is embracing the service, offering discounts to people who use it to get from one of their stations to where they live.

Bikes

Bike enthusiasts have been trying to build bike friendly infrastructure in LA for decades, and so far, it’s has been slow going. But over the past few years, the city and many other cities nearby have made serious efforts to make biking a practical way to get around.

LA proper has announced 300 miles of new protected bike lanes. Santa Monica, the terminus of the new train line, recently opened a bike share program. True, biking alone may not be workable for many people in such a large city. But they may offer a promising option for certain commuters when used with transit.

People really hate commuting by car

It’s true that many in LA love their cars. But they also hate car commuting. Road traffic is notoriously bad, and it’s only getting worse – a recent study estimates that commuters in LA waste 81 hours per year stuck in traffic. Sure, any other form of transportation will have to win over the confidence of new users before they give up their cars. But countless hours stuck on the freeway may just be enough incentive to push Angelenos toward a different way of getting around.

You can hear Drew talk about LA on this episode of the CityMetric podcast.

 
 
 
 

Seville has built its entire public transport system in 10 years. How has it done?

Just another sunny day in Seville. Image: Claude Lynch.

Seville, the fourth largest urban centre in Spain, was recently voted Lonely Planet’s number one city to visit in 2018. The award made a point of mentioning Seville’s impressive network of bicycles and trams, but it neglected to mention that it’s actually their ten year anniversary. The city’s metro opened just two years later.

This makes now an excellent time to look back on Seville’s public transport network – especially because almost all of it was completed in the middle of the global financial crisis. So, is it a good model for modern public transport? Let’s find out.

Cycle Hire

Seville, like any good metropolis, features a cycle hire scheme: Sevici, which is a clever portmanteau of the words ‘Seville’ and ‘bici’, short for bicicleta, the Spanish for, you guessed it, bicycle.

The service, launched in 2007, is run as a public-private partnership. Users can pay a flat weekly fee of €13.33 (£11.81) for unlimited rentals, as long as all the journeys last 30 minutes or less. For the fanatics, there’s a year-long subscription for €33. This makes Sevici cheaper than the London equivalent (£90) but slightly more than that of Paris (€29).

However, the reason why the bike hire scheme has gained particular praise in recent years is down to Seville’s network of cycle paths, snaking around the town centre and into the suburbs. The sheer scale of the scheme, 75 miles of track in total, has prompted comparisons to Amsterdam.

But there is a meaningful distinction between the two cases. First, cycling culture is such a big deal for the Amsterdammers that it has its own Wikipedia page. In Seville, cycling culture is a growing trend, but one that faces an uphill struggle, despite the city’s flatness. Around half of the cycle paths are on a pavement shared by pedestrians; pedestrians often ignore that the space is designed specifically for cycles.

A Sevici station in the town centre. Image: Claude Lynch.

Surprisingly, cyclists will also find exactly the opposite problem: the fact that bicycles enjoy the privilege of so many segregated spaces mean that, if they dare enter the road, motorists are not obliged to show them the same level of respect – because why would they need to enter the road in the first place?

This problem is only compounded by the Mediterranean driving style, one that takes a more cavalier attitude to objects in the road than that of the northern Europeans. While none of this makes cycling in Seville a write-off – it remains the cycling capital of Spain – budding tourists should bear in mind that the cycle paths do not extend far into the old town proper, making them a utility, for the most part, for budding commuters.

Metro

The metro system in Seville consists of a single metro line that travels from Ciudad Expo in the west to Olivar de Quintos in the east. It has three zones, which create a simple and straightforward fare system, based on the number of journeys and number of “saltos” (jumps) between zones, and nothing more.

The need-to-know for tourists, however, is that only three of the metro stations realistically serve areas with attractions: Plaza de Cuba, Puerta de Jerez, and Prado de San Sebastian. Given that a walk between these is only a few minutes slower than by metro, it shows the metro service for what it is: a service for commuters coming from the west or east of town into the city centre.

Some of the behaviour on the network is worth noting, too. Manspreading is still dangerously common. There are no signs telling you to “stand on the right”, so people queue in a huff instead. Additionally, there is no etiquette when it comes to letting passengers debark before you get on, which makes things precarious in rush hour – or if you dare bring your bike on with you.

On the plus side, that’s something you can do; all trains have spaces reserved for bikes and prams (and they’re far more sophisticated than the kind you see on London buses). Trains are also now fitted with USB charging ports for your phone. This comes in addition to platform edge doors, total wheelchair access, and smart cards as standard. Snazzy, then – but still not much good for tourists.

Platform edge doors at Puerta Jerez. Image: Claude Lynch.

The original plan for Seville’s metro, launched in the 70s, would have had far more stations running through the city centre; it’s just that the ambitious plans were never launched, due in equal measure to a series of sinkholes and financial crises. The same kind of problems led to Seville’s metro network being opened far behind schedule, with expansion far down the list of priorities.

Still, the project, for which Sevillanos waited 40 years, is impressive – but it doesn’t feel like the best way to cater to an east-west slice of Seville’s comparatively small urban population of 1m. Tyne and Wear, one of the few British cities comparable in terms terms of size and ambition, used former railways lines for much of its metro network, and gets far more users as a result. Seville doesn’t have that luxury; or where it does, it refuses to use it in tandem.

You only need to look east, to Valencia, to see a much larger metro in practice; indeed, perhaps Seville’s metro wouldn’t look much different today if it had started at the same time as Valencia, like they wanted to. As a result, Seville´s metro ends up on the smaller side, outclassed on this fantastic list by the likes of Warsaw, Nizhny Novgorod, and, inexplicably, Pyongyang.

Seville: a less impressive metro than Pyongyang. Intriguing. Image: Neil Freeman.

Tramway

The tram travels from the high rise suburb-cum-transport hub of San Bernardo to the Plaza Nueva, in the south of the Seville’s old town. This route runs through a further metro station and narrowly avoids a third before snaking up past the Cathedral.

This seems like a nice idea in principle, but the problem is that it’s only really functional for tourists, as tram services are rare and slow to a crawl into the town centre, anticipating pedestrians, single tracks, and other obstacles (such as horse-drawn carriages; seriously). While it benefits from segregated lanes for most of the route, it lacks the raison d'être of the metro due to the fact that it only has a meagre 2km of track.

The tram travelling down a pedestrianised street with a bicycle path to the right. Image: Claude Lynch.

However, staring at a map long enough offers signs as to why the tram exists as it does. There’s no history of trams in Seville; the tracks were dug specifically for the new line. A little digging reveals that it’s again tied into the first plans for Seville’s metro, which aspired to run through the old town. Part of the reason the scheme was shelved was the immense cost brought about by having to dig through centuries-old foundations.

The solution, then, was to avoid digging altogether. However, because this means the tram is just doing the job the metro couldn’t be bothered to do, it makes it a far less useful service; one that could easily be replaced by a greater number of bike locks and, maybe, just maybe, additional horses.


So what has changed since Seville’s transport revolution?

For one thing, traffic from motor vehicles in Seville peaked in 2007 and has decreased every year since, at least until 2016. What is more promising is that the areas with the best public transport coverage have seen continued decreases in traffic on their roads, which implies that something is working.

Seville’s public transport network is less than 15 years old. The fact that the network was built from scratch, in a city with no heritage of cycling, tunnels, or tramways, meant that it could (or rather, had to) be built to spec. This is where comparisons to Amsterdam, Tyne and Wear, or any other city realistically fall out of favour; the case of Seville is special, because it’s all absolutely brand new.

As a result, it’s not unbecoming to claim that each mode of transport was built with a specific purpose. The metro, designed for the commuter; the tramway, for tourists; and cycling, a mix of the two. In a city with neither a cultural nor a physical precedent of any kind for such radical urban transportation, the outcome was surprisingly positive – the rarely realised “build it, and they will come”.

However, it bears mentioning that the ambitious nature of all three schemes has led to scaling back and curtailment in the wake of the economic crisis. This bodes poorly for the future, given that the Sevici bikes are already nearing the end of their lifetime, the cycle lanes are rapidly losing sheen, and upgrades to the tramway are downright necessary to spare it from obsolescence.

The conclusion we can draw from all this, then, appears to be a double-edged one. Ambition is not necessarily limited by a lack of resources, as alternatives may well present themselves. And yet, as is so often the case, when the money stops, so do the tracks.

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