Via David Edmondson of The Greater Marin, we have this 2007 article from the LA Times about some TOD projects in LA generating less than the expected number of transit trips. On Twitter, we threw out a couple reasons why this might be happening, but I think it’s worth going into a little more detail.
First, there is some question as to the success of TODs anywhere at generating transit ridership at rates significantly greater than the background rate of transit use. A TOD in Boston might have more transit riders than a TOD in LA, but only because Boston in general has more transit riders than LA. Some of the sources of TOD skepticism are not exactly unbiased. On the other hand, here’s UC-Berkeley’s ACCESS magazine reporting that proximity to transit has little effect on ridership generated by TODs.
Note that this is not an indictment of rail transit in LA. In terms of boardings per mile, LA outperforms SF, and holds its own against any eastern city other than NYC. LA’s HRT, though small in geographic span, outperforms WMATA and CTA on a per-mile basis. Outside the MBTA Green Line and small systems in Buffalo and Houston, LA’s LRT is the champ, and its stats ain’t going down when Expo Phase 2 and Regional Connector open.
That aside, here are some factors that might contribute to low TOD ridership in LA. Some are general factors that can apply to any city; others are somewhat unique to LA.
While LA’s parking minimums are not that much different than many cities, the difference is that LA was a relatively small place at the dawn of the Auto Age. That means there’s relatively little old urban development like in East Coast cities and SF. So while it may be equally likely that your TOD apartment comes with a parking space, in LA it’s far more likely that there’s cheap and convenient parking at your destination. If you know there’s parking and you’ve invested up front in getting a car, it’s less likely you’ll take transit.
Local Bus Blues
The article cites one person who was hoping to live car-free in LA, but after trying it, was giving up and planning to get a car. The problem was not the quality of LA rail services – in fact, on the whole, LRT in Los Angeles is better planned and designed than most cities, with straighter routes and less traffic interference – but the quality of bus services.
LA is a big place. The rail network, though expanding, only stretches so far. If you want to really explore this great metropolis, sooner or later you’re going to have to get on a bus. And our transit patron in the article learned what anyone with experience riding buses could tell you: very few people ride them unless they absolutely have to. The reason is obvious, the buses are stuck in the same traffic as cars. In your car, at least you don’t have to make unnecessary stops or put up with belligerent mentally ill riders or listen to the guy behind you belt out Tyga lyrics at full volume.
This issue exists in many other cities – with a few exceptions, Boston’s buses are infrequent and unreliable, and I avoided them as much as possible when I lived there. But in Boston or New York or DC or SF, you can get around this problem by simply not riding the bus. You can experience much of what the city has to offer using only the subway, especially if you are the kind of person that can afford to have transportation choice and live in an area with good rail transit. I lived in the North End, and pretty much anything I wanted to go to was on a rapid transit line. In LA, some of the most popular destinations, like Santa Monica and Venice Beach, are only accessible by bus.
On the plus side, LA has a great grid of wide arterial roads. Read your Jarrett Walker on the power of grids and you can see the potential. It would be relatively easy to improve the speed and frequency of bus service in LA, if we put our capital and operating dollars into it. There’s starting to be action on this: rush hour bus lanes were installed on Wilshire for the 20/720, bus lanes are coming to Vermont, and now that Mike Bonin is riding the 733, maybe we can hope for bus lanes on Venice. In addition to making TODs more viable, this is also a more efficient use of street space, not to mention a huge improvement in the quality of life for transit dependent people (and your typical bus rider in LA makes $14.4k a year).
Historically, we tend to think of transit as a hub and spoke system. Pull up your MBTA or WMATA subway map, and that’s pretty much what you have. Even if you look at buses in Boston, there’s a clear land use pattern centering on nodes at goofy road intersections that locals call “squares”. Get out a commuter rail map, and the hub-spoke pattern is even more apparent. You can see this a little bit in LA on the Westside, with obvious nodes in downtown, Century City, and Westwood. It’s no coincidence that Wilshire is the obvious corridor for a full subway.
But flip your gaze south and look at the endless grid stretching over 20 miles down to Southbay and Long Beach, and then on into Orange County. On the other side of the hills in the Valley, it’s the same thing. LA is difficult to understand because its urban form is different. LA is very dense without looking or feeling dense, enormous in geographic reach but most people make short trips, horrible traffic but very low gasoline usage per household. If you need proof LA is different, consider that the worst traffic on the 10 on the Westside is going away from downtown in the morning, and towards downtown in the evening.
LA is a different city, and it requires a different way of looking at things. In LA, people are coming from everywhere and going everywhere. You can’t think of LA in terms of nodes; you have to think in terms of the grid. Note that this is naturally how people in LA describe their city. Someone in Boston will tell you that something is in Harvard Square – Harvard Square being a subway stop and a neighborhood. In LA, you’re much more likely to hear that something is at Vermont/Melrose, Venice/Robertson, Hawthorne/Rosecrans. Indeed, even transit systems show this! In Boston and DC, you get subway stops named after the neighborhood. In LA, you get Expo/Vermont, Expo/Western, and so on.
LA’s development pattern means that the ways we look at TODs and transit ridership in general are unhelpful, or maybe even misleading. Example: below are two aerial images of Blue Line stations, with Slauson on top and Del Amo on the bottom.
Conventional wisdom in urban planning says these stops are in bad places. Slauson has virtually no commercial development; near the station and to the east, it’s mostly industrial, to the west, you have to go at least a quarter-mile before hitting any residential. The station itself is right up against a yard used for storing utility poles. Del Amo is even worse, almost comically bad. There’s nothing but low employment-density industrial for over a half-mile in any direction. The closest houses are almost three-quarters of a mile away, under the 710 and over the LA River.
And yet, these stations, and the Blue Line in general, do pretty well for ridership. In LA, where people are coming from everywhere and going everywhere, you don’t have to be a destination, just a good place to transfer along the way. The Blue Line offers fast transit service to a 20-mile corridor, so lots of people want to transfer to it.
TOD is Overrated in General
That last example about the Blue Line can be generalized to say that urban planners overrate the importance of land use surrounding transit. This is something I’ve written about previously.
Cities are big, complex entities, and people make choices for many different reasons. It’s a nice thought to say “let’s put housing next to the station, and then people can ride it downtown” but that’s a big simplification of how a city works. Maybe you decide to live to near the station so you can take transit to work. But maybe you do it so that you can go downtown on Friday night and get tanked without having to drive home. Maybe you do it because you plan on having kids and it’s a good school district. Or maybe you just like the apartment and you don’t really care about the transit at all.
Example: my sister lives in East Hollywood about 0.4 miles from a Red Line stop. But her work takes her all over the city at irregular hours, and she doesn’t feel safe walking home from the station late at night. She was looking for an apartment in the area, and the one she found just happens to be close to a station, but to her, it’s not much different than being 2 miles away. Her proximity to transit doesn’t generate any transit trips other than me taking the Red Line from downtown if I go to grab dinner with her after work. (It also results in me ranting about closely spaced bus stops on Vermont when I take the bus to try to avoid Red Line construction, but that’s a different problem.)
On the other hand, I live in Palms, about 1.1 miles from Culver City station on the Expo Line. But I walk to the station and take Expo to work every day, because (a) I work in rail engineering so I might as well ride the damn thing, (b) I don’t want to pay for parking downtown, (c) spending time on the 10 during rush hour results in a non-zero probability of losing my cool, and (d) there’s a Starbucks on the way where I can try to beat down my night owl grogginess. For some people, that might be too far to walk. When I was looking for apartments, I looked at things up to 1.5 miles away, and I would have been fine with walking. I picked my place because I get amenities that others didn’t have, even if they were closer to the station.
Urban planners and transportation planners need to keep the complexity of the city in mind. There’s not really any need to worry about what gets built on a specific parcel of land, or how many transit riders it generates. Really, doing so presumes a level of knowledge that no one has. We should focus on building high-quality transportation infrastructure, and then providing individuals with the flexibility to capitalize on it as best they see fit. It doesn’t make sense to spend public dollars subsidizing any kind of private development. This is a point on which I really disagree with the Portland model of planning. If you build good bones for your city, the millions of people that make up your city will figure out how to use them better than you ever could.
Incomplete Rail Transit Network
When the article was written in 2007, the LA rail network consisted of the Blue Line, the Green Line, the Gold Line to Pasadena, the Red Line, and the short Purple Line. Since then, we’ve already opened Expo Phase 1 and Gold Line East Side.
So when I read articles like this, part of me thinks: check back with us in ten years, when Expo Line goes to Santa Monica, Regional Connector connects the Blue/Gold/Expo Lines, Crenshaw/LAX is done, and Westside Subway is built. Then check back with us ten years after that, when we’ve built a line from Sylmar to El Segundo, extended the Green Line and Gold Line, and who knows what else. LA is forever a work in progress, and forever reinventing itself. Let’s focus on making it great in the big picture; the details will work themselves out.