Wed, Nov

Mass Transit Experience in LA: If You Build it, They Won’t Come!


CORRUPTION WATCH-Someday, I expect medical science will vindicate my belief that “thinking can physically hurt.” I arrived at this conclusion a few decades ago after I had an auto accident in which a gigantic moving van tried to plow down my little Buick on the Harbor Freeway. 

For a couple weeks afterwards, whenever I would try to think, I had such a headache. If I watched “I Love Lucy” re-runs, I had no pain, but to try to figure out anything, it truly hurt inside my head. I recall that when I was a teacher, some kids would complain that they didn’t like math because it made their heads hurt.   

So, I constantly worry whether I am merely pleased-as-punch with my ideas on planning and mass transit so that I can avoid the pain of mastering new ideas. On the other hand, perhaps other people who have spent their lives with their own traditional theories are the ones who want to avoid the pain of new thoughts. 

Let’s look at some facts about mass transit and see whose brain gets the most pain. In particular, consider INTRA-urban fixed mass rail transit. This includes subways, light rail and trolleys within one urban area (which will cover several cities like LA, Beverly Hills, Inglewood, etc.) A train between San Bernardino and Los Angeles, however, would be INTER-Urban. That is also a subject worthy of discussion, but not for this short article. 

There are three main things to examine when thinking about INTRA-Urban fixed rail mass transit:  Mathematics, Topography (geography), and Finances. (See 1915 Study of Street Traffic Conditions in City of Los Angeles for extensive study of these factors.) 

(1) Mathematics 

Math! Ugh, already some people have brain ache, but the subject is crucial. For more than a century, planners have known that people in urban areas will not walk more than half a mile to reach mass transit when there is an alternative. (Recently, I have seen Metro use 1/4 mile as the maximum walking distance.) 

This Half Mile Fact Links Mathematics to Topography 

(2) Topography -- the detailed study of land features. There are three basic land types for mass transit.  

  • Peninsular Urban Areas: These are narrow areas like Manhattan which is 2.5 miles by 11 miles with the East River on one side and the Hudson River on the other side. These are real rivers – not driblets of water like the LA River (except when it wants to flood and wash away Los Angeles). The Manhattan type is rare and it is the diametric opposite of Los Angeles. Anyone who pretends LA and NYC are similar urban areas is forcing the proverbial square peg into a round hole. 
  • Valley Type: Where the main city is located in a Valley and the steep hills like wide rivers impede the population from spreading laterally. Pittsburgh began as such a city. 
  • Large Circular areas: Los Angeles is this type as it expands for miles upon miles with no obstruction. When it finally reaches the mountains and the ocean, the urban area comprises several thousand square miles, while a Peninsula area like Manhattan is only 22.5 square miles (Manhattan is not a perfect rectangle). 

It’s apparent that Manhattan can easily accommodate the Half Mile Rule. Run one line up the East Side and one line up the West Side and put a huge park in the center and the city is covered. Add a few more trunks and a subway system that functions well. 

Now try to plan a subway system for Los Angeles. Draw about 20 concentric circles since it is about 20 miles from DTLA to the Ocean and then do the mathematics. Brain freeze. One quickly finds that it is impossible to design a fixed rail system which serves the entire area with stations every half mile. 

Now Let’s Add in Finances 

How much would it cost to operate Los Angeles fixed rail system? New York City’s subway, which is the nation’s most profitable system, has an $8 billion per year deficit – about the total annual budget for the City of Los Angeles. The $8 billion is in addition to constructing the system. As we saw, though, it is not logistically feasible to construct a fixed-rail system here with a station every half mile.  If one places stations at every one mile, to reduce construction costs, then 50% of the ridership and 50% of future revenue is gone. 

Fixed-Rail Is Self-Defeating 

Let’s assume that by some magic we construct enough fixed rail lines to reduce traffic congestion, what would happen? People would start driving again. Thus, fixed-rail transit has a built-in psychological negative: as soon as it reduces traffic congestion, people will take to their cars. 

Almost everyone who votes for billions of dollars for subways does so under the delusion that subways will reduce surface traffic. Instantly, people see the financial disaster of billions of annual deficits so they insist on constructing huge office towers and masses of luxury apartments in the false believe that people will use the subways. We know that people hate this type of living and that’s why the vacancy rate in new construction is so high. In DTLA, the vacancy rate is higher than at any time in the last 17 years. 

Density Causes Traffic Congestion 

Building more high rises near subways or other fixed-rail lines will increase traffic congestion. People who can afford to live in these fancy high rises do not use mass transit. Thus, even if each project ends up only 30% filled, it will have more residents with more cars. Additional apartment density means more traffic congestion. Already, new subways and high-rise construction have given Los Angeles the worse traffic congestion in the entire world. 

The Poor Also Hate Fixed-rail 

It can take two to three times as long to use fixed-rail than to drive a car. Time is money and as science has recently reported, lack of time means lack of sleep which results in early death. When poorer people can afford it, they avoid mass transit. Increasingly, they solve their problem by moving away from LA. While the poor have less money, they do not like being deprived any more than the wealthy do. 

LA is Constructing an Eternal Nightmare 

We must remember than when we construct a subway, it will be there for decades, costing us money each year for maintenance and operation.  Within the foreseeable future, we will have electric, self-driving cars. That will expand the number of people who can use cars. The elderly, who no longer feel safe driving, will be able to use a car and kids will also be able to use cars. Adults can sleep, meditate or watch TV in their cars without being mugged. People will be able to send their self-driving cars to stores to pick up groceries their refrigerators automatically order. We need to do a lot of thinking about the future of transportation before we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on subways and fixed rail transit.

When compared to the over-all costs of mass transit, owning an old car is a good deal. If they move away from LA and its high housing costs, many poor people find that they can afford a car. Despite the constant propaganda, cars are preferable to mass transit. The car stays at your home and when it takes you somewhere, it does not drop you off a half mile from your destination. If you want to shop at Ralphs on the way home, your car doesn’t say, “No way.” Try making the subway stop at Ralphs. 

If you push through the mental pain of analyzing the math, topology and finances, it’s understandable why a small percentage of people use fixed-rail even though the politicos are urging us to build more of it. 

De-densify or Die! 

And there is one additional fact we need to understand – Los Angeles does not need to de-densify! With the advent of self-driving electric cars and Virtual Presence, there is no rational reason to increase urban density. Absurd over-construction is creating a traffic nightmare. The sole reason for developments like Bunker Hill, etc., is to make a few crooked land owners and their political hacks vastly wealthy while we pay the cost.


(Richard Lee Abrams is a Los Angeles attorney and a CityWatch contributor. He can be reached at: [email protected]. Abrams views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.