How We Roll, Sept. 15: where’s the transportation goal line?

Dept. of What I’d Like to Write: 

After three days of hanging out at the J.W. Marriott at the annual meeting of the American Public Transportation Assn., I’m back in my cage/cubicle. I wish I could remember more of the past three days, but those APTA guys — man do they know how to hit a convention hard. The bus guys from Steubenville…I’m not even going to say what we did after hours at the Zoo with a TAP card, elephant and case of Iron City, but that was definitely one of the best nights of my life. You go, Steubies! 

Dept. of What I Will Write: 

Thank you to the American Public Transportation Assn. for bringing the annual meeting to Los Angeles. We hope that everyone had a great and informative time here. The panel discussions were honest, frank and the exchange of ideas addressed many of our industry’s most pressing challenges. Bringing mobility to the lives of Americans — especially those without choices — is a noble deed and it was great to see so many people taking that task so seriously. 

Art of Transit: 

Another attempt at capturing the many construction cranes over DTLA these days. Photo by Steve Hymon.

Another attempt at capturing the many construction cranes over DTLA these days. Photo by Steve Hymon.

Note: This post is a little bit of a work-in-progress. There has been a lot of transpo stuff spinning around my head this year and this is an attempt to organize my thoughts and try to explain mobility issues.

Can L.A. get 100,000 cars off the road in five years? (Curbed LA)

A nonprofit group released a plan on Wednesday, holding a presser at the aforementioned APTA conference. Even though this was an advocacy group’s plan and not an official Government Thing, city and Metro officials participated and generally expressed support for the region having more transit, Zipcars, cheap taxis* and bike sharing — all things that sound peachydandy to me.

As for the event/panel discussion, it felt to me like a bit of an exercise in transportation buzzwording. But then LAT transpo scribe Laura Nelson asked a question: what’s the baseline? In other words, how does this group intend to measure success? No great answer was forthcoming, perhaps because it was a good, tough question.

In my notes, I typed “where’s the goal line?” Meaning….what are we really after here? Fewer cars in L.A. County? Less traffic congestion? A complete land-use makeover? (I’m pitching that to HGTV, btw).

Delving into the Shared Use Mobility Center’s report, it seems like the baseline might be the number of registered vehicles in the city of L.A., which is almost 2.1 million. But let’s think bigger. Because Metro is a county agency, let’s consider that L.A. County has nearly 6.3 million autos, 7.8 million vehicles and about 10.1 million people.

As baselines go, the number of vehicles isn’t bad. But I’m hesitant to call it good. L.A. — like many big metro areas — has had hair-raising traffic for decades, even in days of yore when there were millions fewer cars and people. So there’s that.

A lot of cars don’t spend much time on roads in our area, and a lot of cars travel into/through L.A. County from elsewhere. Emissions don’t stick to boundaries. Both the city and county of Los Angeles are so large, I wonder if we would really notice the difference if 100K cars suddenly went poof.

By coincidence another set of numbers burped forth today: the Census Bureau’s year-by-year commuting breakdown. Guess who posted them?

Another trio of tweets worth mulling:

There are some margin of error issues with the numbers, as Laura noted in another tweet. But I think they basically capture what’s happening: in our region, the old commuting patterns — which center around an extremely large road network — are proving very tough to break.

Which leads back to the question posed above: what is success here? Is it removing X amount of cars from the road? Is it perpetual free-flowing traffic? Meeting federal air pollution standards every day of the year? Is it sky-high transit ridership? What is it? What are we after here people? When are we done doing what we’re doing?

In that spirit, I summoned Comrade Joe Lemon over to my cubicle and asked him what he thought about hatcheting 100K cars from local roads.

“This is urban planning 101,” Joe said. “These solutions really only tackle the top layer of a much deeper issue. If you really want to gain ground against car traffic — assuming that’s the enemy — then you need to look at how the city was developed and will be developed. And that’s not only politically difficult, but the rabbit is kind of out of the hat in terms of the built landscape, at least on a countywide scale.”

Not bad for a Buffalo Bills fan suffering pre-game anxiety.

But it still didn’t feel like we had answered the question. So we did what all Great Thinkers do when faced with a difficult problem. We started writing bullet points:

•We think giving people a real transit network on par with the road network for private cars is probably the most important of the non-driving options in terms of giving people an alternative to driving. Metro does have a sales tax ballot measure going to voters this fall that would accelerate and add transit projects to what’s already planned under Measure R. Please study the plan before casting your ballot.

•We think all the above statistics all have merit but the stats that we think might be the best guideposts for mobility in our region: transit ridership (with the understanding to some degree it waxes and wanes, like many other things in life), the percentage of commuters who take transit, the ratio of residents to cars, new car sales, the percentage of electric cars on the road, the percentage of commutes under one hour and the county’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.

•We really do like the mobility that cheap taxis provide — especially for seniors and those who go car-free or car-lite — but we don’t see Uber, Lyft & their bretheren as traffic killers.

•We think that people despising traffic does not equal people despising their cars. In many places across Planet Earth –including here — when people get money they buy a car. Many people like having a car. Many people like living in places they can have a car. It would take considerable social engineering, we think, to eliminate that desire. And the political capital may better be spent elsewhere (like building more transit and protected bike lanes, for example).

So we’re back to the whole question about measuring success. I wonder if the answer is not a single statistic but a sentiment. What if I asked you this: do you have enough freedom and transpo options to go where you need to go in our county without too much hassle and expense?

On the day a vast majority of you say “yeah,” well maybe that’s success.

*The term “ride hailing” has been banned from HWR mostly because I was hailing rides with my arm a good 15 years before anyone uttered the phrase “iPhone.” 


14 replies

  1. I really like that last bullet point — I think it cuts deep into some of the strong cultural pressures that prop-up car ridership here in Los Angeles.

    An additional bullet point of “success” worth considering comes from the notion of “access”. Public transport is critical to those who *can’t* just buy a car. For these populations, transit is a critical part of daily life (on par with, say, home electrical services). With that in mind, you could gauge success by the accessibility of transport to these populations. Though, I admit, that remains tricky to measure.

    • One of the biggest cultural pressures comes from advertising. Years ago, we banned cigarette commercials because they were bad for our health. How about banning car commercials for the same reason?

  2. Consistent with my plan to learn as much as I can about your Measure M plan, I clicked on the link “Please study the plan” ( So far well and good. However, near the bottom of that page there is a link to “Facts About Measure M” but when I clicked on this link I got the infamous 404 error “Oops! That page can’t be found” with the URL

  3. For specific information on New York transit patronage, see Note in particular:

    “While nearly 85 percent of the nation’s workers need automobiles to get to their jobs, four of every five rush-hour commuters to New York City’s central business districts avoid traffic congestion by taking transit service – most of it operated by the MTA. MTA customers travel on America’s largest bus fleet and on more subway and rail cars than all the rest of the country’s subways and commuter railroads combined.”

    That should be Metro’s Measure M goal for the area in and immediately around DTLA and to the Westside. In particular, the New York MTA can take credit for the significant Metro North and LIRR contributions, as, unlike Metrolink which is independent, these commuter railroads are part of the New York MTA. I don’t know if the MTA estimate includes the New Jersey Transit and PATH, but these two rail facilities carry considerable numbers of rush hour commuters though the Hudson Tubes.

    I particularly agree with the above statement “We think giving people a real transit network on par with the road network for private cars is probably the most important of the non-driving options in terms of giving people an alternative to driving.”

    Does Measure M really lead up to this? If so, Metro must emphasis just what Measure M will do to make this a reality. This needs to be backed up with projected estimates of patronage and an idea of which freeway segments will benefit from reduced congestion.

    I realize that this will not be quick or exact process, but a qualitative ROM or WAG or even SWAG (aerospace engineering terms used during preliminary design efforts, and estimate should suffice.

    Probably the weakest link in the area’s transit present and future picture is Metrolink. Although they are trying as hard as they can, their service does not measure up to that provided by Metro North, LIRR, Metra, and even Caltrain. Caltrain is now electrifying their system to provide more frequent EMU service and to mesh with the CAHSR blended system.

    I personally believe that Metrolink should give serious consideration to electrifying their network or at the very least consider using FRA_Collision Compliant DMUs such as those SMART is going to use. See Using EMUS, or even DMUs, would avoid having to drag a heavy diesel locomotive around on trains as short as 3-4 cars long, More trains means more crew members, but the energy savings and increased patronage could pay for most if not all of these increased costs.

  4. I was back in L.A. just very recently, and was stuck at the LAX curb nearly 45 minutes waiting for my equally frustrated ride to pick me up because of the horrendous traffic. It was worse than anything I’ve seen in all the time I lived there and it dawned on me, upon seeing the number of vehicles with Uber or Lyft insignia, that these ride sharing services are creating a huge amount of traffic. I wonder how many of those drivers are just perpetually circling the horseshoe looking for a fare while taxis have to wait in line. They might be convenient, but their cost is borne by everyone in the form of worse traffic and pollution.

    So, in terms of taking 100k cars off the road, that theoretically sounds like a good idea, but there is a difference between taking one car off the road that does maybe 20 miles a day vs. adding one that does 200.

    • Hey Ned;

      That’s a good point. I do think in some denser areas they make could give policymakers one more reason to reduce parking requirements but I’m not sure they substantially reduce demand for parking (remember, taxis have long existed) or lead to more parking lots being developed. Keep in mind, too, that some developers see value in building parking that they can, in turn, provide/sell to future tenants.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

      • What is really needed to solve the “Last Mile” problem in the mornings and the “First Mile” problem in the evenings are fleets of small 2 and 4-passenger enclosed golf carts with no on-vehicle storage areas and which, when parked in dedicated parking areas, would take up much less space than conventional compact cars.

        The various rail stations and and dedicated parking areas could then provide free automated inductive recharging stations so that the vehicles would be fully charged when starting any round trip. See for information on inductive recharging stations .

        The trip could either be free for transit pass holders and/or a $0.25 fare per passenger-trip could be charged.

        Although the vehicles can be pre-programmed to rout them to the passengers’ destination(s), they will still require a licensed driver due to current and foreseeable DMV regulations. The vehicles could even have a menu of the most common destinations within their respective service area, and each additional trip made could be then added to this menu.

        Private automobiles, bus shuttles, or Uber-Lyft services using these same vehicles would still be required at the other (home) end of the journey, again with the transit stations having automatic inductive recharging stations..

  5. The goal is to make it possible to get where you need to go regularly without (a) purchasing a car, or (b) getting stuck in traffic. With the exception of special events, which will always generate traffic.

    Common traffic patterns should be accomodated by mass transportation (it’s for when you have a *huge number* of people to move, that’s why it’s “mass”) — or better, by sidewalks and elevators (with mixed-use development). Uncommon traffic patterns should be accomodatable by taxis and car rental, though it’s fine if people choose to buy cars instead. It’s not fine if the taxis and car rentals are hopeless, impractical options due to unavailability or congestion.

    It’s OK for people to own cars, but it shouldn’t be considered *mandatory* for anyone. If they choose to live in the middle of nowhere, a car *becomes* a necessity, but that’s a choice. It should be possible for them to find suitable housing which is not in the middle of nowhere. The *businesses* shouldn’t be located in the middle of nowhere. (Farms have to be, but people used to live on the farm and have very short commutes.)

    Furthermore, we can’t demolish the city to make room for more cars. That’s been tried. The problem is that this removes the places you need to go regularly, making the problem actually worse.

    We actually had this level of functionality before the 1950s, mostly. Definitely not since then.

    Single-use zoning (…dating from the 1950s) is actually the worst villain here, being an unmitigated disaster by making it very, very, very hard to live near your job and very, very, very hard to live near where you shop. Get rid of it and the need for transportation drops substantially, making all other problems easier to solve.

  6. It seems to me that the concerns voiced here over first mile/last mile are rightly placed. Speaking of APTA, see their discussion “Defining Transit Areas of Influence”, APTA SUDS-UD-001-09, available on their web site. It discusses station area use patterns and the local conditions which might make the area of transit influence larger, or smaller. What I drew from it is that the planning for success of the linehaul rest on planning for successful gathering and distribution. The radii around linehaul stations that people will travel one way or another to get to the new shiny transit vehicle are remarkably short. (APTA’s graphics seem to me to have an infusion of von Thunen).

    The linehaul shouldn’t be designed in isolation from transit trip enabling considerations. Toronto seems to be the gold standard in this regard, but pedestrian and bicyclist safety and partially dedicated lanes for local and certainly rapid street transit ought not to be left out. Even when the LA Railway was at its zenith you can see in the vintage photographs the effects of the absence of dedicated lanes.

    Other points: don’t expect a streetcar to do light rail’s job, and don’t expect light rail to do a subway’s job. But first, the target ridership has to be able to get to the linehaul station safely and predictably and the likelihood is they won’t want to earn their 50 Miler merit badge doing it.

    • To follow through on the relative applications of streetcars, subways, and light rail, light rail does not have the carrying capacity of a commuter rail system. New Jersey Transit operates both, with LRTs on the routes with less patronage.