Tag Archives: Blue Line

Measure R2 Needs to Look Inward as well as Outward

Move LA has released a map of potential rail expansion projects that could be funded by “Measure R2” – a half-cent sales tax ballot initiative that would be similar to Measure R. We’re fortunate in LA in the sense that we have a lot of good candidate projects for transit expansion. However, US transit planning is often heavy on expansion, and misses out on opportunities to improve the existing transit system. Now obviously, if you’re riding the existing system, adding new lines gives you more destinations. But it doesn’t help your overcrowded Blue Line vehicle or your Flower St crawl – in fact, it might make those things worse!

So, while some longer posts are in the works (don’t I always claim that?), here are some improvements to the existing transit system that should get consideration for being included in Measure R2.

Red Line

Lankershim/Vineland infill station: it’s over 2 miles from Universal City to North Hollywood. That’s ok if the area in between stops is like Hancock Park, but there’s already a lot of density here and there’s the potential for more. This would be more costly than the Red Line stops near 1st St and 6th St being contemplated, but it would serve actual density rather than possible development. (It would also not interfere with yard operations.)

Orange Line

As I said last year, the Orange Line – running 4 minute headways – is not at capacity. Improvements to traffic signals would allow for increased service. An infill station at White Oak, in the middle of the 2 mile gap between Balboa and Reseda, should be considered too. It would be expensive and disruptive to existing riders to convert to LRT, so we should strongly consider getting all we can out of the BRT system first.

Green Line

The station spacing on the Green Line almost suggests it was planned as a pseudo-commuter rail to bring people to the commercial center in El Segundo. Infill stations should be considered at:

  • 105/Western: it’s crazy that a station at Western, with connections to busy north-south bus routes 207 and 757, wasn’t built in the first place. Slam dunk.
  • 105/Atlantic: 1.3 miles east of Long Beach Blvd station, serving Lynwood and connecting to north-south bus routes 260 and 762. Again, slam dunk.
  • 105/Paramount: 1.7 miles east of the proposed 105/Atlantic station and 1.1 miles west of Lakewood station, serving Paramount and Downey, and connecting to north-south bus route 265. This would also connect to the proposed Measure R2 Gateway Cities Line. Yet again, slam dunk.
  • 105/Bellflower: 0.9 miles east of Lakewood and 1.2 miles west of Norwalk, serving Downey and Bellflower, and connecting to north-south bus route 127.

I’m going to commit a minor act of heresy and say that with the possible exception of 105/Bellflower, these are all much better options than an extension of the Green Line east to the Metrolink Norwalk Station, which, after all, only has 19 trains a day and doesn’t even have any service for five hours during the middle of the day and no trains after 7pm. As long as the Orange County Line is sharing tracks with the finest line this land has seen, you’re not getting much connectivity out of that connection.

Blue Line

Where to even start? Unfortunately, design decisions on the Regional Connector, Gold Line, and Expo Line have made it impractical to try to go from 3-car to 4-car trains in the near future. Any increases in capacity are going to have to come from reducing headways. Some potential options:

  • Add another platform and track at Willow: the Long Beach loop is slow and impeded by street traffic, and demand is a little lower, so many trains turn back at Willow. The trunk of the Blue Line, from Willow to Vernon, is all exclusive ROW and can support headways shorter than 6 minutes. Adding another track at Willow would increase the turnback capacity (assuming, of course, that a good operations study shows the track is necessary).
  • Build (or legitimize) a second station entrance/egress at stations like Compton and Florence, to improve passenger circulation and reduce platform crowding.
  • Widen very narrow platforms like Florence.
  • Study options to improve speeds and reliability on Washington Blvd and Flower St. This could include anything from changing traffic signal timings to grade separations.

Silver Line

Stops on the Silver Line are spaced for commuter service, not rapid transit. Now that the Silver Line is getting some better frequencies, it’s time to look at adding some stops:

  • 110/Vernon: serving Vermont Square in South LA and (the original) South Park in Southeast LA, and connecting to east/west bus routes 105 and 705. This station would be on the way cool HOV lane viaduct, which would make it costly.
  • 110/Florence: serving Vermont Knolls in South LA and Florence, and connecting to east/west bus routes 111 and 311.
  • 110/Century: serving Vermont Vista and Broadway-Manchester, and connecting to east/west bus route 117.
  • 110/El Segundo: serving Harbor Gateway North.
  • 110/Alondra: serving Harbor Gateway North.

Another potential improvement would be to extend the Silver Line from Artesia Transit Center south to San Pedro. This could be either via Vermont, which has a very wide ROW that could accommodate bus lanes, or via the 110. Stops would be considered at 190th, Torrance, Carson, Sepulveda, PCH, and in San Pedro. The 110 already has bus stop pull-offs at Carson, Sepulveda, and PCH. If the route is via Vermont, stops could be spaced every half-mile rather than every mile.

Our transit system certainly has plenty of room for expansion. But we shouldn’t ignore improvements that could be made to the existing system – especially given the demographics of the neighborhoods that would benefit from these improvements.

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LACMTA Rail Ridership Update – October 2013

Longer, more interesting posts still in progress (I promise), but in the meantime, a quick look at performance of the rail network since January 2009 (the earliest year for which monthly data is published on Metro’s website).

First, the raw data:

rawdata-201310

Red/Purple, Gold, & Expo are all near all-time high ridership. Blue & Green are a little weak relative to late 2012. The data there is questionable – I find it hard to believe the Blue Line gained 6,000 riders per day in June 2012, another 4,000 per day by November 2012, and then lost 5,000 per day by January 2013 – but it is what it is, we have nothing else to go on.

Monthly data really is too noisy to see patterns:

wkdy-201310

You have to look at a rolling 12-month average to really see what’s going on. Call it seasonally adjusted:

wkdy-12mo-201310

Blue, Green, and Gold surged a little through 2011 and 2012, but have tailed off a little lately. Red/Purple Lines have been increasing steadily.

A better way to look at the productivity of the lines is boardings per mile, and as you can see, Expo Line has been kicking ass and taking names. After 18 months in service, it’s closing in on the boardings per mile achieved by the Blue Line after 18 years.

wkdy-bpm-201310

Consider that Expo Phase 2 is only 6.5 miles long, and it’s going to serve:

  • Palms (one of LA’s densest neighborhoods)
  • Expo/Westwood (sneaky close to Pico and a natural transfer point to get to UCLA)
  • Sepulveda/Pico
  • Olympic/Bundy
  • Olympic/26th (Santa Monica’s booming tech area)
  • Colorado/17th
  • 3rd St Promenade, Santa Monica Pier, and the beach

I’m going to make a prediction and say that Expo Line passes the current Blue Line boardings per mile (4,000) within three years of Phase 2 opening. Reason, your crow is served.

Make Your Light Rail Look Like LA’s

Regular readers know that this blog doesn’t have a devotion to any particular transportation technology. I’m all about efficiency. The best options are the ones that move the most people and goods as fast as possible. Now you can drift off into daydreams about “slow transit” but fact is, people usually want to get where they’re going quickly and reliably. People vote with their feet and if you want their feet on your transit vehicle instead of on the gas pedal, your transit better be competitive. People don’t want slow transit any more than they want slow freeways.

So, if you’re investing money in a light rail network, you ought to make it look like ours in Los Angeles. Chances are your city doesn’t have the density of Manhattan or narrow streets of downtown Boston that make subways the only practical option. If you look at LA’s light rail network, you’ll see a combination of pragmatic decisions that gets a lot out of the money put into the system, and generates good ridership. At the other end of the spectrum are cities where decisions seem to be made based on an infatuation with trains as they worked 100 years ago, and everything else flows from there.

Let me say at the outset that I don’t want to come off as trying to beat up on Portland. I’ve never even been there, and I’m sure that planners there have good reasons behind their choices. Those choices are often driven by regional land use planning rather than just transportation considerations. However, the “Portland model” is inescapable these days. You read about it everywhere, and many cities in the US cite Portland as an example when promoting their own streetcar or light rail plans. So as far as I’m concerned, Portland’s network design in general is fair game. If you want your city’s plans to be successful, I think you’re better off trying to emulate LA than Portland.

There are several ways in which LA’s network design is superior; in order from broad planning down to engineering details, they are: service area, overall route configuration, station spacing, grade separation, and route geometry.

Service Area

The first, biggest planning question is what part of your region you’re going to serve with your light rail system. Odds are you don’t have enough money to crisscross your city with rail lines in any time frame other than the region’s long-range (30-year) transportation plan. For the uninitiated, this plan is where politicians and planners stow the projects that you want but the region has no plausible way to finance. Any project that’s currently on the books to be done by 2040? Yeah, we’re about five years away from it being pushed back to 2050.

That means that you have to make hard choices about where you’re going to build your first line or two. Don’t screw it up, because a failing line will be fodder for a Randal O’Toole blog post and might turn the electorate against you. Well, at least if you’re not VTA, it might.

Many people, from developers to planners to politicians, often see LRT lines as corridors for potential development. This can backfire if the development doesn’t actually occur, or if it does occur but fails to generate appreciable ridership. Instead, it’s better to focus on places where there’s already a lot of travel demand and additional development potential. Since most American cities have relatively low density, there’s plenty of these places around. The takeaway here is that it’s better for transit to be reactionary – that is, serving travel demand that already exists – than it is for it to be anticipatory – that is, serving travel demand that may theoretically exist in the future.

Now take a look at the Los Angeles LRT network.

LAmetro

The first line, the Blue Line, connected downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach, the second largest city in the region. It’s in an area where there’s already a crapload of travel demand, as indicated by the congestion on the 110 and the 710. And there’s virtually unlimited upzoning potential all over the place, even if it hasn’t really been capitalized on just yet. Is it any surprise that the Blue Line is closing in on 100,000 riders per day, while the entire MAX network generates just 130,000? LA’s system generates about 2,800 boardings per mile (with the Blue Line at about 4,000 per mile), about 1.5 times MAX, and that’s without a critical piece of the network even being built yet (Regional Connector).

LA’s other light rail lines follow the same pattern. They serve parts of the city that are already built up, have a lot of destinations, and have plenty of growth potential. The Gold Line north connects downtown LA to Pasadena parallels the 110. The Gold Line east serves East LA and isn’t far from the 60; this line suffers from poor connectivity to other lines but that will be rectified by Regional Connector. The Expo Line serves downtown LA, USC, Culver City, and Santa Monica, more or less near the 10 on the Westside. You could even throw the Orange Line BRT in here, since it serves built up areas in the Valley and is in the same corridor as the 101. All of these freeways are among the most congested in the country, and there’s a ton of demand for more development in these areas.
The Green Line, which runs from El Segundo to Norwalk in the median of the 105, is perhaps the most enigmatic of LA’s LRT lines; it doesn’t follow the same development pattern as the others. Nevertheless, it did better than expected for ridership, and I’m pretty confident it will become more useful as the network is built out. The upcoming Crenshaw/LAX LRT project is underrated as relief for travel in the La Cienega and La Brea corridors, and at any rate, the obvious intent there is to eventually extend the line north and south, making it very useful.

Now on the other hand, PDX built their system with some intent that development would follow the rail lines. They’ve managed to encourage some pretty impressive growth in the Pearl District and South Waterfront, but O’Toole’s been keeping the bills paid for years writing about vacant TOD lots. But here, ain’t no way he could ride the Blue Line and say that no one wants to use it, and Reason has already made a laughingstock of itself in about a year and a half of Expo Line operations.

Despite that, on the whole, I don’t really have a problem with Portland’s service area. They serve the central city and connect it to surrounding nodes of density – such as they are, since Portland on the whole is pretty low density. If there’s a failure of the service area, it seems to me that it’s a failure of overplanning, of trying to force development into certain parcels while protecting most of the city from redevelopment. Others have speculated on this as well.

Overall Route Configuration

Once you’ve figured out what areas of your city you’re going to serve, you need to lay out your routes. In general, you should follow Jarrett Walker’s route design guidelines for bus service: make ‘em straight, make ‘em long enough to aggregate demand, don’t deviate to serve specific points, and try to put something worth going to at the ends. A good yardstick for this is actually to pretend that the LRT network is a freeway network, and ask yourself if the highway department would propose it with a straight face.

LA’s Blue Line has a dream alignment once it turns south off of Washington. In addition to stations in the middle that generate a lot more demand than TOD-types would expect, it’s anchored by downtown LA and Long Beach. Expo Line has a few medium speed curves, but it’s pretty straight, and anchored by downtown LA and Santa Monica. Gold Line has downtown LA and Pasadena. The big knock on the Gold Line in this regard is the really slow curves on both sides of Union Station, which could have been avoided by a straight alignment on Alameda. Now the benefit to this nasty routing is considerable: much shorter transfers to Red/Purple Lines, buses, Amtrak, and Metrolink at Union Station. I leave it to you to decide if the penalty is worth it.

GoldLine-UnionStn

The Green Line, again, is the lone man out. It’s a high-speed alignment the whole way, and has solid demand at El Segundo, but it doesn’t get close enough to LAX to be a real option, and on the east end it just sort of fades away in Norwalk. A short extension east to Metrolink might be useful in that regard, and long-term an extension along Imperial should shore things up. (More on that soon.) Crenshaw’s route is decent, and eventual extension to the north will make it a practical line between LAX and Hollywood.

Again, for the most part, I don’t have a problem with Portland at this level of design. The routes appear to be reasonably straight and have logical destinations. My real issues with their network are going to manifest themselves further down the chain regarding station spacing, grade separation, and local route geometry. However, I do have some questions about some of the outlying route terminals, which look like they’ve been built in a very anticipatory manner.
For example, here’s the southern end of the Milwaukie line, now under construction.

PDX-Milwaukie

With the exception of Milwaukie’s tiny downtown, the area is surrounded by low-density SFR development. There’s a few apartment complexes off to the east and southwest, but it’s hard to see how this area is going to generate that much ridership.

Here’s the north end of the Red Line, ending at Portland International Airport.

PDX-RedLine

We have a station in no-man’s-land in the median of the 205, bordered by low-density residential, an apartment complex or two, and vacant land. The next two stations serve, plausibly, a mall and big box retail, some airport-related industry, and airport hotels, along with vacant land and parking lots far greater than the developed area. The mall might generate some ridership, but you have to think that the hotels offer shuttles, since most people don’t want to carry their luggage from a station to the hotel. Hotel and retail employees would be potential riders.

Here’s the south end of the Green Line, at Clackamas Town Center.

PDX-GreenLine

I have to say, this one is really puzzling. The line ends at a big parking garage at the forlorn edge of an enormous mall. The next station north, Fuller Rd, serves a big parking lot, a few SFRs, some industrial land, and some big box retail. Obviously, the hope is that someday the mall and its sea of parking will become an urban neighborhood. But in the meantime, in between, there’s a slew of apartment complexes – most of which are just far enough way to encourage people to drive, especially since parking is provided. It looks like there might be enough space to put a station near Causey Av. What gives?

The Yellow Line is even worse.

PDX-YellowLine

Its northernmost two stations are literally surrounded by nothing, the southern one being saved only by what appears to be decent park-and-ride usage from people getting off the 5, which is rough with 15 minute headways. The only plausible explanation is that eventually you want to go to Vancouver, but Washington adamantly doesn’t want light rail.

Station Spacing

Now we’re getting into a level of detail where I have real beef with the Portland model. Stations should be spaced about a mile apart, assuming you’ve got enough density along the line to justify them – which you will if you plan your service area and route configuration properly. Closer spacing is acceptable in areas that are very dense with residents and/or employment, or at the very end of the line where slower speeds will affect fewer passengers, but even then, close stop spacing should be used sparingly.

Again, LA’s Blue Line has it right. The stops in downtown LA on the Regional Connector are about half a mile apart, which is appropriate for an area that dense. Things open up to about three-quarter mile spacing from 7th/Flower to San Pedro, and then it’s stations about a mile apart on a beautiful alignment all the way to Long Beach. The only problem is between Imperial and Compton, which is over two miles, and should probably have an infill stop at El Segundo Blvd. The two-mile spacing from Artesia to Del Amo is acceptable because it’s just industrial land in between them. Same goes for Del Amo to Wardlow, where a stop in between would be in the middle of the LA River and only serve a golf course and the Blue Line yard. In downtown Long Beach, we go back to half-mile spacing from Willow to 5th, and the stops are very close on the loop. I could live without 1st and Pacific. However, since it’s at the end of the line, it’s not slowing down all that many riders, so it’s not a huge issue.

Expo Line is pretty much done right too. Stops are about three-quarter mile spaced from Pico to Jefferson/USC, and then more or less mile-spaced all the way to Santa Monica. The exceptions are Expo Park/USC (pointless, only 0.33 miles from Expo/Vermont, shouldn’t have been built) and Farmdale (which splits up the 1.16 miles between Expo/Crenshaw and Expo/La Brea, and wouldn’t have been built except for Damien Goodmon’s shenanigans). Other than that, maybe the Expo/Westwood stop should have been at Expo/Overland to better split up the distance between National/Palms and Expo/Sepulveda.

The Crenshaw/LAX Line is also well planned in this regard. With the addition of Florence/Hindry and Leimert Park, the entire 8.5 mile line will have 9 stations, all on spacing of between 0.7 and 1.3 miles.

The Gold Line to Pasadena goes through older parts of the region and hilly terrain, which doesn’t have the typical LA style half-mile arterial grid of roadways. This resulted in irregular station spacing between about half a mile and two miles, but the locations are logical (you could question the utility of Del Mar and suggest an infill station near Altadena Dr or San Gabriel Blvd). The Foothill Extension to Azusa is mostly two-mile spacing; you could argue for infill stations if the area gets denser. The station spacing for the Gold Line to East LA doesn’t make sense to me; I could do without Pico Aliso (only 0.3 miles from Mariachi Plaza), and Maravilla should have been at Eastern.

The western end of the Green Line, between Aviation and Redondo Beach has spacing a little under a mile, with Mariposa and El Segundo only half a mile apart. This section is reasonable due to the density of development in El Segundo and the development potential in the area. On the section in the median of the 105, there are several locations where the spacing is too large. There should be stations at Western and Bellflower, and a couple stations in the four miles between Lakewood and Long Beach. (Again, more on the Green Line soon.)

In contrast, the station spacing on TriMet is just terrible. For the most part, we can ignore the Red Line and Green Line, which are almost just spurs. Suffice to say that Cascades and Mt Hood Av on the Red Line are too close for the development in the area, and I’ve got to question the spacing of Division, Powell, and Holgate on the Green Line. The real offenders are the Blue Line and Yellow Line.

At the north end, the Yellow Line has two stations 0.70 miles apart, in an area where there is no development to speak of. The stops are then spaced every half mile through North Portland, despite the area being mostly SFR development. But the really crazy section is in downtown Portland, where there are seven stops, all at most a quarter of a mile apart. Stops that close together will inevitably cannibalize each other’s ridership, and the frequent stopping ensures low average operating speeds, which make transit less competitive.

The Blue Line is even worse. Nominally, the average spacing on the Blue Line is about 0.75 mile, but this is deceptive. Take out the four station spacings greater than 1.5 miles, and the average drops to 0.60 mile. Take out an additional four station spacings greater than 1.3 miles, and the average drops to 0.50 miles. That’s 40 stations in 20 miles of track, about the same length as LA’s Blue Line. In other words, Portland’s Blue Line has twice as many stations, for a city that’s not even half as dense.

The station spacing on the Blue Line drops to about a third of a mile in Hillsboro (4 stations), about half a mile in Beaverton (6 stations), about half a mile on the east side (4 stations), and less than half a mile in Gresham (3 stations). Hillsboro and Gresham aren’t terrible, since they are the end of the line, but the short spacing in the middle of the line is bad, because it drives up travel time. None of these places are dense enough to deserve stations so close together, and many of the stations were obviously built in an anticipatory plan.

But even those station spacings aren’t that bad compared to downtown Portland, where the Blue Line has 10 stations in less than 2 miles. Some stations aren’t even 600 feet apart, so close that an NYC subway train would straddle them. They’re equivalent to taking a train from one end of a subway platform to the other. Across the Steel Bridge, it’s the same thing in the Lloyd District, where there are four stations in 0.54 miles. This spacing is awful even by the lowly standards of US bus stop spacing. In effect, it makes transit almost useless for trips going through downtown and the Lloyd District because the time penalty is so high (see, for example, the previously linked Keep Houston Houston piece where the author describes using a bike to bypass the downtown light rail).

TriMet’s schedules suggest that the Blue Line averages about 6 or 7 mph in this area. That was acceptable in 1890, when traveling at 10 mph through an urban environment was revolutionary (and someone said, the dream of the 1890s is alive in Portland). But good god, in 2013, you need to be competitive with driving.

Grade Separation

Another one of the ways you stay competitive on travel time is grade separation, so that traffic doesn’t interfere. In other words, you have to have an aesthetic appreciation for concrete. This means going underground in very dense areas, and judicious use of overpasses and viaducts elsewhere so that your service stays fast and reliable. Where you’re at grade, you want your own ROW or at least an in-street reservation. Mixed-traffic running should be avoided.

LA’s LRT network does an excellent job of this. You get tunnels in downtown LA (including the upcoming Regional Connector), East LA, and a short one in Pasadena. You get grade separations of the major streets, so the Blue Line goes over Slauson, Firestone, and Del Amo, and the Expo Line has a bunch of grade separations so that it doesn’t get stuck in that famous Westside traffic. Crenshaw is going to be grade separated at the major streets. In fact, when people in LA complain, they don’t complain about the visual impacts of overpasses – they complain because you’re not grade separating enough.

At the same time, LA isn’t afraid to go at-grade to save money where conditions don’t warrant grade separation. So the Blue Line crosses many streets at-grade, and the Expo Line crosses Vermont, Normandie, Western, and Crenshaw – all major arterials – at-grade as well. But even when LA is running the line at-grade, it usually has its own ROW. In the few places where lines run in the street, there’s always a physical demarcation, like a curb, to keep cars out of the train’s space.

Portland does have some places where the lines are completely grade separated, where following freeways. The Blue Line, Red Line, and Green Line all have long sections that follow freeways and are grade separated. But in the town centers and downtown Portland, it’s all at grade. In many places, nothing separates the rail ROW from traffic other than striping or pavement textures, which allows cars to enter the train’s space and cause delays. This, combined with the close station spacing, increases travel time and decreases reliability.

PDX-downtown

In downtown Portland, there are also many places where the rail lines cross each other at grade. The Yellow/Green Lines cross the Blue/Red Lines at Pioneer Square, and all four lines merge to cross the Steel Bridge. The streetcar crosses both the Blue/Red Lines and the Yellow/Green Lines at other locations downtown, and crosses itself at-grade in several locations. In addition to affecting travel time and reliability, these decisions will constrain the ability to increase service in the future. Then again, with 15 minute headways on MAX and the streetcar, it’s not like demand is that high now.

Route Geometry

At the finest level of detail, you can hurt your transit line by making individual curves too sharp. These may only cost you seconds at any specific location, but over the whole line they can add up to minutes. (Amtrak, substandard rolling stock aside, spends millions to eliminate speed restrictions on the Northeast Corridor that only cost seconds.)

Yet again, LA does this right. On the Expo Line, you get a 35 mph underpass at Flower and Exposition that would otherwise be a very low-speed curve requiring a three-phase traffic light. The Blue Line has sharp curves at Washington and Grand, but other than that, it’s straight. The Green Line is a dream alignment. Crenshaw/LAX will have an underpass where it turns from the Harbor Subdivision onto Crenshaw Blvd, avoiding a very low-speed curve. The worst line is the Gold Line, and even most of it is pretty good. It has the aforementioned sharp curves near Union Station (again, up to you to decide if it’s worth it), and it’s got a nasty curve at Little Tokyo, but that will be less of an issue when Regional Connector is done. The curves at Indiana are bad, but they’re right at a station, which reduces their impact.

The decision to go at-grade in downtown Portland, along with the at-grade rail-rail crossings, has resulted in many sharp curves and special track work. In fact, Portland is probably a track engineer’s dream – where else would you get to work on so many special turnouts and skewed diamonds? But these alignments result in the need for trains to “hang a left” (or right) at intersections that were designed for cars, or at best, streetcars. This results in low-speed operations that cost your passengers time.

Further out from downtown Portland, there’s some other questionable geometry. For example, here’s the Red Line diverging from the Blue Line.

PDX-RedLineDiverge

That curve has to be close to the absolute minimum the vehicle can negotiate. It’s 5-10 mph track the whole way, and it’s single track at that. Here’s the Blue/Red Lines at the junction of the 26 and the 217.

PDX-SunsetTC

In my humble opinion, that type of geometry is just a giant eff you to riders. It basically says that we don’t care about your time enough to spend a little more money and give you a much better service. In the former case, it’s a stark contrast to the freeway, which gets high-speed semi-direct ramps in all directions. (At least at the 26 and the 217, drivers are getting crappy geometry too.)

You’re Doing It Wrong

If you keep all of these considerations in mind, it’s not hard to see why a system like VTA is struggling. The Blue Line is three-quarters of an ellipse, which means that for many of the trips that it could theoretically serve, you’d be much better off taking a more direct bus route. The tortured route of the Green Line to Mountain View, both overall and in local geometry, is never going to be competitive with driving or even with a direct transit service.

The station spacing, averaging about two-thirds of a mile over the network, is too close for the type of development found in Santa Clara County. The Green Line to Mountain View has closely spaced stops, which combined with sharp curves, ensures that this route is always going to offer low average speeds. In downtown San Jose, the stops spacing is like downtown Portland, and the Green Line has another section of terrible geometry between St James and Diridon. Honestly, I would love to know what possessed light rail planners nationwide and made them think that downtowns needed surface running LRT with streetcar-tight geometry and stop spacing only marginally bigger than local bus service. In an ironic twist, we probably have LADOT’s concern for auto traffic to thank for the fact that downtown LA escaped the same fate.

You could say that VTA would have been a much better comparison to LA-style LRT than Portland, but I wanted to use a system that’s widely known and respected. Pretty much everybody concedes that things have not gone as planned on VTA, so no one is going to show up and model their system after VTA. But Portland is a reasonably successful system that demonstrates the network that results from making different decisions on system characteristics.

Apologies to Portland

Again, I apologize if it seems like I’m trying to beat up on Portland. They’re coming at things from a different place than LA. Portland is building the rail network they want, and trying to coerce land use patterns to follow the rail. In North America, only Vancouver is probably doing a better job with that approach. LA is building a rail network in an existing dense city, with existing land use patterns that have proven to be more apt for rail transit than many expected.

In this regard, perhaps the real point here is that you can have a successful system without following the Portland model. Obviously, given this blog’s relentless promotion of LA-style density, I’m going to prefer the LA model. I’ll leave it to others with better knowledge of Portland to say how well their model is working for their goals. But if you’re looking to build or expand an LRT system, you should consider the LA model as well, and decide if it’s a better match for your goals.

Transit, TOD, and Polycentrism

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.

heavy_rail

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.

Parking Minimums

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).

Polycentrism

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.

Slauson DelAmo

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.