Tag Archives: Expo Line

Downtown LA is Responsible for 20% of Housing Built Since 1999, and That’s Terrible News

Shane Phillips has a post over at Better Institutions looking at the proportion of housing built in LA since 1999 that’s located downtown. He calculates it to be about 20%, based on state data and a Downtown Center Business Improvement District Report. The report is generous in its definition of downtown, including Skid Row and the Fashion, Arts, & Industrial Districts, and stretching well into Westlake and Chinatown. Nevertheless, by any standard the amount of development in downtown is impressive. About 20,000 units have been built in the last 15 years, with another 20,000 in the pipeline for the next 5-10 years.

A pro-growth stance from the city has resulted in mid-rise buildings and towers popping up all over the place on top of former parking lots, putting the land to much more productive use. Meanwhile, the adaptive reuse ordinance (ARO) has allowed once-vacant historic office buildings to find new live as apartments, condos, and hotels. Michael Manville writes in UCTC Access that the ARO alone was responsible for 6,500 units of housing in the historic core between 1999 and 2008.

All of this is good. Turning parking lots into higher value land uses is good; putting abandoned buildings back to use is good. The neighborhoods around downtown are in danger of being victims of its success when it comes to gentrification, but more on that later.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that percentages have numerators and denominators. And in this case, the downtown boom is making the numerator bigger, but a severe lack of housing production citywide has made the denominator much smaller. In fact, based on the same state data, all of LA County added about 215,000 housing units between 1999 and 2014. In other words, in a county of 10 million people, a neighborhood of just 50,000 has been responsible for over 9% of new residential construction.

In short, the problem is that other neighborhoods across LA have not seen nearly as much growth. As Shane correctly points out, one neighborhood can do only so much. Read the USC Casden Multifamily Forecast and you’ll see neighborhood after neighborhood with almost no new inventory added from 2009 to 2013. East LA, Alhambra, Montebello, & Pico Rivera, zero. El Segundo, Hermosa Beach, & Redondo Beach, zero. Granada Hills, Northridge, & Reseda, zero. Paramount, Downey, Bellflower, & Norwalk, zero. The list goes on and on.

Housing prices are largely determined regionally, which makes it impossible for one neighborhood to upzone its way out of price increases. If you’re near desirable neighborhood XYZ that has very little new construction, it doesn’t matter what you do, eventually you’ll be “XYZ-adjacent” and it’s game over. On the Westside, you have to wonder how long places like Palms and Pico-Robertson can last with demand radiating east and south from Santa Monica and Venice, despite Palms being relatively friendly to new construction.

Even in cities with a strong traditional form like NYC, with a huge CBD dominating regional employment, concentrating all housing development near the core is a mistake. New York YIMBY recently chronicled the woes of NYC’s small builders, who have been driven out of business by downzoning in the outer boroughs. That has resulted in a decrease in the amount of market-rate housing being built for middle income earners, making the city’s affordability problems worse.

In a city like LA, with highly decentralized employment, concentrating housing development in the core makes no sense at all. The hottest office markets in LA are on the Westside, where the tech industry is concentrated in Santa Monica and Venice. Growth in that market has spread south to Playa Vista and the Howard Hughes Center. Century City office developers hope to capitalize on it as well, while others in commercial real estate expect growth to continue moving south to El Segundo. Whatever the reasons, the office market in Downtown LA remains weak, with plenty of vacancy and virtually no new construction.

The lack of a corresponding residential boom on the Westside exacerbates existing imbalances. The pull of Westside employment long ago made the “reverse” commute direction on the 10 freeway the peak direction (traffic is worse going away from downtown in the morning, and towards it in the afternoon). It would not be surprising at all if the peak travel direction on the Expo Line and Westside Subway ends up following a similar pattern.

Beyond the local issues of the Westside, there are job centers scattered all over LA County. Employment growth is not going to be concentrated in downtown, so why should housing growth? Distributed housing growth spreads out the impacts as well as the benefits, and helps prevent gentrification and development from flooding into a localized area.

Why Is Downtown Booming?

To be sure, Downtown LA has become a desirable place to live. It’s walkable, has good access to freeways and transit, and offers an increasingly diverse mix of restaurants, bars, and retail. It’s centrally located, making it (relatively) easy to live there and commute to the Westside, Hollywood, and parts of the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys. The architecture, especially the historic office and hotel buildings, is unparalleled in the region. That explains the demand side.

The supply side is explained by the factors mentioned before – the adaptive reuse ordinance and a strong (sometimes, maybe a little too strong) pro-growth stance from the city. As Manville writes, the conversions of historic buildings would have been impossible without the ARO, so it’s worth recapping the significant relaxation of land use regulations that the ARO provides:

  • No restriction on density based on lot size (though minimum apartment sizes apply)
  • Existing non-conforming FAR, setbacks, and heights do not require a variance
  • No new parking spaces required (existing parking must be maintained, but is not required to be bundled with dwelling units)
  • Automatic “by-right” entitlement for rental units in commercial or R5 zoning in buildings constructed before 1974
  • No environmental clearance for projects constructed “by-right”

This allows adaptive reuse projects to avoid almost all the NIMBY bugaboos, and deprives opponents of the leverage provided by the need to obtain discretionary approvals. It also allows projects to avoid the need to build expensive parking; as Manville writes, many developers have chosen to provide none or to offer it off-site.

The city has also facilitated growth downtown by other means, for example, selling the air rights above the convention center.

Why Are Other Neighborhoods Not Growing?

For most of the city, though, development doesn’t come so easy. Increasing demand has not been met by a boom in supply. Most neighborhoods don’t have a large supply of parking lots or vacant buildings to be redeveloped, and the city has been very reluctant to try to buck NIMBYism in the R1 zoned single-family residential (SFR) neighborhoods.

As a case study, consider the draft rezoning plans being developed for the five Expo Line Phase 2 stations that are within the City of LA (Culver City, Palms, Expo/Westwood, Expo/Sepulveda, and Expo/Bundy).

At Expo/Bundy and Expo/Sepulveda, there are significant amounts of land currently zoned M2 (light industrial). The plans propose maintaining some of that zoning, while converting other areas to new industrial zones including “New Industry”, “Hybrid Industrial (Max 30% Residential)”, and “Hybrid Industrial (Min 30% Job-Generating)”. The “industrial” classification is a little deceiving, since it allows office, R&D, media, and technology developments. Nevertheless, the New Industry zone precludes residential development entirely and only permits retail and restaurants as ancillary uses, and this is the most prevalent new zone. At Sepulveda, only two blocks are zoned Hybrid Industrial (Max 30% Residential), while at Bundy, four blocks are given that designation and three are given Hybrid Industrial (Min 30% Job-Generating). At Expo/Sepulveda, R1 zoning less than 0.25 miles from the station will remain. To the city’s credit, at Expo/Bundy planners did at least propose upzoning the R1 properties between the Expo Line and Pico, as potential options on the base plan.

At Expo/Westwood, almost the entire 0.25-mile radius around the station is currently zoned R1, even on the arterials (Overland and Westwood). The plans goal is to “preserve character of existing SFR neighborhoods”  and that’s what we’ll get, because all the R1 zoning is proposed to remain. The plan calls for upzoning a few R2 properties to R3, a largely symbolic gesture because that only increases density from 2 du/lot to 6 du/lot (assuming 5,000 SF lots). The lone bright spot for development is an upzoning of Pico between Sepulveda and Westwood to RAS4 (12 units per 5,000 SF lot with ground floor retail), but this amounts to only small portions of nine blocks fronting Pico.

The Palms plan might appear to be better, because it rezones Venice Blvd and Motor Av for a new “Mixed-Use (Min 20% Job-Generating)” zone with FAR of 2.0-3.6. However, Venice and Motor are currently zoned C2, which under the current zoning scheme already allows purely residential projects at R4 density. The Mixed-Use (Min 20% Job-Generating) zone therefore reduces some flexibility by requiring a commercial component. The small-scale residential and commercial developments that line Motor today couldn’t be built under that zone.

At Culver City, it’s more of the same industrial zoning, with three large blocks directly across Venice zoned New Industry and one further west, currently the site of a commercial plaza, for Hybrid Industrial (Max 30% Residential).

The plan also calls for current parking requirements to apply, except in “limited circumstances”.

The limited zoning changes produce the results you’d expect. The Spring 2014 outreach presentation projects that the plan will allow the construction of 4,422 new housing units by 2035, satisfying market demand of 3,800 to 6,400 units. So while downtown booms, under this plan, the Expo Line corridor won’t, because you can’t build a ton of housing if your zoning doesn’t allow for it. On the demand side, I submit that it is simply beyond belief that there will only be demand for 6,400 housing units within walking distance of those five transit stops in the next 20 years.

Conclusion

The downtown boom is great for LA, and it shows that when we want to, we can be pro-growth and get a lot of development built. But when growth is restricted across so much of the rest of the city, there will still be pressure on regional housing prices, and gentrification will continue. Downtown’s growth is remarkable, but we still need to figure out how to increase housing production elsewhere, so that the city can make space for all Angelenos, current and future.

Random Thoughts on La Cienega

So the other day, I found myself walking on La Cienega between La Cienega/Jefferson Station and the corner of La Cienega and Washington.

LaCienegaJefferson-general

This area is surprisingly industrial, which makes walking on the west side of La Cienega a little bland – there’s just not a lot there. We’re not talking about the huge factories or distribution warehouses you find in the IE; this is all small scale industry – small businesses and workshops. I have no problem with urban industrial districts, quite the opposite; for example, in my post on the Union Station area, I noted that progressives have a weird proclivity for waxing nostalgic about well-paying industrial jobs in theory, and regulating them out of existence in practice. From a selfish point of view, the world would be a little less magical if I didn’t get to smell See’s Candies making chocolates from the Expo Line when the wind blows the right way.

Industrial uses, by their very nature, have a high ratio of square footage to employees. If the west side of La Cienega is industrial, it’s kind of a border vacuum, so the east side really needs to pick up the slack. The blob of SFR zoning between La Cienega and Clyde (in yellow) really doesn’t help in that regard. The areas that look like they’re zoned for multi-family (in orange) are mostly zone RD1.5 and RD2, which require 1,500 SF and 2,000 SF of lot area per unit, making them relatively low density. Really, there shouldn’t be any zoning this light on the Westside.

LAzoning

For its part, Culver City has both sides of La Cienega zoned industrial, and the residential neighborhood to the west is zoned Two-Family Residential, which only allows SFRs and duplexes. Again, this is ridiculously low for the Westside.

CCzoning

But really, I wanted to write about two specific locations on La Cienega, not general land-use (hey, I said this was a random post).

La Cienega and Fairfax

This first one should be uncontroversial. If you’re walking on the east side of La Cienega (the more interesting side to walk on), there’s no crosswalk for you at Fairfax.

LaCienegaJefferson-zoom-base

This means that in practice, if you wanted to be safe, you’d have to detour all the way to Adams.

LaCienegaJefferson-detour

I’m aware that legally, there’s an “unmarked crosswalk” at Fairfax (as well as crossing Fairfax at Smiley and Perry). But let’s be real here. None of those locations have curb cuts. Crossing Fairfax at an unmarked crosswalk is dangerous, and probably nearly impossible at rush hour. It was Saturday morning, so my friend and I dashed across during a gap in traffic, but I wouldn’t want that to part of my day on a regular basis.

What’s really weird here is that at the signalized part of the intersection, they give you a crosswalk and pedestrian lights to cross to the traffic island – a place that, once you’re there, you have nowhere to go but back where you came. The problem for pedestrians on La Cienega could be fixed relatively easily: just add a repeater off the signal heads for La Cienega northbound on the ramp to Fairfax northbound. When La Cienega northbound is red, turn that light red too, and let people cross. There’s no need to add a new phase to the signal. Just a couple hundred feet of trench, a mast arm, two ped signal heads, and maybe three traffic signal heads. With luck, there’s spare room in the lamp drivers. I’d even accept a beg button here to placate traffic concerns (ped volumes are pretty low, but check out the Google Street view if you think no one walks here).

LaCienegaJefferson-zoom-1a

Now the other issue is less obvious: if you’re walking south on the east side of Fairfax, and you want to cross to the west side of La Cienega, this is a very roundabout path. Same goes for walking north on the west side of La Cienega and wanting to get to the east side of Fairfax.

LaCienegaJefferson-zoom-1issue

You could still solve this without changing the signal timing. Drop another crosswalk on Fairfax, with the signals showing the same thing as the ones at the first crosswalk. Add a crosswalk on La Cienega on the south side of Fairfax, which would run concurrently with the signal phase for Blackwelder. This one would require a beg button; I think the phase for Blackwelder is actuated (i.e. only comes up when a car is on the detector). This one might require some new hardware in the case.

LaCienegaJefferson-zoom-2

A longer term option would be to eliminate the high-speed geometry for the turn onto Fairfax, and tighten that move up into the main intersection. That would free up some space for a pocket park.

La Cienega/Jefferson Bus Loop

This idea will probably be a little less popular, and I’m not sure about it, but I’ll throw it out there anyway.

When the Expo Line was built, the La Cienega/Jefferson station got a 5-story parking garage on the southeast side and a bus loop off of Jefferson on the east side. The connecting bus services are routes 38, 105, 217, 705, and Culver City 4. The 105, 705, and Culver City 4 are just passing by on La Cienega, so in the interest of not delaying through passengers, we don’t want them to turn into the bus loop – they should just stop on La Cienega. The 38 runs from the Washington/Fairfax transit hub to downtown via Jefferson – a route not much different from Expo Line itself, and I wouldn’t expect many transfers. Turning into the loop would be trivial but unnecessary for the 38 eastbound, but would cause delays for the 38 westbound.

The only service for which using the loop really makes sense is the 217, because many trips originate or terminate at La Cienega/Jefferson, and it’s a time point for the route. The 217 never runs headways less than 12 minutes, so the traffic light for the bus loop is really only going to be used by 5 vehicles per hour.

On the other hand, the driveways for the parking garage are unsignalized, so your only option is to turn right onto La Cienega northbound or Jefferson eastbound. The former is fine, but pretty much no one wants to go east on Jefferson – they just came from downtown and probably want to go west on Jefferson or south on La Cienega. Want proof? Go hang out there in the afternoon, and watch how many cars come out and flip a u-turn in the middle of Jefferson. With minimal onsite work, the garage driveway could be reconfigured to use the bus loop traffic light so that traffic can turn left (there’s no current aerials, you’ll have to take my word for it).

A lot of people are probably not happy that the garage was built in the first place. The 476 parking spaces provided probably added something in the vicinity of $10-12 million to the cost of Expo Phase 1. To recover that cost, even with generous assumptions (5% interest rate, 50-year return period, each spot used 330 days a year), you’d have to charge over $4 per day for parking. Currently, the garage is pretty full, so it is being used, but Metro is giving the parking away for free. It’s unfair to subsidize parking for people who can afford a car, considering that the median income of LACMTA rail riders is about $26k and 55% don’t have a car.

I’d have no problem charging for parking, though note that since the garage doesn’t fill up, the marginal value of parking is currently $0. As ridership increases, charging for parking should become more viable. I’d also be pretty excited to see what someone could do in terms of adaptive reuse, and that might be a faster way to recoup the cost of building the garage. But until one of those things happens, why not make the best of things as they are today, and make it easy for drivers to turn left on Jefferson? I’d rather see people drive to a transit station than drive the whole way.

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.

The Problem With Palms Blvd

Just around the corner from my apartment in Palms is the neighborhood’s namesake boulevard. Running west from National at a half-diamond interchange with the 10, Palms is a heavily traveled arterial. For most of the way between National and Sawtelle, it is five lanes – two each way with a two-way center left turn lane – plus parking on each side. Between Mentone and Kelton, it’s the same width but with no center lane. Beyond Sawtelle, in Mar Vista, it fades away, losing a lane here and there until becoming a quiet neighborhood street in Venice.

But in my neighborhood, Palms has been set up to move cars, and it does a damn good job of it. Westside motorists have figured out a sneaky advantage of Palms is that it doesn’t have an interchange with the 405, which means it’s free of the spillover congestion that can plague National and Venice. If you’re coming from or going to the east via the 10, Palms is very convenient. Traffic regularly exceeds the 35 mph speed limit. (I was once a passenger in a shuttle that hit 55 mph on a three-block stretch.)

The result is that Palms is dangerous and it feels dangerous. Trying to cross the street at an unsignalized intersection during peak hours is a harrowing experience in a car, let alone as a pedestrian or cyclist. During the day, I generally don’t cross anywhere other than Overland, Motor, or National. I occasionally see cyclists brave the rush of traffic, but it is not something many people would feel comfortable doing. When I’m riding west, I go out of my way to take Tabor or National – I never ride on Palms. It is also dangerous for drivers, because the narrow lanes make it almost impossible to see oncoming traffic without pulling out into it.

PalmsCrash

The present situation is bad, but it is going to get worse when Expo Line Phase 2 opens. Palms is going to be one of the main pedestrian and bike routes to the station, providing a link to bicycle lanes on Motor and Overland, a function it cannot serve well in its current configuration. Unfortunately, the city’s 2010 Bicycle Plan calls for Palms to be Class III bicycle route, which it describes as appropriate for streets with low traffic volumes or wide outside lanes.

Neither of those conditions describes Palms. Traffic volumes are about 25,000-27,000 ADT, which is almost twice that (14,000-15,000 ADT) of the section of Motor that was recently converted from four lanes to three lanes with bike lanes. Palms is also narrow – five lanes of traffic and two lanes of parking in 64’ of roadway width (if you’re being generous) – so narrow, in fact, that I had a hard time believing Google Earth and went out to measure it for myself, an invigorating exercise even at 11 at night. The parking lanes are about 7’ wide, making each travel lane about 10’.

In short, Palms is classic example of an urban street where there is not enough room to make everybody happy. If we want to improve the facility for one set of uses, we are going to have to take space away from other uses. Parking, through traffic, walking, and bicycling – how do we split up the space? At present, the order of priorities seems to be as they are listed. Despite substandard travel lanes, parking has been maintained on both sides. Sidewalks are not generous, but they exist and are buffered by the parking lanes. Cyclists basically get shafted.

Sharrows just aren’t going to cut it here. The real test of a city’s commitment to safe streets for all is what it does in cases like this, where someone is going to get less than what they want. Thanks to Streetmix, playing around with street cross section is a breeze. Here’s the existing Palms Blvd.

palms-blvd

Now the laziest way to add bike lanes would be to just take the 10’ two-way center left turn lane and chop it up into two 5’ bike lanes. The obvious drawbacks are huge door zone problems (since a 7’ parking lane means the door is already on the stripe), being hard up against trucks in a narrow 10’ travel lane, and the increased danger for drivers turning left. Here’s Option 1:

palms-blvd-option-1

Eliminating a lane of parking would give everyone a little more breathing room. The 7’ bike lanes would probably need striping similar to the buffered bike lane on Montana in Santa Monica, especially where there is no parking, to emphasize that drivers shouldn’t park there. The eliminated lane of parking could alternate sides to always be on the side with more driveways, which would reduce the number of spaces lost. For example, between National and Jasmine, the south side parking would go; from Jasmine to Motor, the north side. As an added complication, there’s the question of how to treat bus stops where the bus would stop in the bike lane. Here’s Option 2:

palms-blvd-option-2

Another option would be retaining the parking and eliminating another travel lane, for a three-lane section. This is probably going to tax the capacity of the remaining travel lane. If we conservatively assume 50% of travel is in the peak 6 hours and a 65-35 directional split, the peak directional volume would be about 1,400 veh/hr – pretty close to the 1,600 veh/hr capacity of a regular traffic lane, and for certain beyond the capacity of the traffic signals. You might note that Palms westbound is currently operating with only one lane underneath the 10 due to Expo Line construction; you might also note that this isn’t working very well, because traffic backs up on National, Manning, and the ramp from the 10 westbound. Here’s Option 3:

palms-blvd-option-3

You could also envision that option with 5’ cycle tracks and 2’ buffers instead of 7’ bike lanes, but I’m not sure Palms (short blocks, many driveways and cross streets, narrow sidewalks which would encourage pedestrians to walk in the track) is the best place for that. One intriguing possibility for a cycle track option would be the ability to use peak-period parking lane conversions to address the traffic capacity issues. During peak periods, parking would be prohibited to provide the same capacity as today. Off-peak, the outside lane would be for parking, which would help discourage speeding when traffic volumes are low. Streetmix doesn’t seem to have the ability to do cycle tracks yet, so you’ll just have to use your noodle. Here’s Option 4:

palms-blvd-option-4

As a final option, you could maintain all the through traffic lanes and convert the parking lanes on both sides to bike lanes. The two-way center left turn lane could be selectively eliminated at bus stops to prevent buses from having to stop in the bike lanes. Here’s Option 5:

palms-blvd-option-5

Note here that in all these options, there is tension between competing uses. The option that saves all the parking and is best for bikes takes away the most traffic capacity. The option that is best for through traffic and bikes takes away parking. And the option that is best for through traffic and parking (i.e. existing configuration) is worst for bikes. The competition for space in cities is natural, and we’re not going to be able to give everybody what they want.

Here’s a summary of the parking lost to Option 2 or Option 5.

PalmsParkingTable

The lost parking could be mitigated by trying to get agreements with local commercial and public properties to allow resident parking at night. Example locations would include the Vons Plaza, Palms Elementary School, the retail parking in the new building at Palms & Motor, Palms Middle School, and the plazas at Palms & Sepulveda. If 89 parking spaces lost is too much for you to accept, you could go with a hybrid of Option 1 between Mentone and Kelton (where there’s no two-way center left turn lane today) and Option 2 elsewhere, which would reduce the parking impact to 46 spaces lost.

My personal order of preference for solutions would be Option 3 or Option 4 (depending on traffic analysis and someone who knows more than me about cycle track design looking at the suitability of Palms for cycle tracks), and then Option 2 or Option 5 (depending on the relative trade-offs of keeping some parking versus keeping the two-way center left turn lane). But even the Option 1/Option 2 hybrid or Option 1 would be an improvement over the way things are today.

Of course, there probably plenty of other alternatives I’m not thinking of, so get over to Streetmix and work up your own option!

Note: I’m showing 6’ as the sidewalk width, even though it’s wider towards the outside in some places, and west of Kelton there are grass strips between the curb and sidewalk. The ROW west of Overland is definitely wider, which would give more flexibility there. I realize that none of these options improve sidewalk width; I’m just looking at what we could do with paint here. Moving the curb requires adjusting drainage inlets and possibly regrading the road, which turns this from essentially a maintenance project into a capital project.

Traffic Calming Gets Coopted

Call it the Law of NIMBY Assimilation: any urban planning or street design concept will eventually be adopted into the NIMBY Cannon as a justification for opposing development.

The LA Times has an article up today about the turning restrictions at National and Motor in my neighborhood, Palms. The restrictions always seemed strange to me, but now they make perfect sense: wealthy people in Cheviot Hills demanded these traffic calming measures. . .

Wait, what? Traffic calming? Turning restrictions like these can be used as traffic calming measures in places where drivers are trying to get around congested arterials by cutting through small neighborhood streets. Whip out your favorite mapping app and take a look – that doesn’t describe Motor, which was pretty clearly always intended to be an arterial from Culver City to Century City (or Sony to Fox, if you prefer). The developers who laid out Cheviot Hills weren’t idiots – they designed the side streets with an irregular curvilinear grid so that they wouldn’t be logical routes for through traffic. What we have here is not “people are turning onto our side street and doing 45 mph”, but something entirely different: “the city has grown and we don’t care for the results”.

Livable streets advocates might be inclined to support resident efforts to reduce traffic, but this is like the Bus Riders Union backing Beverly Hills lawsuits against the Purple Line: in general, it’s not a good idea to give your support to people who fundamentally disagree with your principles, even if they’ve somehow reached the same conclusion as you.

The mindset that lets people in Cheviot Hills think they shouldn’t have to deal with traffic on Motor is the same mindset that lets them think that Expo Phase 2 should be stopped because of obviously specious safety concerns, hyperventilating about the bike path, and a technicality on traffic analysis. It’s the mindset that says Cheviot Hills and Rancho Park should forever remain SFRs despite enormous investment in infrastructure (the 10, the 405, Expo Line, Purple Line) and enormous growth in employment in the surrounding areas. It’s the mindset that says bike lanes must never reduce the availability of street parking. In short, it’s the same mindset that says that existing neighborhoods must be insulated from any change in the city at large. And it needs to stop.

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.

What Are the Arguments Against New Freeway Capacity?

The current conventional wisdom in urban planning is that freeways are bad. As a result, the usual response to any plan to build a new freeway or widen an existing one is to throw the book at it, and hope something sticks. This is straight out of the NIMBY playbook, and if you have enough money and good lawyers, you can usually find some technicality that will at least delay the project and force the proponents to pretend that they like to waste their money on “mitigation”. These arguments don’t have to be logically consistent, they just have to work. For example, you can argue that the new freeway lanes will be filled with cars before you know it, and that the new freeway lanes will go unused. Take your pick.

Engineers, though, we’re pretty agnostic. You go to school to learn how to design railroads, and in calculus, you sit next to someone going to school to learn how to help the CIA blow up railroads with unmanned drones. Whatevs. And that’s how it should be. You don’t want the police selectively deciding what laws they’re gonna enforce and who’s gonna be on the receiving end of that enforcement based on their personal opinions. And you don’t want your engineers to do a crappy job on your track design because they have a philosophical disagreement with streetcars. By the time things reach the engineers, all the relevant planning decisions have already been made. Even if I think your project is a bad idea, I’m gonna give you the best damn design possible.

When I look at things at a planning level, I try to bring that same sense of doing things efficiently. When I get upset about a freeway project, it’s not because it’s a freeway per se, but because (a) it’s in a place where there’s no need for any new transpo or (b) there would be a better way of meeting the travel demand. There are lots of bad freeway projects in the US, that are a waste of money and resources because they’re not very efficient. The planning level is the right level at which to stop these projects. So with that in mind, here’s an engineer’s assessment of the quality of planning level arguments against new freeway capacity.

No Demand

An easy one to forget, but like the do-nothing alternative, sometimes it’s the best. If there’s no demand for the facility, there’s obviously no point in building it. Since there is usually pent-up travel demand in cities, this argument is best applied to the pointlessly proliferating pork barrel rural freeways like the I-99 and the I-69.

Induced Demand

If anything, this is an argument in favor of new freeway capacity. Induced demand, as Kurumi whimsically put it, is the tragedy of a highway, once built, being used as intended. When urban planners talk about induced demand, they always do so as if it were some evil willed into existence by the freeway – like the additional people and goods moving around are just out there for the hell of it. But that additional traffic represents people who were able to move to the city for a better job, businesses that were able to reach more customers, friends who were able to head across town to meet for dinner.

Put another way, let’s say that we decrease the peak period headways on the Blue Line from 6 minutes to 4 minutes, and in a couple years, all the new trains are just as full as the existing trains today. Would anyone make the argument that the project was a failure because the trains are just as crowded? Of course not.

Increased traffic volumes do result in an increase in negative externalities like air pollution. The proper course of action is to appropriately price the negative externalities of driving. Indeed, if externalities were appropriately priced, the apparent need for many freeway projects would vanish. Controlling them by restricting capacity is like controlling people’s sewage output by not installing a larger pipe. It might work, but it’s not pretty.

Declining VMT

Now we’re getting somewhere. In the past, traffic predictions were usually too low. Today, they seem to be too high. If you’re reading this, odds are there’s no need for me to go into too much detail, but per capita vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) has been declining since 2004. This is due to a combination of the Baby Boomers aging (old people drive less), young people wanting to drive less, a significant increase in the price and price volatility of gasoline, stricter licensing laws, and the general economic malaise of the last decade. The relative importance of each of those factors is determined, of course, by the writer’s preexisting bias.

Declining per capita VMT can be a pretty solid argument against increasing freeway capacity, but it depends on the rate of population growth in your region. Let’s say that per capita VMT is declining at 1% per year. If you’re Houston, and your population is growing at 2.2% per year, the total VMT in your region is still going to up. Empty capacity in Cleveland doesn’t do you any good. Now, you could argue that something else would be a better transportation alternative than a freeway to meet that demand, but that’s a different argument, discussed in more detail later.

On the other hand, what if you’re Cleveland or Buffalo or Detroit, or any city that has lost population in the core while growth in the region has been anemic, if that? Well, you might want to reconsider expanding your roads. It’s hard to imagine that any of those three cities needs a major roadway expansion project. You have to wonder what MDOT is thinking when they write an EIR for widening the I-94 that says the city might lose residents due to the negative externalities of the wider freeway, but that they can be replaced with more commerce. Really, Detroit is lacking vacant land for commerce?

So declining per capita VMT might be a good argument; it depends on the city.

Parking Capacity

This starts to get into network effects, which are naturally more difficult to understand and model, and therefore more readily ignored. You could say that you don’t want to make it easier for people to drive to a destination because it will make the parking situation worse. Parking capacity is nominally easy to fix by building structured parking, and at some point, people will just stop driving to the place if they expect parking to be exceedingly difficult to find. This isn’t really an argument against building new freeway capacity so much as an argument for better parking policies, which is a separate issue. I think some guy named Donald Shoup wrote a book about that.

Local Street Capacity

Insufficient local street capacity is a great argument against building new freeway capacity. Local street capacity is limited by the available ROW, the need to provide space for competing uses like sidewalks, bike lanes, and street parking, and the need to split green time between conflicting movements at traffic signals.

Jarrett Walker likes to say that one of the best arguments for transit is geometry, because no technology can repeal its laws. Likewise, an important feature of the local street capacity constraint is that geometry makes it very difficult to resolve. Ultimately, and fairly quickly, you run into the need to do things like grade separate intersections and widen ROWs – things that are very expensive and unpopular, to say nothing of ruining the attributes that made the destination attractive in the first place.

A classic example of this is the 10 freeway in Santa Monica. There is a lot of congestion going westbound in the morning, starting at the off-ramp to Cloverfield and 26th and building back from there. The two-lane off-ramp queues back onto the highway, and before long, it’s curtains for all the westbound lanes and the ramps from the 405 too. The issue here is that the local streets in that area are saturated. It would be pointless, perhaps even counterproductive, to widen the 10, because it might make the situation on the local streets worse, and there’s no room to expand those streets.

Local street capacity in Long Beach is popping up as a reason to not widen the 405 in Orange County, and it’s a great argument. (Contrast this with the congestion on the 10 east at the junction with the 110, where the primary issue seems to be insufficient weaving distance on the 110 at the downtown exit and the 101.)

Better Transportation Alternative

As an engineer, this is pretty much living the dream. Nothing makes an engineer more content than coming up with a more efficient way to do things. And happily, there are a lot of ways to come up with a better transportation alternative. It could be a transit option. It could be fixing bad parking policies. It could be something that costs less. It could be just making more efficient use of existing infrastructure through things like improving signal timings and ramp metering.

This is the reason that all good engineers should love bike infrastructure. Even if you don’t think biking is fun, even if you ignore the health benefits, even if you think the political left is using it as a pretext to turn ‘Murica into China or Europe, in your cold engineer’s heart, you have to accept that biking is a very efficient way to serve mid-distance trips that are too far for walking, but not long enough to capitalize on the advantages of cars or transit. The advantages of cars and transit increase as the length of the trip increases, but the disadvantages are relatively fixed access problems, e.g. getting to/from the transit station or parking and getting to/from the arterials and freeways.

Los Angeles, coincidentally, is a city with huge bike potential. The pattern of development and density in LA naturally lends itself to trips of that length, and the street grid makes it easy to provide the infrastructure.

Case Study: Expo Line

Let’s take a look at an LA case study: the Expo Line, as compared with the option to widen a competing freeway, the 10, between Downtown LA and Santa Monica.

Note that right away, we can see that induced demand is no good. You’re fooling yourself if you think auto travel on the 10 and transit trips on the Expo Line are zero-sum. We’re certainly hoping that the Expo Line is going to induce some demand! Declining VMT is probably not a good argument here either. The LA area keeps growing, traffic on the 10 is already terrible, and the Westside in particular would be gaining population quickly if we’d get rid of the foolish zoning that prevents it from happening.

Parking capacity is a pretty good argument in Santa Monica and Downtown LA. As much as people in Palms and Culver City might complain, the parking situation there is actually pretty liquid. As surface parking lots and low-rise buildings in Santa Monica and Downtown LA are converted to mid-rise buildings, hotels, and high-rises by market demand, the cost of building parking spaces goes way up, because a structure parking spot costs about ten times what a surface spot does. If parking is unbundled and parking minimums are eliminated, many trips to or from these locations will naturally gravitate to transit, which is a more efficient way of serving those trips. This also makes a greater variety of land uses viable, and that’s a good thing. Finally, Carter Rubin would tell us that building more structured parking in Santa Monica will have a negative effect on the economic productivity of the area.

Local street capacity is a really good argument in both Santa Monica and Downtown LA, because in both places, the local street network is saturated during peak periods. In downtown, some of this is spillover congestion from the gridlock on the 110 and the 101. In Santa Monica, the aforementioned congestion on Cloverfield, as well as the greater 3rd St area (Ocean to Lincoln, Pico to Wilshire), seems to me to be almost entirely a function of local streets being maxed out. Expo Line allows for growth to continue in both neighborhoods without the need to undertake expensive highway projects. Palms and Culver City local streets aren’t terrible, though downtown Culver City can be bad at times.

Right in line with parking capacity and local street capacity constraints, we can see that the Expo Line is a better transportation alternative than widening the 10. A new lane on the 10 would have a capacity of about 2,300 veh/hr, or at an occupancy of 1.5 pax/veh, 3,450 pax/hr. The Expo Line, running 6 minute headways, has a capacity of about 10 train x 3 veh/train x 100 pax/veh = 3,000 pax/hr. The difference is, the congestion on the 10 is so bad, there’s no way it actually will carry that many people during peak periods. (Many people would argue that we could eliminate that issue with congestion pricing; while I’m in favor of HOT lanes, I think the idea of tolling all freeway lanes is impractical – an issue I’ll take up another time.)

Since Expo Line and the 10 don’t follow exactly the same corridor, there’s the benefit of providing better transportation to parts of the city that wouldn’t benefit as much from the 10 project. It lets trips on the Expo Line corridor avoid traveling north-south to the 10. That spreads the transportation wealth, since people near the 10 already have a high-quality transportation facility. (Some people don’t like living near a freeway, but hop on Westside Rentals and see how many listings say “convenient to the 405”.)

In terms of cost, Expo Line is probably a winner too. Widening the 405 by one lane between the 10 and the 101, about 10 miles, is costing over $1b. The project to add four lanes to the 5 between the 605 and Artesia, about 7 miles, is $1.6b but doesn’t involve the amount of retaining walls of the 405 project or a potential project on the 10, though it likely needs more ROW. Adding two lanes to the 10 between 4th St and Crenshaw, the logical limits and about 10 miles, would probably at least $2b. Add in the costs of additional parking and local street capacity in Santa Monica and downtown LA, and you’re in the neighborhood of the Expo Line’s $2.5b cost. The Expo Line will also make efficient use of available capacity elsewhere in the system (Gold Line and the forthcoming Regional Connector) that is not available to a project on the 10, since the 110 and the 101 are jacked.

Argue Smart

A victory on a technicality might feel great in the short run, but in the long run it’s Pyrrhic. The proponents of projects get wise and produce ever more voluminous studies. The same tactics can be used to stop good projects; pick your favorite transit project, and odds are it’s facing a bogus NIMBY lawsuit. Continued frustrations build a political movement to change the laws on environmental review (which, though I think it needs to be addressed, if done poorly could open the door for harmful projects). You can only win on technicalities for so long, as Expo Line opponents just found out.

Stick to the arguments above, though, and you’ll have a solid case every time. Laws can fix trivial details, but they can’t change the laws of logic, geometry, and efficiency.

No Need for TOD Radii

A few weeks ago, Matthew Yglesias was in Somerville, blogging about how you can get a lot of density out of low-rise development. That’s an important point, and low-rise density is one of LA’s greatest strengths, something I’ll be posting on extensively here. But today, I want to talk about a reply that Aaron Naparstek tweeted:

Naparstek-Somerville

That doesn’t seem right to me, because it’s not like you need a car to get around Inman. The residential density resulting from historic patterns of development in Somerville is not correlated to proximity to rail stops, yet everyone seems to agree that it works pretty well.

Now, along comes ACCESS and publishes an article questioning the validity of half-mile radii for TOD at transit stop. Check out Figure 1. It shows that once you go past 0.5 miles, the increase in transit ridership holds up remarkably well as distance increases. A 100-resident  development will generate about 25 riders at 0.5 miles out. Move it twice as far and it still generates about 18 riders. Employment generates even more ridership and ridership holds up even better – at 100-job development at 0.5 miles will generate about 40 riders, and at 1.0 miles about 35 riders.

Not surprisingly, Figure 1 looks suspiciously like a demand curve: amount of transit demanded versus the cost (in distance) of transit. Demand is not a fixed quantity. Some people will pay more to walk less, but others will walk more to pay less. Housing and commercial space that is located closest to the transit stop is going to be the most expensive. Of course, that’s partly because it’s close, but it’s also because there’s less of it. Within 0.5 mile of a station, there’s 500 acres of land. But between 0.5 and 1.0 miles, there’s 1,500 acres of land. Given the same intensity of development, the 0.5 to 1.0 mile zone will probably generate more ridership.

In other words, if you upzone a fixed radii around your transit station, you miss the opportunity to provide housing and business opportunities for people willing to walk  or bike further. In fact, you may be missing out on a majority of the ridership potential, and failing to allow development that would really help lower and middle income residents. This is a lesson that Los Angeles should keep in mind as it looks at changing the zoning around Expo Line stations.