Friday, July 23, 2010

LA Times Disses Metro Rail for its 20th Birthday

I'm here to talk to you about the Dan Weikel's latest piece in the LA Times: LA officials to mark 20th anniversary of Metro Rail system.

The article strongly suggests LA County's passenger rail system is a failure because transit supposedly has not increased it's "market share" and because traffic congestion has not decreased in the last 20 years.

First of all I want to attack the framing of this notion of failure. There are purposes for transit besides increasing the percentage of people that use it and reducing traffic, these include: improving conditions for existing transit users including but not limited to seniors, the disabled, and low income riders; improving the environmental performance of transit vehicles; promoting walkable urban development that expands housing and commercial opportunities and saves land; and more.

Next, we have to be careful how we measure "market share". The main measure I see used in general is census figures about how people get to work. The main problem with these figures is that they only measure people with jobs (hence they don't measure many students, the unemployed, or the retired, all of whom may be more likely to use transit) and don't measure trips besides the trip to work (shopping, visits, pleasure trips, etc.).

The article points out that bus fares in 1985 were $.50 ($1.01 in 2010 dollars) and are $1.50 today. I agree that transit fares should be as low as possible, given other goals the agency has. However, it is short-sighted to say that the rail wasn't worth building because it took away some resources to keep fares lower.

Building a rail system is about changing how people perceive transit. It is about changing how we build cities, and constructing it is worth a medium-run sacrifice. If you want to blame something for fare increases, how about a chronically dysfunctional state government in which it takes a 2/3 vote to raise a tax because of Proposition 13.

Ultimately, physical infrastructure alone cannot make us a sustainable transportation system. We have to be willing to behave differently about how we travel, about the kinds of buildings we permit, about how much parking we require. Metro Rail has given us more freedom to live well without cars than we have had in decades. It's not perfect, but it's a damn good start and a bold vision for a better Los Angeles.

At the end of the day, we have to step up and embrace it. Because there are few things more annoying and hypocritical than a motorist complaining about self-inflicted traffic . . .


  1. So wait a second. Most Los Angelenos won't ride a bus if their life depended on it, but the rail system destroyed Metro's ridership?


  2. I'll buy Dan Weikel a day pass if he wants one :)

  3. But will you chip in for the required TAP card as well? :D

  4. Ugh, don't get me started on the hassles of acquiring a TAP card . . .