Thursday, November 30, 2017
The great transit rip-off
AP Photo/Jae C. HongIn this Saturday, May 16, 2015 photo, A Metro Expo Line train travels as traffic builds up on the 110 freeway in Los Angeles.
By JOEL KOTKIN and WENDELL COX | Orange County Register
PUBLISHED: August 27, 2017 at 12:06 am | UPDATED: August 27, 2017 at 8:42 am
Over the past decade, there has been a growing fixation among planners and developers alike for a return to the last century’s monocentric cities served by large-scale train systems. And, to be sure, in a handful of older urban regions, mass transit continues to play an important — and even vital — role in getting commuters to downtown jobs. Overall, a remarkable 40 percent of all transit commuting in the United States takes place in the New York metropolitan area — and just six municipalities make up 55 percent of all transit commuting destinations.
But here’s an overlooked fact: Transit now serves about the same number of riders as it did in 1907, when the urban population was barely 15 percent of what it is today. Most urban regions, such as Southern California, are nothing like New York — and they never will be. Downtown Los Angeles may be a better place in which to hang out and eat than in the past, but it sorely lacks the magnetic appeal of a place like Manhattan, or even downtown San Francisco. Manhattan, the world’s second-largest employment center, represents a little more than 20 percent of the New York metropolitan area’s employment. In Los Angeles, by contrast, the downtown area employs just 2 percent.
Transit is failing in Southern California
As we demonstrate in a new report for Chapman University, our urban form does not work well for conventional mass transit. Too many people go to too many locales to work, and, as housing prices have surged, many have moved farther way, which makes trains less practical, given the lack of a dominant job center. But in its desire to emulate places like New York, Los Angeles has spent some $15 billion trying to evolve into what some East Coast enthusiasts call the “next great transit city.”
The rail lines have earned Mayor Eric Garcetti almost endless plaudits from places like the New York Times. Yet, since 1990, transit’s work trip market share has dropped from 5.6 percent to 5.1 percent. MTA system ridership stands at least 15 percent below 1985 levels, when there was only bus service, and the population of Los Angeles County was about 20 percent lower. In some places, like Orange County, the fall has been even more precipitous, down 30 percent since 2008. It is no surprise, then, that, according to a recent USC study, the new lines have done little or nothing to lessen congestion.
This experience is not limited to L.A. Most of the 19 metropolitan areas with new mass transit rail systems — including big cities like Atlanta, Houston, Dallas and even Portland, Ore. — have experienced a decline in transit market share since the systems began operations.
Transit as social engineering
To achieve their transit goals, boosters in Southern California and other wannabe metros need to “elect a new people,” to paraphrase German Communist playwright Bertolt Brecht. Desperate to force commuters onto trains, they feel compelled to foster a dense, “pack and stack” housing pattern that they feel might better fit the needs of expanding transit agencies.
Virtually all housing development proposals are required to be “transit-oriented,” which seems bizarre, given the sector’s declining market share. Meanwhile, poor people get degraded local bus service and ever-higher gas prices to accommodate a supposed surge of wealthier potential transit riders. This won’t help them find jobs, either. In the Los Angeles metropolitan area, for a commute of 30 minutes or less, the average employee is within 60 times as many jobs by car as by transit.
Are there alternatives?
Rather than try to re-engineer the region, perhaps we should seek mobility solutions that can work. Building new rail lines — and, and even more absurdly, trolleys, which average a pathetic 8 miles per hour — will do nothing relieve traffic. More densification can be expected only to worsen congestion.
Arguably, the most promising step would be to encourage work at home. There are already more people working at home than transit riders in Southern California. Since 1990, home office use increased by eight times that of transit use, with virtually no public expenditure. Home-based workers, needless to say, do not receive subsidies.
Ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, cited as a factor in the recent ridership declines in Los Angeles — and even New York — can also provide cost-effective solutions. Already, one local transit operator in suburban San Francisco has established a one-year pilot program to extend local transit service through ride-hailing, and canceled a lightly patronized bus route, reducing costs while providing quicker door-to-door service.
Furthermore, rapidly evolving autonomous technologies could speed up traffic along freeways. They may take time to gain widespread acceptance, but are likely to be in place well before the much-ballyhooed “build-out” of the Los Angeles rail system, which, in any case, cannot make transit commuting remotely competitive with the car, except, perhaps, for very few. Under any circumstance, autonomous technology seems likely to further weaken conventional transit.
Southern Californians need to demand transportation policies that accommodate them, not those that merely acquiesce to the urbanist fantasies of planners, politicians and developers. Decision-makers need to both embrace our geography and economic form and look for 21st-century solutions to 21st-century problems.
Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism (www.opportunityurbanism.org). Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, a St. Louis-based public policy firm, and was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission.