By Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox, December 2, 2014
RETRO TRANSPO-Southern California
has long been a nurturer of dreams that, while widely anticipated, often
are never quite achieved. One particularly strong fantasy involves Los
Angeles abandoning what one enthusiast calls its “car habit” and
converting into an ever-denser, transit-oriented region.
An analysis of transit ridership,
however, shows that the region is essentially no better off than when
the modern period of transit funding began in 1980, with the passage of
Proposition A, which authorized a half-cent sales tax for transit. In
1980, approximately 5.9 percent of workers in the metropolitan area (Los
Angeles and Orange counties) used transit for their commute. The latest
data, for 2013, indicates the ridership figure has fallen to 5.8
Never ones to let facts get in the way of fantasy, some
retrourbanists and media types continue to insist our mass-transit
transition is well on its way. Liberal blogger Matt Yglesias, writing in
Slate, declared that Los Angeles is destined to become America’s “next
great transit city.”
This view is echoed throughout retrourbanist circles. “The City of
Angels is noticeably transforming. Our once car-centric town is becoming
less car-dependent,” suggests the local LA Streetsblog, “Public transit
is having a comeback. Pedestrian and bicycle infrastructures are
Instead of rushing to rail, Angelenos continue to rely on their cars
to get to work. From 1980-2013, the market share of drive-alone
commuters has risen from 70 percent to 74.1 percent. There has been an
increase in driving alone of approximately 1.4 million daily commuters.
Driving alone accounted for d approximately 85 percent of the region’s
increase in commuters.
Why do people stick to their cars? For one thing, transit takes
longer. The average drive-alone, one-way commute in Los Angeles was 27.0
minutes in 2013, compared with an average commute of 48.7 minutes for
The other big factor is accessibility to jobs. The University of
Minnesota Accessibility Observatory produced an estimate for the
percentage of jobs that the average L.A. resident could reach within 30
minutes by car. In Los Angeles, the average resident can reach 60 times
as many jobs in that time by car as by transit.
Transit needs downtowns-Transit plays an important
role in America, but mostly in the urban cores of a handful of “legacy”
cities. These core metros (excluding their often-sprawling, low-density
suburbs) – New York City, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington and
San Francisco – account for 55 percent of all transit-work trip
destinations, just 6 percent of the country’s employment.
legacy cities’ transit ridership is nearly 10 times their proportionate
combined share of jobs.
To a large extent, this reflects history and urban form. Transit
remains largely a matter of downtowns. The cities with transit legacies
have an average of 15 percent of their jobs downtown, three times the
average for other major metropolitan areas. In contrast, Downtown Los
Angeles has 2 percent of the metropolitan area’s jobs. In Orange County,
Riverside and San Bernardino counties, homes to much of the regional
population, there are really no substantial downtown areas.
In contrast, the many regions sharing LA’s multipolar form and large-scale transit investments – Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul and
Portland, Ore., – have seen their transit market shares stagnate or
decline, despite having built expensive rail systems.
One problem is, like virtually all U.S. metropolitan areas (including
the suburbs of legacy cities), the Los Angeles area, which pioneered
the multi-polar metropolis, has been becoming more so and is even moving
beyond polycentricity. The vast majority of growth in the statistical
area encompassing Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and
Ventura counties has taken place in precisely those areas – the Inland
Empire, South Orange County or the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys in
northern Los Angeles County – that also have the lowest transit
ridership. In contrast, the core’s growth barely represents a blip. From
2000-10, the functional urban core, which has the strongest
concentration of transit destinations, accounted for virtually none of
the region's growth.
Dreaming of New York? For many LA planners and urban
boosters, more transit – funded from Washington – often seems to
constitute an exercise of social engineering on a grand scale. The hope
is that, by pushing transit, particularly rail, we will recreate the
metropolis with ever-greater density.
“We are going to remake what the
city looks like,” then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told an approving New
York Times two years ago.
Despite the hoopla and the subsidization of downtown Los Angeles,
however, relatively few people work in, or even visit Downtown, except
for sporting or cultural events, although many pass by it on the
For most Angelenos, Downtown is simply not part of their day-to-day
experience the way, for example, Manhattan is for many New Yorkers, or
the Loop is for many residents of the Chicago region.
Transit Class Warfare-Developers and their planning
allies tend to focus on transit as something that will get middle-class
Angelenos out of their cars. But it’s difficult to see this working as
long as such an overwhelming majority of jobs (98 percent) are located
outside Downtown. Since 1980, driving alone, which was increasing its
market share, added 15 times as many new commuters as transit, with its
slipping market share.
At the same time, there seems to be a profound unawareness of the low
incomes of Los Angeles transit commuters. The latest American Community
Survey data (2013) indicates that the median earnings of transit
commuters at the national level is more than 85 percent higher than in Los Angeles. In the metropolitan areas around transit legacy cities, the median incomes of transit commuters is 150 percent higher than in Los Angeles.
To some extent, poorer Angelenos, in the government’s expensive shift
from buses to trains, are being sacrificed to satisfy the Utopian
vision of planners, pad the profits of big urban developers, and to
build the campaign war chests of the political class. Indeed, from
2008-12, the bus lines, which carry more than three times as many
passengers as trains, were cut 16 percent If LA is experiencing a
transit revolution, its most dependent riders have been largely left
So What Should Greater LA do? As anyone who drives
the freeways knows well, LA has a traffic problem. But Los Angeles also
has the shortest average commute time of any high-income world megacity
for which data is available, despite having the highest automobile
usage, the least transit and, except for New York, the lowest urban
The real question is, will more transit, at least in its current
form, offer the solution? Certainly, expanding and improving roads –
although politically incorrect – has helped make commuting easier for
many working in Orange County. Other ways to entice people off the
roads, such as telecommuting, should be encouraged. Since 1980, the
number of Los Angeles residents working at home has increased by
approximately 240,000. This increase – 2.5 times that of transit in
total numbers – has come at virtually no cost to taxpayers.
To be sure, many Angelenos, for one reason or another, need decent
transit services. Our approach would be for government to find out who
these people are, and look for ways to make transit work better for
them. Rather than invest huge dollars in rail megaprojects, perhaps we
could reduce bus fares, a strategy attributed to the legendary Los
Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn that increased bus ridership
dramatically from 1982-85.
Unlike today’s “progressives,” Hahn’s prime interest was serving his
largely working-class and poor constituents. Besides cutting bus fares
and increasingly service, other solutions, such as more competitively
contracted service provided by regional agencies, such as Foothill
Transit and the Antelope Valley Transit Authority, could provide
less-expensive, more efficient and expanded service.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, has also expressed interest in
promoting the use of rideshare services, like Uber or Lyft, and, more
importantly, self-driving cars.
Ultimately, rather than try to recreate New York, or undertake the
expensive and virtually impossible task of rebuilding Los Angeles in the
image of the latest urban planning fad, we should explore a host of
innovative solutions that will help transit riders here and now by
developing workable, and effective, ways to help them get to the
services and jobs they need.