Culver City Cluster

The intersection of Venice & Robertson near the Culver City Expo Line stop holds a special place in many pedestrians’ hearts, but not in a good way. It dwells in that special place where existential fears reside – will I survive crossing 8 lanes of Venice Blvd and a the goofy one-way pair that is Robertson, full of impatient drivers trying to get to the 10?

There is no love for this intersection among drivers either, as it is reliably snarled for much of the day, causing major delays to Metro bus routes 33 and 733. The exhaust of so many idling cars doesn’t lend much to the ambience of the Venice Blvd bike lanes either. It’s pretty much an unmitigated multi-modal disaster. With Expo Line construction complete, we are at least done with lane closures and pedestrian detours, but that’s not saying much, especially since the final configuration still has no crosswalk on the west side of Robertson.

To see why this area is such a mess, let’s zoom out a little and look at the arterial grid in the region.

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In addition to the oddly-configured interchange with the 10, arterial roads around downtown Culver City are very disjointed, with Venice being the only continuous one. Culver ends at Venice. Washington is interrupted in a way that forces travel on Culver. Robertson, for all purposes, ends at Washington, because traffic controls on Higuera St make it impossible to link Robertson, Higuera, and Rodeo as a continuous arterial. National and Hughes/Duquesne are only one lane each way, reducing their utility as routes around Venice/Robertson. The result is that traffic is funneled to Venice/Robertson, creating misery for everyone involved (except Expo Line riders sailing overhead).

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What could be done?

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The most ambitious plan (which many readers aren’t going to like) would be an underpass from Culver to Robertson and reconfiguring the offramp from the 10 eastbound. This would require tunneling under Venice, the shopping center, and a retained fill section on the Expo Line. It would create a continuous arterial out of Culver & Robertson, and remove this traffic from the existing Venice/Robertson intersection. It would also turn the intersection into a conventional four-legged junction. The carrot to this stick would be crosswalks on all four sides of Venice/Robertson with lower traffic volumes, and, by virtue of removing the worst bottleneck on Venice, a center running BRT on Venice from Crenshaw Blvd to the Pacific Ocean. I don’t have time to properly CAD this up at the moment, but here, have a crappy MS Paint rendering.

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A less ambitious plan would be to eliminate Culver Blvd between Washington and Venice, reconfigure downtown Culver City to make Washington continuous, and still reconfigure the offramp from the 10 eastbound. This would still reduce the traffic volume on Venice, and reduce left-turn volumes from Venice eastbound to Robertson northbound by forcing Culver/Washington traffic to turn at Washington/Robertson instead.

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There are probably other options too. The absence of the crosswalk at Venice/Robertson is really inexcusable in any case, and that at least should be fixed immediately.

Zoning, Building Codes, & Cheap Housing

Over at Market Urbanism, Emily Washington writes about the need for low quality housing, attributing some of the high cost of housing in US cities to building codes that increase construction costs. Some provisions of building codes were encouraged by social reformers and reflect middle-class standards and expectations, rather than necessities of health and safety.

Over at Rooflines, Jamaal Green responds that there is no shortage of low quality housing in the US. Anyone with a cursory familiarity with the lower end of the US housing market can vouch for the fact that there are many dwellings out there, in cheap cities and expensive ones alike, that are very low quality in their ability to provide shelter, keep out pests, supply functioning water and sewer connections, and so on.

Part of the issue here is that quality can be used to convey a wide variety of characteristics. Something can be low quality in the sense that it is hazardous to human health and safety, or something can be low quality in the sense that, while functional, it doesn’t meet the aesthetic preferences of the neighbors.

As Paul Groth details in Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States, it is clear that many zoning and building code provisions reflect the middle-class sensibilities of Progressive Era reformers. In particular, living arrangements that were not centered on family life, such as residential hotels and rooming houses, were nearly driven out of existence. Unlike the lower end single-room cubicles of Groth and the doss houses of Jacob Riis, this was not due to public health, but to the perceived impact on social relations of residents. Turn of the century hotels and rooming houses made it possible for women to live alone and for both men and women to engage in intimate relationships, straight or gay, outside of marriage, behavior which was viewed as deviant by many reformers of the time.

It’s reasonable to think that building codes have an impact on the cost of construction. An 1870 pre-law tenement was basically a shell – no electricity, no gas, no running water, no indoor plumbing, no insulation. You could build a tenement pretty cheaply today, if you wanted to. However, code requirements have been phased in over time, and technology drives down the cost of construction. The cheapest new single-family construction today is nearly the same cost per square foot as a Levitt house, but the former is a much higher quality product.

It’s also beyond a doubt that tenements were terrible places to live. The most basic requirements – city water to each unit, indoor plumbing and city sewer service, gas and electricity – are requirements for survival and public health. The oral histories at New York’s Tenement Museum and of the Lower East Side represent people who lived in tenements after these basic amenities had been forced upon landlords by building codes. However, by 1932, Harry Shulman would write in Slums of New York that some tenement owners were making improvements of their own accord, because transportation improvements like the subway had made it possible for renters to find newer, better housing in other parts of the city.

This last bit is perhaps a clue into our situation today. There is lots of low quality housing in the US, but virtually none of it is newly built like the new law tenements were. I’m not sure about this, but the distinction between what can be constructed new and what has filtered down from old construction may be important. (Good transportation to places where new affordable housing has been built is also important, but not central to this discussion.)

The breakeven price for new, code-compliant construction sets an upper bound on what rents can be charged for older construction. If there is abundant new construction, rents for units in new buildings will be driven down to the breakeven price. Would that reduce the portion of the population subject to living in substandard conditions? If you can rent in a new building for the same price, your landlord can’t coerce you into accepting deficient conditions.

There should also be a breakeven price for maintaining old buildings; below that level (and perhaps above sometimes) landlords let the properties deteriorate and rent to progressively poorer tenants, until selling the building.

Zoning and building codes should both make the new construction breakeven price higher. In expensive coastal cities in the US, zoning is likely the largest contributor to high prices, simply by restricting the number of units that can be constructed on a property. If zoning is not constraining, the building code will still have an effect. I am no expert in building codes but others, such as Mark Hogan, have noted that multi-family construction costs in some places are quite high. There are probably improvements to the building code that could be made to help reduce costs. For example, a guest author on this blog once explained the impact of LA’s building code on high-ride construction costs.

For the breakeven price for old buildings, zoning and building codes should again both have an effect. Older buildings might be able to generate self-sustaining rents if allowed to be converted to smaller units, such as rooming houses. It might be less costly to comply with better building codes, reducing the breakeven price. Many code officials can tell you stories about having to order the demolition of well-constructed but unpermitted units for non-compliance, turning the occupants out onto the streets.

Zoning codes are probably the larger factor in housing costs. However, while we shouldn’t change any building code requirements that truly affect health and safety, it’s still worth seeing what can be done on that side as well. Though never eliminating the need for good code enforcement, relaxed zoning and better building codes should lower the price of new construction, making it harder for owners of old buildings to pressure tenants into accepting unsafe conditions.

Can the Middle Class Afford Cars?

Via The Taupe Avenger, The Truth About Cars wonders if middle-class families can’t afford new cars anymore. (Warning: the author of that piece strongly insinuates the problems are Obamacare and immigrants. Which, no.)

The math is pretty simple. Median household income in the US is about $53,700; thanks to wage stagnation and the Great Recession, this is barely above where it was in 1989. The article uses a new Toyota Camry LE, which costs $23,905. According to Autotrader, in 1989 the basic 4-door automatic model Toyota Camry had a list of price of $12,158… which, in 2016 dollars, is $23,248. The basic 2016 Honda Civic starts at $18,640, while the 1989 model was $10,090 or $19,290 in 2016 dollars.

Note that the 2016 Camry and Civic are better cars the 1989 models. They are safer and more fuel efficient. So even if it feels like the middle class can’t afford new cars, it seems like that’s not actually the case. Incomes haven’t gone up very much, but the real price of a basic new car hasn’t gone up very much either.

Leave aside that this rough analysis is based on median incomes, which ignores changes in income distribution that would make new cars affordable to a smaller number of people. (If the middle class shrinks while the high-income and low-income classes grow, the median will stay the same but a larger number of people will be unable to afford a new car.) What’s going on here?

My guess is that people feel poorer because of the Big 3 items whose real costs really have increased greatly since the 1980s – housing, health care, and education. And in fact, the article unwittingly suggests this is true.

First, the mortgage payment that the hypothetical family is making is given as $2,100/month. With 10% down at current interest rates, that’s nearly a $400,000 house. As of February 2016, the median new home price in the US is just over $300,000. In 1989 it was about $120,000, or $230,000 in 2016 dollars. So while new car prices and real wages have more or less stayed the same, new home prices have gone up by about 30%. Suffice to say that if you live in some of the most populous parts of the country, it’s considerably worse than that.

We could say the same for health care – the article complains about Obamacare but of course the real problem is that health care costs in the US have grown faster than wages and inflation, and faster than the rest of the world, for decades. Likewise for education.

The increase in cost of housing, health care, and education probably explains most of the squeeze put on ordinary Americans over the last 25 years. Sometimes people realize this; sometimes they focus on the cost of something else like cars or gas. Unfortunately, even when people realize the costs of the Big 3 are the issue, they often blame the wrong thing – Hispanic immigrants, Obamacare, Chinese property buyers, Chinese factory workers, Chinese college students.

It’s easy to scapegoat, and convenient for the people who do not want to do anything to solve the problems of housing, health care, and education costs. The real sources of the problems are more complex. But they are of our making, and that means we can solve them, if we want to.

El Niño Update: Joke’s on SoCal Edition

Somehow, it’s already April, and despite intense media hype and warning, SoCal residents have watched storm after storm deliver rain to northern California but die on the way past Point Conception. The storms that have made it to LA have been mediocre, with limited moisture; the remnants of a tropical storm in September brought more rain than any system since. Through the end of March, this year has been no better for LA than the last four drought years.

LArain-table-20160401LArain-graph-20160401

If El Niño is going to bring any rain to SoCal, this is the eleventh hour. The April through June period has brought over 5” of rain only 5 times since 1877 (including the 1982-1983 El Niño), and even this amount would leave LA well below normal for the year.

Major water supply reservoirs in northern California have continued to fill up. The biggest reservoirs in the state, Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville, will almost certainly fill to capacity this spring, after starting out the water year about 30% full. Folsom Lake and Bullards Bar will likely fill, and other large reservoirs like Trinity Lake, Don Pedro Lake, and Millerton Lake have risen significantly.

reservoir

The snowpack in the northern and central part of the state is running close to average, and about 75% of average in the south Sierra, which will keep water flowing into reservoirs through the spring.

snowpack

The situation in SoCal, though, is dire. While urban areas in LA and San Diego draw water from all across the southwest, the Central Coast is much more dependent on local supplies, with only small State Water Project allocations of NorCal water. Lake Cachuma, in Santa Barbara County, has fallen every year since 2011 and this year was no different. Nearly at capacity in 2011, it currently sits at only 14% full.

LakeCachuma

Urban water supplies are one thing; we humans will figure out a way to get by. The impact of this fifth dry year on SoCal’s environment is going to be depressing. Wildlife will have tough times finding water. There are going to be a lot of dead trees in the hills and mountains, increasing the fire danger. At this point, all we can do is hope for monsoon moisture and tropical storm remnants to somehow find their way to LA this summer. At least it would do something to help stop forests from drying out.

To see how dry it has been in SoCal the last 5 years, let’s look back to 1877, when weather records started being kept in downtown LA. SoCal is a land of extremes: the wettest water year (2004-2005, 38.25”) had over ten times the rain of the driest water year (2006-2007, 3.73”).

WY-trend

While dry years are common in SoCal, the last 5 years have been severe, and it is unusual to have so many in a row. Water years 2012-2014 were the driest 2-year period in LA’s history, with just 11.97”, 0.69” less than the previous record of 1897-1899. 2011-2014, 2012-2015, and 2013-2016 are the third, fourth, and fifth driest 3-year periods in LA’s history. Water year 2015-2016 doesn’t end until September 31, but we very close to LA’s dry season and 2012-2016 is currently the driest 4-year period by over 2”, with 29.80” – and the current record holder is 2011-2015 with 31.91”, beating the previous record by 1.50”.

As it stands today, the five year period 2011-2016 has had 38.50” of rain, which would shatter the previous record of 45.63” set in 1985-1990. Simply put, since 1877, LA has never had a five-year period where every year was below average by so much.

MY-tableMY-2to5

Even in that context, though, you can see just how variable precipitation is in SoCal. If we look to the driest 6-year periods, 1945-1951 (57.78”) and 1958-1964 (53.25”) are both drier than 2010-2016 (58.70”). Next year would only have to be a normal year to avoid 2011-2017 stealing the crown.

The 1958-1964 period is particularly illuminating. Monthly totals are presented below.

1958-1964

In that 6-year period, LA had 5 years that were every bit as bad as the last 5 years have been – worse, actually – split up by one year of above average precipitation in 1961-1962, with 18.71”. That year would have been below average if not for one monster month, February 1962, which recorded 11.57”, more than any other year in the period and more than the driest 2 years combined.

Feb1962

Furthermore, almost all of the rain that February fell in a 2 week period, with 10.88” between February 7th and 19th. Almost 4” of rain fell on February 8, 1962 alone, and 7.56” fell between February 7th and 11th. That 5-day period saw more rain than the entire water year for 1958-1959, 1960-1961, and 1963-1964.In other words, if not for that one 5-day period in February 1962, the 6-year period 1958-1964 would have been drier than the 5-year period 2011-2016. The last wet year in LA, 2010-2011, was above average thanks to 10.23” of rain in December 2010, of which 7.90” fell in just 5 days.

Precipitation in SoCal is of the ultimate capriciousness, even without humanity running an uncontrolled experiment in geoengineering. Storms struggle to bring rain until conditions are just right, and then the skies open like a breached dam. Hating on California’s water supply system is a popular pastime in much of the country, but it’s exactly the logical thing for a civilization to build in a place like SoCal. LA’s water comes from local supplies, the East Sierra via the LA Aqueduct, northern California via the State Water Project, and Wyoming-Colorado-Utah-New Mexico via the Colorado River Aqueduct. Properly managed, it’s a robust system that ensures reliable supply, and makes much more sense than trying to depend on wildly erratic local precipitation.

(Note: data at left is for LAX, so it doesn’t match monthly totals above. All other data in this post is for downtown LA.)

Looking even longer-term, at decade-long totals, we can see that the last 10 years have been unusually dry, averaging just over 10” of rain a year, the lowest since 1877. However, the 20-year, 30-year, and 50-year trends are unremarkable.

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Fortunately, people who know much more about California’s climate have been doing much more detailed research on long-term trends than the armchair analysis above.

Recent research published by Daniel Swain, who writes the excellent California Weather Blog, finds that weather patterns that cause dry years in California are becoming more frequent. However, this does not appear to be at the expense of patterns that cause wet years, which may also be increasing in frequency. The result is that long-term precipitation averages may stay the same, even as global warming causes temperatures to increase, but California’s wet and dry extremes may become even more pronounced.

Swainetal

Source: California Weather Blog.

If long-term trends are leading toward even move variability in California’s water supplies, it heightens the importance of improving water storage and management. If there’s a silver lining to the persistence of SoCal’s drought this year, maybe it will be a continued focus on tackling these challenges.

Work Windows

With WMATA’s unplanned weekday shutdown as the acute trigger and LA Metro’s work on the Red Line & Blue Line as the chronic one, here’s a short take on urban rail and work windows.

Working on any railroad is dangerous. This is especially true of rail transit, which has higher train volumes and more constrained spaces. In tunnels and aerial guideways, there might not be any space at all to clear the tracks other than what’s provided for emergencies. Working on a railroad is also more complex than working on a roadway. Trains can only switch tracks where crossovers are provided. With roadway construction, we can usually close lanes anywhere we want, and lane closures can modified relatively easily.

As a result of these factors, it’s difficult to do construction and maintenance work on urban rail transit systems except when the track in question is completely shut down. This means that agencies are left with two choices: single tracking and full closures. Single tracking, which is what LA Metro has been doing evenings and late nights on the Red Line, means that all trains in both directions share one track through the work zone. Full closure means, well, full closure.

Single tracking lets agencies maintain some level of service, but capacity may be quite low, as you obviously can’t send a train in one direction through a single-tracked section until the train going in the opposite direction has passed. Capital cost decisions made long ago will determine the capacity. For example, the Red Line doesn’t have any crossovers between Union Station and Westlake/MacArthur Park, and there are three stations in between (Civic Center, Pershing Square, 7th/Flower). If it takes 2 minutes including dwell time to travel between stations, it’s about 8 minutes eastbound from Westlake to Union. Allow 3 minutes at Union for turnaround and 8 minutes westbound from Union to Westlake, and there’s your 20 minute late-night headway. Published schedules say 7 minutes, but I think it’s reasonable to add a little extra to account for passenger confusion with trains sharing one track. Note that if one train shows up late, following trains will have to be held, adding to unreliability. To improve on this, costly capital improvements to add more crossovers in underground tunnels would be needed.

Single tracking also reduces the efficiency of the work being performed. It limits workers to one section of track, making it more difficult to perform concurrent work or sequential tasks, as it’s difficult to have more than one or two crews working in an area.

Full closures solve these problems, because you don’t have to worry about maintaining service. This is part of why so many systems close down for at least part of the night. However, even with nightly closures, it is difficult to accomplish work efficiently. For example, if the work zone is difficult to reach, a substantial amount of time may be lost to setup and breakdown time. For example, the only way to bring equipment into the Red Line is at the portal by Union Station. If you are working between Universal City and North Hollywood, you have to bring equipment all the way out there from Union, at low speeds.

Because startup and breakdown times are fixed, costs do not scale linearly with the length of the work window, whether it’s single tracking or a full closure. For example if the last train is at 9pm and the first train is at 4am, you have 7 hours. Of that, the first hour will likely be spent waiting for permission to enter, confirming power is shut down, and getting set up. The last hour will likely be lost to breaking down and clearing the track, probably well before 4am to make sure there are no issues. Operations isn’t going to let you plan to get out at 3:59am. This leaves you 5 hours to work.

If the last train is at 11pm, the window gets cut from 7 hours to 5 hours, and effective work time gets cut from 5 hours to 3 hours. Much less work will be accomplished, but labor costs will not necessarily go down; you can’t call someone out to work in the middle of the night and only pay them for 5 hours of time. In addition, the 2 hours of work that you lose are the most effective hours, because construction work tends to get more efficient as workers get more familiar with the site and each other. You lose 2 hours of the worker swinging the hammer but keep the 1 hour of figuring out where it needs to be swung.

Of course, if you’re some smarmy New Yorker who inherited 4-track subway trunk lines, you can close down tracks for long periods of time, like a weekend or weeks, and maintain service 24/7 using the other tracks. Sure, it might be inconvenient to have no express service or to have to use express and ride back on the local, but it’s still service.

However, most cities don’t have 4-track subways. Despite what some people might want you to think, it’s pretty clear that you don’t need a 24/7 subway to be a “world-class” city:

  • Tokyo: about 5am – midnight
  • Seoul: about 5:30am – midnight
  • Shanghai: about 5:30am – 11:30pm (last train usually departs outer terminal before 11pm)
  • Hong Kong: about 5am – 1am
  • Paris: about 5:30am – 12:30am (2am weekends)
  • London: about 5am – 12:30am
  • Singapore: about 5:30am – midnight

Look, zero late night rail service does not have to mean zero late night transit service. Traffic is minimal between midnight and 5am just about everywhere; there’s no reason that service can’t be provided by buses during those hours. Riders might be better off with more frequent bus service in lieu of very long headways on the rail network to allow single tracking, and it might not be very expensive if it increases the efficiency of construction work. I strongly believe that good 24/7 transit is necessary in large cities, because there are always people that need service. It just doesn’t have to be on steel wheels.

LACMTA Valley Bus Ridership Update – January 2016 Edition

Here’s our third update on ridership on some of the main bus routes in the San Fernando Valley. As a reminder, for north-south corridors, we have San Fernando, Van Nuys, Sepulveda, and Reseda; for east-west, Ventura, Sherman, Roscoe, and Nordhoff.

For more detail on the sausage-making involved in converting routes that cover multiple corridors to a number for a single arterial road, see the first post.

Here’s the raw data. As always, highlighted cells represent top 10 ridership months since January 2009. All routes put up their best months in the 2009-2010 period; this may be due to the recession reducing car ownership.

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Here are the 12-month rolling averages for weekdays.

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Saturday and Sunday 12-month rolling averages largely reflect weekday trends, as shown below. The only interesting countertrend is an uptick in Reseda over weekends.

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The configuration of rapid routes on Van Nuys was changed in late 2014. Route 761, a rapid that went from Van Nuys in the Valley through Sepulveda Pass to UCLA in Westwood, was eliminated. At the same time, Route 734, the Sepulveda rapid, was extended from its previous terminus in Sherman Oaks through Sepulveda Pass to Westwood. Rapid service on Van Nuys was replaced with Route 744, a U-shaped route on Van Nuys, Ventura, and Reseda. An express rapid service, Route 788, serving the northern part of Van Nuys and connecting to the Orange Line, then running express on the 405 to Westwood, was also created.

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LACMTA Valley bus service, 2012

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LACMTA Valley bus service, 2016

In our last post, we speculated that the change may have had a negative impact on ridership on the Van Nuys corridor. A closer look shows that this is probably not the case for weekday ridership. Here is the breakdown of ridership on Van Nuys and Sepulveda by local and rapid on each corridor, and total local and total rapid on the two corridors combined.

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Note that we are using monthly data here, not the rolling 12-month averages, because we want to see the impact of a change to bus service at a discreet point in time, and the rolling averages will obscure that effect.

The reconfiguration of rapid routes at the end of 2014 resulted in a sudden one-time adjustment in the distribution of rapid ridership. We can’t know which riders switched to which routes for sure, but it appears that 761 riders that had been boarding on the Sepulveda portion of the route quickly switched to 734, with total rapid ridership on Sepulveda remaining relatively constant. Riders that had been boarding 761 on Van Nuys seem to have quickly switched to 788, with total rapid ridership on Van Nuys also relatively constant. The large drop in ridership has mostly come from local routes. This is consistent with what we saw on the Westside bus routes.

In stark contrast, the large drop in ridership on the Van Nuys corridor appears to be directly related to the reconfiguration of rapid routes.

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While Route 761 ran on weekends, Route 734 never has, and this was not changed when 761 was eliminated. Route 744 runs on weekends, but Route 788 does not; thus on weekends there is now no rapid service from the Valley to the Westside.

Again, we are speculating, but it appears that with the elimination of 761, riders who couldn’t cancel their trips and had no other option to get from the Valley to the Westside shifted to the Sepulveda local route, 234, producing a sudden jump in ridership. However, 744 appears to be less useful to riders than 761 was, because the increase in local ridership was less than the drop in rapid ridership that occurred with the cancelation of 761. The net result is that while total local ridership on Van Nuys and Sepulveda on Saturdays has remained relatively constant, total rapid ridership was reduced by over 50% almost instantly.

This strongly suggests that weekend rapid service between the Valley and the Westside was useful to many riders, and Metro should consider restoring it.

LACMTA Bus Ridership Update – January 2016 Edition

Six months have passed, so it’s time for another LACMTA bus ridership update. As always, we start with the raw data. Highlighted cells represent the top 10 months for that route (since January 2009).

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Here are the weekday, Saturday, and Sunday 12-month rolling averages.

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There’s not much new to say, so we’ll keep it short. Most lines continue to decrease. The Silver Line continues to grow slowly. Rolling 12-month average weekday ridership has declined by over 8% on the Orange Line and 10%-15% on the other lines, except the Silver Line which has set new record highs. A glance at the raw data above reveals that these numbers are about to get a lot worse unless something changes soon.

Here’s the percentage of trips on each arterial being served by the rapid route.

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The share of riders served by the rapid routes continues to slowly rise on most corridors. This doesn’t necessarily mean increasing ridership on the rapid – it could be that both the rapid and local declined, but the rapid was more resilient. For example, here’s the split for Wilshire, where the Westside local (Route 20) has been fairly steady, the Rapid (Route 720) has seen a modest drop, and the heaviest drop has been on the east side local (Route 18).

bus-split-Wilshire-201601

That’s it for now; next up, Valley bus ridership.