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.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.