By Jim Smith, September 20, 2013
GETTING THERE FROM HERE - From the mountains to the sea, nearly all transit routes lead to downtown Los Angeles. This includes subways, light rail and many bus lines. Now comes a new streetcar which will be located, you guessed it, in downtown L.A. Yet, in Los Angeles County, downtown is of less importance, economically and as a major worksite, than in most other major metropolitan areas. However, planners and politicians at the MTA tend to orbit around the same small area of skyscrapers known as Los Angeles. The MTA headquarters is downtown. Both city and county officials meet and have their main offices downtown.
But for most of us peons, downtown is a faraway and forbidding citadel. According to a U.S. Dept. of Transportation survey, the average car trip length is 5.95 miles and 70 percent of all trips are for household purposes such as shopping, dining and other predominately local activities. Yet our transportation geniuses want to channel us into downtown LA. Because of this strategy, most people don't have good alternatives to continued private auto use in their local area.
The system today which makes us go through downtown LA is very different from the old Pacific Electric Red Car lines. In the early days of the 20th Century it was possible to go from Santa Monica to Long Beach in a more or less direct line. Today, one must go to downtown LA and then take the Blue Line to Long Beach. A day at the beach, any beach, could be enjoyed by almost everyone via the Red Car. Multiple lines meant that short trips to the grocery store, local movie theater and restaurant could be enjoyed without having a car.
In recent years, intra-community transportation, as opposed to inter-community transit (via downtown) has been neglected except for random bike lanes or sharrows. Bus service still doesn't serve the needs of most residents, according to the Bus Riders Union. Some of the more successful bus lines are run not by MTA, but by independent cities such as Santa Monica with its Big Blue Buses.
How can we create non-automobile transportation that does serve our need to get around our community? Only by studying what those needs are and raising a stink with the downtown crowd that now decides where and when the next transit project will be built. Let's start a transportation revolution in Southern California.
My community, Venice, is typical of the lack of transit options available in the greater Los Angeles area. Here are some suggestions that might work in Venice, as well as other communities:
The recent successful fight against pay parking in Venice brought to the fore the problem of too many cars in Venice. Not only are there more than 21,000 vehicles in zip 90291, there are many thousands more parked here by beachgoers and Abbot Kinney Blvd. thrill seekers. Clearly, our beautiful coastal zone is overrun by cars, pollution, asphalt and related auto detritus.
Instead of going to war with each other over permit parking, let’s find another way to solve this problem. How about reducing the need for cars by demanding at least the level of public transportation we had 100 years ago. At that time, the Red Car trolley system went everywhere. Most of the thousands of beachgoers rode to Venice on these fast, cheap and convenient rail lines.
Since the city of Los Angeles took over Venice in 1925, it has been nearly impossible to secure improvements, or even preserve the meager public services that we have.
We should start a discussion among Venetians about what we want and need, and when consensus is reached, take our demands downtown. Venice attracts people from around the world who spend money in our little community, much of which is gobbled up by our overlords in city hall. Some of that revenue should come back to Venice, or L.A. should let us go our own way as an independent city.
Here are some of the transportation improvements I believe are needed to reduce the number of vehicles in our town and improve our quality of life.
1. Extension of the Expo Line down Venice Blvd. to the beach. This was the route of the old Red Cars. That’s why Venice Blvd. is so wide. It wouldn’t take much money to lay tracks down the middle of the street, yet the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is not even talking about it.
2. Build a streetcar down Pacific Avenue from the Ballona Channel to the Santa Monica border. The streetcar would serve the purpose of distributing beachgoers up and down our beautiful Venice beaches. There should be no fare charged to ride the streetcar. New streetcars in many other cities are free to ride. A streetcar shares the road with cars, making installation cheaper than light rail or subways.
The always downtown-centric Los Angeles City Council is supporting a streetcar in hopes of revitalizing the city center. Yet, it would only carry 5,000 to 13,000 riders a day, at best. Compare that with the enormous crowds in Venice that would love to hop on a tram. By the way, when I arrived in Venice in 1968, there was a motorized, wheeled tram that ran up and down Ocean Front Walk. That’s no longer possible due to the crowds on the Boardwalk, but the need continues, especially for families and seniors.
The cost of a streetcar could be shared with Santa Monica, if that city decided to continue it north from Venice along Neilson Way to the Pier and the Promenade. The streetcar would make it feasible for beachgoers to park their cars in the large beach lots in Ocean Park and spend the day in any part of Venice’s beaches.
3. Expand the number of bike lanes and make them safe by separating (buffering) them from cars. Legalize bike-pedaled jitneys or pedi-cabs. I’ve previously written about London-style double-decked shuttles to help residents and visitors get around Venice without a car (Click here, see page 7). Make Venice a true walking city by repairing and widening sidewalks.
4. Establish a congestion fee for cut-through traffic. In the last few years, the amount of traffic on Lincoln, Abbot Kinney, Pacific, Main, Venice, Washington and neighborhood streets has vastly increased. Much of this traffic is made up of people who have no intention of taking part in coastal recreational activities. They are simply going from one place to another, and Venice is in their way.
A number of cities, beginning with London, have established a congestion fee to drastically cut down on traffic. It can be argued that Venice, and indeed, the entire coastal zone should be a natural preserve, and not a quick drive home. A fee could be charged for each car cutting through the Venice coastal zone. If a car enters and leaves the coastal zone in less than 30 minutes then it is fair to assume that the driver is not here for recreational purposes. If the car is in the zone for more than 30 minutes, no fee would be charged.
If the experience of other cities applies then we would see an immediate and drastic reduction in the amount of cut-through traffic. Once again, a restored city of Venice would likely be necessary to have the political clout to pull this off.
Up until now, the LA City Council and the MTA have been much more interested in providing transportation to pull people into downtown Los Angeles by creating big projects (like the solid-gold subway) which reward their development friends with lucrative contracts.
Mike Bonin, the newly elected City Councilmember for District 11, which includes Venice, has been appointed as the Chair of the Council’s Transportation Committee. He should be approached to help us find ways to improve non-auto transpiration within our community. Most of Venetians’ trips are around Venice, except for the small minority who work in downtown Los Angeles. We need all the help we can get to develop environmentally-friendly local transportation that will benefit most of us in our daily rounds.
Venice was created at a time when the car was not yet king. Anyone familiar with our street pattern knows it is not made for automobile convenience. If we can once again dethrone the automobile, we can turn parking lots into community parks, vegetable gardens, kids' playgrounds and other non-polluting uses that will increase our quality of life. And, isn’t that what it’s all about?