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To make transit work, does LA need to make driving harder?

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A recent UCLA report suggests ballot initiatives may not be enough

Less than 7 percent use public transit, according to census figures.
By f11photo / Shutterstock

Los Angeles voters have made it clear they’re willing to tax themselves for more transit options.

But, so far, most residents aren’t displaying much interest in riding: Metro ridership declined for the fifth straight year in 2018, and census data show nearly 75 percent of Los Angeles County commuters still drive to and from work by themselves. Less than 7 percent use public transit.

A new UCLA study suggests there may be a good reason for that: Transit systems thrive in places where it’s difficult or expensive to drive. In 2016, when LA County voters approved Measure M, a sales tax measure funding transportation infrastructure, backers of the initiative billed it as a solution to LA’s traffic congestion.

That means that many voters may be less interested in an alternative to driving and more interested in faster trips on the freeway—which could present problems for LA officials struggling to address rising tailpipe emissions.

“It doesn’t get us anywhere to pretend that we can change LA and make it more sustainable and accessible without having some sort of reckoning with the extent to which we’ve organized the landscape around the car,” says UCLA urban planning professor Michael Manville, who authored the report released last month.

“If you feel like the most reliable way to politically secure transit funding is to say you and your car are going to go faster,” he argues, “that might explicitly contradict arguments for making a more transit-friendly built environment.”

What does a more transit-friendly built environment look like? Manville points out that cities like New York or Washington, D.C., where transit ridership is high, have dense urban centers where parking is both scarce and expensive.

The Los Angeles metropolitan area is actually more dense than the greater New York region, but that density is spread out through crowded suburbs and relatively large municipalities that border the city proper. New York’s central city, meanwhile, is nearly four times denser than that of Los Angeles.

That leaves LA in a difficult situation.

Right now, its landscape is dense enough to ensure regular traffic jams; but since that density isn’t concentrated in any one place, it’s harder to build a transit network that would be more convenient to most people than driving.

Manville says building more housing near transit stops—and less parking—would give more people incentive to ride. But these options might not be popular with those who supported Measure M in hopes it would reduce their drive time.

Voter surveys Manville conducted shortly after the 2016 election indicate that only about half of those who voted for the ballot initiative also support the construction of more housing in the Los Angeles area. Just 40 percent were in favor of reduced parking requirements near bus stops and train stations.

“Seeing that 70 percent of people support a sales tax for more transit might create a false impression that there’s a lot of consensus about building a transit-oriented city,” Manville says. “Because now, when we go to build this rail line, we want a corridor of density; we don’t want a lot of parking; we want a walkable environment. That’s a really big change compared to, ‘I’m going to buy a TV and my sales tax is a little higher.’”

Right now, Manville points out, LA’s transit system primarily serves low-income residents who may struggle to afford the costs of car travel. Reversing recent ridership declines, he suggests, could be as simple as reducing fares.

But with sales tax money rolling in, Metro is taking on the more difficult task of creating a transit system capable of competing with the automobile. To do that, Manville contends that both voters and elected officials will have to take a more realistic look at what makes transit systems successful in places where a larger share of residents are regular riders.