It's hard to tear Los Angeles residents from their cars. But a massive subway-building binge is changing the equation.
By Neal Ungerleider, October 31, 2014
Driving around Santa Monica, the epicenter of Los Angeles’ booming
“Silicon Beach” tech neighborhood, you’ll encounter the most Los Angeles
of events--a traffic jam. In this case, it's heavy construction equipment blocking a street where they're putting the final touches on a new subway line. LA Metro,
the biggest transit agency in Southern California, is on a
subway-building binge and adding five new subway extensions--several of
which will be open to the public before New York’s decades-awaited
Second Avenue Subway begins operations (even if much of the construction
has been over budget and delayed).
In the heart of American car culture,
L.A.'s urban planners are trying to convince commuters to ditch their
cars and take public transit. For tech and creative workers, it will be a
particular challenge. Unlike in New York or the San Francisco Bay Area,
techies generally don’t take public transit to work. Even the Google
bus phenomenon--the private transport system for Silicon Valley tech
companies--is non-existent in Southern California.
And this has had big impacts on the nascent industry's culture.
companies are scattered over a wide metropolitan area with multiple
hubs. Some companies congregate in Santa Monica’s “Silicon Beach” while
others cluster in Downtown Los Angeles, the office parks of Playa del
Rey, or in suburbs like Pasadena or El Segundo. And there’s no financial
incentive to running shuttles for employees: There simply aren’t any
neighborhoods full of Mission District or Noe Valley-like commuter
I moved to Los Angeles from New York in March 2014 and, although I
own a car, I regularly commute by subway--my home in the formerly
battered by the flight of commercial tenants but currently rapidly
gentrifying neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles is at the hub of the
region’s rail system. But many fellow white collar professionals (Los
Angeles, sadly, self-segregates across economic classes more than almost
any other American city) are bemused when I tell them I regularly ride
the Los Angeles subway. It’s almost like you’ve announced you work as an
alpaca farmer; in other words, no social stigma but unusual enough to
be a point of interest at parties. The fact is that poor and working
class Angelenos and middle and upper class Angelenos inhabit different
worlds, and public transit doesn't cut across classes the way San
Francisco’s Muni or New York’s subway system does.
According to estimates by the American Community Survey, the median earnings of Los Angeles public transit riders are only 54.7% that of the public as large.
But in Cambridge, Massachusetts, public transit commuters earn 110.5%
more than the public at large; in New York, MTA commuters come in at a
respectable 96%. As subways prepare to weave their way underneath the
office towers of Wilshire Boulevard and a mass transit terminal is built
blocks from Santa Monica’s iconic amusement pier, urban planners are
trying to learn how to teach Angelenos how to love mass transit.
The construction of these new subway lines is subtly changing Los Angeles commute patterns. Jerome Chang, the founder of coworking space chain Blankspaces,
is one of these new public transit commuters. From his home in Redondo
Beach, Chang regularly takes an existing subway line to an express bus
when working at his downtown Los Angeles office. According to Chang, the
60-75 minute commute (versus a 45 minute drive) is better because it
allows him to catch up on work emails and news along the way. It’s also
significantly cheaper, at $7 for a round trip versus $25 once he pays
for downtown parking and tolls to use high-speed lanes on the highway.
He says many of his friends and colleagues are surprised by the idea
of people taking public transit to work. By email, Chang added that
“they don't even think the Metro stretched to outside the city, or
basically anywhere they might want to go to.” But when he commutes to
Blankspaces’ other two locations, in currently subway-less Santa Monica
and the mid-Wilshire neighborhood, he drives because it is much faster
and cheaper. Both neighborhoods are on the list for Los Angeles subway
expansion; Santa Monica is expected to see stations open in early 2016
while mid-Wilshire is set for 2023.
Another commuter, Kara Barlow of startup NationBuilder who lives in
the suburb of Valley Village and works in downtown Los Angeles, takes
the existing Red Line subway to work. The 40-minute trip consists of
driving five minutes from her house to the parking lot at the subway
terminus at North Hollywood (which costs $60 for a monthly permit), and
then riding the Red Line for approximately 24 minutes. She prefers the
subway to the alternative, the crowded 101 freeway, because it gives her
time to read books. “There’s a perception in Los Angeles that public
transit isn’t as good as it actually is,” Barlow told Fast Company. But similarly to Chang, commuting from her part of town also has logistical challenges: The Los Angeles MTA told the L.A. Times that the North Hollywood metro stop loses almost 1,500 passengers daily because there isn’t enough parking to meet demand.
Key neighborhoods, cities, and institutions such as downtown Los
Angeles (which is recovering from decades of flight from commercial
tenants to more auto-centric neighborhoods and is currently in the midst
of aggressive gentrification), Hollywood, the University of Southern
California, Koreatown, Pasadena, and Culver City are linked to the
city’s subway system. But many more neighborhoods that are home to high-tech and creative businesses like Santa Monica, Venice Beach, El Segundo, West Hollywood, Westwood, mid-Wilshire, and Century City aren’t.
Urban planning aficionados will understand Los Angeles’ quandary. The
city lacks a single, centralized business district akin to New York or
San Francisco, with businesses instead located around a series of
medium-sized nodes scattered across a metropolitan area. While Los
Angeles already has a robust subway and light rail system consisting of
seven different lines… everything’s just too scattered.
These projects also require substantial engineering ninjitsu--even more than a conventional subway-building product
would require. Earthquake-proofing subway tunnels and elevated railways
aren’t the only challenges Los Angeles engineers face. Just to give one
example, the expansion of the Purple Line from Koreatown to a new terminal nine miles away near UCLA required digging under the La Brea tar pits (which unearthed a treasure trove of fossils) and contending with both wealthy anti-subway activists in Beverly Hills and avoiding the still functioning oil well located on the Beverly Hills High School campus.
Re/Code ran an extensive article on Los Angeles’ tech community, they noted something important: Despite being one of the nation’s largest high-tech clusters,
Los Angeles lacks neighborhoods or even individual coffee shops or
restaurants that serve as industry meeting places similar to Sand Hill
Road in Silicon Valley or San Francisco’s 21st Amendment Brewery. The notoriously decentralized high-tech world in Los Angeles means a lack of common spaces where coders from small startups, rocket scientists from the Jet Propulsion Lab, DIY YouTube video makers, Oculus Rift-centric virtual reality geeks, imagineers from Disney, and ex-Myspace venture capitalists can intersect.
The expansion of Los Angeles’ subway system means more than just the
dubious opportunity for engineers to review code while riding to work or
busy advertising executives to catch up on their inbox. It also offers a chance for the region’s high tech-centric firms
to attain what they’ve previously lacked: cross-fertilization between
companies and across industries. By expanding the subway system, Los
Angeles urban planners are facilitating the easy travel between business meetings that's commonplace in New York, London, and San Francisco.
While venues such as 41 Ocean, the West Hollywood branch of Soho House and the various branches of The Standard hotel have been buttressing up high-end industry events, and organizations like General Assembly
have done much to spur cross-fertilization among tech companies, the
region still lacks those common places. A startup executive working in
Santa Monica would have to spend at least 45 minutes driving to a demo
happy hour in an Arts District warehouse space--and that’s before
looking for parking. Among other things, the Los Angeles subway
expansion will connect most of the area’s major tech nodes with each
In the end, the challenge is teaching Angelenos to enjoy and use
public transit. For Los Angeles Metro, they might have to resort to a
novel solution: telling commuters that, for once in a car city, they can
use their iPhones and Kindles on the way to work.