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.
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.
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.
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.