Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Why We Hate L.A. Public Transport: The PYT Factor

The biggest complaint I repeatedly hear about L.A. is that it has a poor public transportation system. News flash: that's true, we're not New York or Tokyo by any means. Yet I often feel compelled to protect L.A. from empty criticism. The people who complain about L.A.'s public transportation system are complaining due to what I see as three major factors: 1) the effect of hearing other people complain (to which I have nothing truly helpful to contribute), 2) the absence of a transportation culture, like the subway-state-of-mind of New York City or even the let's-take-BART-to-the-Giant's-game compulsion in San Francisco, and finally, 3) the feeling of disorder and general lack of safety surrounding the systems we already have. Here's my take on those things.

So let's face it: in Los Angeles, we drive our cars. Everywhere, all day, every day. We jam up our freeways and complain about commutes and argue about congestion but still, we drive our cars. Historically speaking, there is a reason for this. East Coast cities were designed with pedestrians in mind; they are planned to some extent, but largely that American grid pattern wasn't implemented until we started growing westward. People still had few options but to walk when those cities began to develop and subsequently explode in population; hence those cities have easily identifiable centers. Like many European cities, the center is actually in the middle, creating a smaller but more concentrated radius of things-that-are-important-to-get-to: financial buildings and offices, cultural offerings, commercial centers, etc. Los Angeles, however, is a totally different breed of city. Most significantly, by the time L.A. took off in terms of population, Americans were falling in love with the automobile. (Isn't it just like a bad romance novel? The honeymoon period is magical and then we find out that the objects of our affections are shredding the ozone layer. Typical.) This city is not designed for pedestrians but for vehicles, which explains our lack of green space and, obviously, our general difficulties with creating a truly cohesive transportation network. Additionally, L.A. is a highly stratified city, partially because it contains so many levels of specialization and industry. L.A. has many centers - Westwood, the financial district, etc. - and subsequently has a harder time connecting them except by vehicle lanes. Given that information, it's hardly surprising that our public transportation appears subpar. Do you realize how much harder that task is for L.A. than for New York? The concept of reducing VMT (vehicle miles traveled) is a very new concept that is miles away from what L.A. was really planned for. Oh and while we're facing facts, don't lie: those of you who are complaining, you wouldn't ride public transportation anyway.

And why wouldn't you ride public transportation in L.A.? Because there's no guarantee that you'll be as safe as you would be if you were driving. Many of the complainers are students I go to school with, and further, many of those are members of my sorority. This is where the AYF (Attractive Young Female, or as Michael Jackson might say, PYT) factor comes in. Pretty girls are the best way to judge the success of a public transportation system, because they are a) the most noticeable and b) the most vulnerable, for either real or imagined reasons. Pretty girls will not ride public transportation if they don't feel safe. So here we reach another issue with L.A. public transportation: the pretty girls don't trust it. Now part of that, I think, is that these PYTs are expecting the hip subway culture that is not typical of Los Angeles, and as I said earlier, there's nothing we can do about that. They're also expecting fancy light rails with Starbucks and Yogurtland in them. Here's the problem with that, though: who rides public transportation in L.A.? Largely it's the low-income minority population, and they're not riding the fancy light rails. They're riding the derelict, overcrowded buses - the non-glamorous option, and thus, the one with less funding. There are no PYTs on these, nor are there likely to be while they remain in that state. And L.A., in all its innovative glory, continues to invest in highway expansions that don't work or rail lines with low ridership because that's what the PYTs - and higher income residents - want. In the meantime, we force our bus riders to suffer inadequate resources while we develop for the people who complain and yet do not provide ridership.

I've talked for a while now, so in conclusion: to the city of L.A., please put more money into the bus systems. Make the bus stops safer, clean them up - throw in a Yogurtland if you want - invest in better, more fuel-efficient buses, and make sure the buses are always reliable. Maybe you'll attract more people to them; but even if you don't, at least we won't shove the majority of our population into grimy outdated machines.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Protecting the Light Rail Line

Sorry I've been out for a bit; I'd forgotten what real school was like. To bring you up to speed with my thoughts, I'm worrying about the realities surrounding the CA light rail line - as usual. It's not a secret that President Obama has his sights set high for American light rail. He's portioned out $8 billion worth of funding to go to various projects around the country. I took this, at first, to be an excellent sign in regards to the president's indication in favor of public transportation (in contrast to President Bush's desire to cut nearly all of Amtrak's funding, I personally would say this is a step in the right direction.) Lately, however, I've come to wonder whether this gesture is really just a nod of approval rather than a true dedication to the growth of American light rail projects.

Though a great deal of that apportioned $8 billion seems intended to go to California's rail-related ambitions, there are now a great deal of worthy rail projects popping up across the country, including one between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and a network connecting the Southwestern United States. According to Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee, "There is a suspicion among those who chart the erratic course taken by the bullet train project that when push comes to shove, its only tangible fruit will be those local projects." I have to say I count myself among one of the skeptics. It worries me that not enough attention will be paid to the larger scheme of things, causing the grand concept of a state-wide light rail system to fail.

Part of my skepticism comes from a wariness I had previously nurtured, but my faith in the rail line has slipped even more after reading the article "Bus Factory, Symbol of the Stimulus, Now Laying People Off," an op-ed by Michael Cooper in the NY Times. The story basically revolves around the economic hope placed in a factory that made hydrid electric buses, commodities that were intended to bolster the economy as well as supplement climate change-related policy. What was originally expected to become a stimulus success story, however, has been sinking; funding has been delayed, and despite the big talk for mass transit, the expected financial support does not appear to be available. As a result, employees who were led to believe that their jobs were safely rooted in consumer demand for public transportation projects are now being laid off.

Does this situation sound oddly familiar to anyone else? A mass transit project that was promised to the people as an economic life preserver but can't seem to come up with the promised funding? Sounds like what I've been worried about for a while now.

At the risk of sounding repetitive, I have to once again bring up my doubts in our devotion to rail-related projects. Here's a thought, though; what can we do to ensure our elected officials will continue to protect our brainchild that is the CA light rail line? Any thoughts? Otherwise, stay tuned. The wheels are still turning on my end.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

I'm giving the rose to . . .

So I started out writing a blog that asked how the world would look if we were running on electric cars. It involved some kind of analysis about how, since electric cars can’t travel more than 100 miles at a time, people would probably move closer to the central city in order to minimize their commute. But then again, that means we’d have to have a lot of those battery-changing stations. And where would we put those? In place of gas stations? That doesn’t quite seem plausible. And what would we do with the batteries once they’d been used? Suddenly while writing this blog entry, I’ve realized that I do not think the electric car can be resurrected. I think it’s one of those trends that will never catch on – of course, I thought the same thing about neon harem pants, and clearly I’ve been wrong before.

For one thing, electric cars couldn’t work anywhere. Besides not working out in nearly every rural and far-reaching suburban environment, it wouldn’t work in areas like New York City, where people are already less likely to drive cars. As far as choosing a large investment project, I don’t think the electric car is the appropriate risk.

I’ve officially chosen rail once again. I’ve decided that although it may be a bigger risk for some regions, California being one of them, it also has more benefits. Besides the potential environmental and technological advancements, it can serve more people with less cost to the individual. It would also most likely have the same land use effects as an investment in electric cars – that is, the increase in movement towards the central city, which is something I support.

Now that I’ve officially resisted temptation and made rail my choice, I can refocus on our relationship in coming entries.

Before I leave off on this topic, would anyone care to agree or disagree? It’s been pretty quiet around here lately and I’d like to hear if anyone has other thoughts. Have I chosen correctly?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Days of Our Cars: Are We Trapped in a Transportation Love Triangle?

I was faced recently with a new possible alternative to our emission-related woes, thanks to my work with the big Go Green boss lady, Jill Buck. She introduced me to a company known as Better Place, which, despite an outrageously vague title, has a very specific view of how things can be improved in our transportation realm. What Better Place essentially promotes is the concept of the electric car, which the company believes is a concept that can – and should – be brought back in light of our transport-related woes. They don’t make the cars; instead, what Better Place has done is work towards the creation of a network of systems designed to supplement the use of the electric car. Most of what people are concerned with regarding the electric car, according to spokesperson Jason Wolf, is related to convenience, cost, and range. Not much can be said regarding cost – that much is certainly very subjective, depending on how you weigh costs and benefits – but convenience and range are two aspects of the electric car that Better Place can potentially solve.

Electric cars can only last about 100 miles before the battery dies out. It is this battery that makes the car such an expensive item. Allowing the battery to charge takes hours, as high as seven, in order to renew its energy source. The problems related to such a necessity can basically speak for themselves, but I’ll speak for them anyway – what if you live in a suburb, where you must commute more than 100 miles daily? What if you decide to take a long trip? What if there’s an emergency in the middle of the night and your car is CHARGING? The convenience level on an electric car is severely limited. However, Better Place has a concept that could potentially revolutionize those limitations. They propose battery-changing stations, where a person could pull up, have the battery replaced with a fully charged new battery, and continue on their merry way. Oh, and get this – these stations would even be able to recognize you, and your preferences. Your COFFEE preferences. Now we’re talking 21st century, am I right??

Having these stations, which would presumably be distributed throughout whatever region the company chose to focus on, certainly increases the electric car’s quota for convenience and range. Better Place has also thought of issues surrounding the waste and energy use of the electric car – I don’t want to go into too much detail here (you can find the link to their website and to the Go Green podcast below), but it involves some very intelligent alternative energy sources. Better Place makes a great point – in relationship to our level of technological advancement (which is certainly related to our great need for such advancements) – this is the perfect time to start. Conceptually, the electric car may finally have enough strengths to be as competitive in the auto market as one that relies on a combustible engine.

However – who are we kidding? We don’t have the money for this. We barely have the money to start the many other transportation projects we’ve already started – or worse, that we’ve already promised. (I’m looking at you, California.) While Mr. Wolf states, quite rightly, that California is an excellent place to start, his reasoning seems to me a little shaky in the current circumstances. He cites our disposable income (ha!), innovation (questionable), and leading in environmental change (true of some cities or regions, but rather unevenly followed through as a whole). And that’s even failing to mention the fact that we still have a rather massive transit project on our hands – I assume nobody’s forgotten that little rail line we’ve got planned.

We cannot – period, can’t – invest in mass transit projects and mass networks for new vehicles. We have to choose. On the one hand, we can’t really get out of the rail line now that we’ve voted it in. However, rail is not really in our blood as Californians; we love our cars. And while the electric car is a genius solution to that particular need by our state’s residents, we don’t exactly have the money as individuals to invest in a car that, as of now, can only take us 100 miles at a time.

We’re in a love triangle; torn between our aspirations for an era of light rail that could bring us up to speed (get it?) with the rest of the world, and the appeal of a car that we wouldn’t feel environmentally guilty about owning. And unfortunately, this isn’t the original Beverly Hills 90210, so we can’t pull a Kelly Taylor and merely choose ourselves. Or can we? Are there more alternatives? Or are we already faced with our two best options?

Up next: how will our choice in the above love triangle affect our urban landscapes? What’s next for land use? Stay tuned . . .

. . . and in the meantime, check out the following links: - Better Place corporate website - Go Green Radio interview with Jason Wolf

Sunday, July 19, 2009

My transportation wishlist

I've been very curious lately about what exactly is on California's "wishlist" for federal stimulus money. I haven't located the exact requests of this list, but I have read some mixed reviews about the requests. Much of the money requested seems to be for road repair, which seems like a fair concern. After all, one of the specific items on the wishlist is the repair of the notoriously unsafe Vasco Road, which is located near me. I lost a friend to that road about two years ago, an event that has always seemed so hideously unjust to me. It certainly can't be denied that there are very poor roads in this state. On the other hand, roads seem like a very short-term use for these funds. For a state that's trying so hard to aim for more advanced transportation infrastructure projects, I find it odd that we didn't focus more on rail-related projects in our request.

Speaking of rail, I also read that the high-speed rail line has hit another speed bump. Apparently the wording was done rather carelessly and may now require more environmental studies before the line can begin implementation and construction. The problem, as I read, is that those studies have already been completed and most opposition has subsided. Re-opening these opportunities for studies and surveying may mean millions of wasted dollars - not to mention possible roadblocks as people are able to revisit old issues or groups that have since been placated.

This rail line continues to irk me. First of all, I do not believe that California is invested enough in the line to pay the attention to it that it so obviously deserves. California's focus on road repair seems to me merely another method of remaining an autocentric state. Secondly, I worry that without the state's full attention and with the continuation of careless mistakes, funding will only go to waste. If the line's construction is put off for too long, the cost of building will certainly go up, most likely forcing up the costs of tickets. And if ridership is subsequently low, all kinds of disasters might ensue.

This post is partly me worrying - I had my first ulcer at age 18, which should tell you I worry a lot - and partly my own wonderings about what I would put on my "wishlist" to Congress. Imagine I am the state of California. I am rich in natural resources, economic growth, and frustratingly uncompromising legislators.

Speaking for the state of California, I present the following wishlist:

- Funding for the high-speed rail, with strings attached. Strict deadlines, oversight, and an agreed upon maximum ticket price. Yeah that would upset the state, but I think California needs a babysitter right now.

- Some money for road repair, but none for freeway expansion. I have two words for that: triple convergence. Expanding the freeway won't relieve congestion, so don't bother.

- L.A. just got voted worst congested in the state for what, the 20th year in a row? Something like that? The Bay Area was number 5 or 6 on the list too, I believe. I WISH we could get more money for regional transportation methods in both of those areas. Perhaps some money for better bus lines, improvement of existing rail lines (um hello Blue Line, most dangerous rail line in the country) and something to hurry along the ones that are currently delayed (yes Expo line, I'm looking at you). Something that could help BART with ridership would be helpful as well. Anything we could do to help out Metrolink with ticket costs?

- Less money for things like fancy bike and pedestrian bridges, and more money devoted to the connectivity of bike and pedestrian paths and trails. (Speaking of bikes, could we just throw out the concept of bike lockers? They're just a really inefficient use of space and I am not a fan.)

- I'd really like some requirements for affordable housing in transit oriented developments. Those things are expensive, and they generally stick out in areas that clearly haven't received any government funding for years. Investment in transit means that there will be subsequent investment by developers in regions that become transit hubs or stops, which means we should be prepared for major displacement if we don't try to prevent it before it happens.

- Can we get some money for those environmental projects that seem outrageous at first? Like I mentioned before, I think this state is lacking a great deal of creativity and imagination. I say we get some development in rail cars or buses that use solar power for temperature control, like the new Prius uses. Surely we could invest in solar technology in transportation. And aside from transportation, I'd like to see some investment in Energy From Waste (EFW) plants, and perhaps some geothermal projects. Give the scientists some money to play with; hopefully at least one of them will come down with a stroke of genius.

Anything other thoughts? What else should California have asked for from the big daddy U.S.A?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The impending BART strike and the growth of light rail

For those of you not blessed enough to currently reside in the Bay Area, you may not be aware that there are some major labor negotiations going on between BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and the union workers who operate the trains. It has managed to cool down a bit over the last few weeks, but the threat still looms in the air, particularly for transportation organizations that have to create solutions NOW to make up for the havoc that will be created if the strike ever takes place. It's not only a matter of thousands of commuters suddenly being either placed on the freeways or having no method of reaching their place of employment - oh no, that's too easy. Transportation agencies are having to deal with all kinds of strike-related issues that may or may not drop at any moment, including things like where to move bus stops now that BART premises could be blocked. It's a headache and frankly, it's almost disgusting. I find it clear evidence of lunacy that anyone could expect a raise in this economic climate, and especially given the outrageous benefits that a BART worker already receives. Yeah dude, fight for the cause, but maybe next year - you should probably just be glad you have a job.

Sorry for the sidenote. My point here is that I wonder what will happen if the U.S. ever decides to rely on methods of transportation like light rail. If we had the kind of national line network that President Obama has expressed interest in, a strike like this one could shut down the entire country. It could shut down the whole state, in California's case. This isn't a freeway system; the trains can't operate themselves. And it's also not a purely private endeavor, which means there is really no choice regarding the trains like there could be in the event of an airline strike. Would investing in light rail be a danger to our economy? And what's more, could it be a danger to our national security? What would happen if the country's main method of transportation (potentially) were to be stopped somehow?

Something to think about: could we make our light rail not only the greenest form of transportation in the country as well as the most advanced transportation technology, but also make it strike-proof? Think there's any way to prepare for that?

** In the meantime, if you're trying to find a way around the BART strike, check out (for Alameda county) or (Contra Costa county).

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Is that the best you've got?

So, this one's not necessarily about rail. In my mind, though, anything that involves getting people out of their cars includes rail almost by default, if only subconsciously. The urban planning mantra these days seems to be "modal choice, modal choice, modal choice," so a discussion limited only to rail would be less relevant to our transportation reality. Speaking of repetitive mantras, our plan for creating less auto-centric streets seems to be pretty formulaic as well - I imagine it goes something like "widen sidewalks, protect bike lanes, keep cars off the streets." It's catchy, don't you think? If not original, at least it's rhythmic.
With that in mind, let's talk about the former Bogota mayor's visit to the glorious city of San Francisco. The Columbian politician, Enrique Penalosa, is well known for his improvement of Bogota's streets, particularly in his efforts to improve those streets for pedestrians and cyclists. He banned sidewalk parking, widened streets, restricted automobiles from the streets on certain days, created a network of bike lanes and a rapid bus line. Sound familiar? "Widen sidewalks, protect bike lanes, keep cars off the streets." Simple rules, but easy to follow. Unsurprisingly, Penalosa took a look at the SF streets and pronounced that the same could be done in the Bay.

I'm not really here to talk about San Francisco, because I think Penalosa's right in some ways. I don't think it would take too much effort on the city's part to mimic the success of Bogota, and it's not like any of Penalosa's suggestions are so wild that they could force the city's development backwards in any way. I'm also not here to talk about Penalosa, because hey, the man got the job done, didn't he? What I am here to talk about is how methodologies of incorporating green methods of transportation feel like they have lost their vigor. I feel like I've been waiting a long time for something truly extraordinary to come along, and "widen sidewalks, protect bike lanes, keep cars off the streets" just isn't it.
I'm going to be honest - none of that would get ME out of MY car. And it's not that I don't care about the environment or our dependence on foreign oil or anything like that - hey, I work for Go Green. I care. But I also care about having a mode of transportation that is there when I need it and not a moment later. I care about maintaining the freedom of mobility that prompted me to fight for my driver's license the instant I turned 16. If the mayor builds a bike lane, I will salute him for it, and I will dutifully perform the necessary over-the-shoulder check while I converge into it before a right-hand turn - from my car. Although it may be effective to an extent, the thought of bike lanes or wider sidewalks falls short of thrilling me.

I think planners and transportation experts lack imagination. Remember what "Tomorrowland" was based on? Newfangled gadgets and flying cars and the one thing we did get - a highway system built for speed. What happened to our futuristic plans? Where are the planners that are thinking up new things - like that idea for a system of little pods that would take you straight from point A to point B? I always found that concept amusing. After all, it mimics the privacy of the automobile. I also like the concept of shared vehicles, cars that you can borrow for short periods of time. It reduces your need for a personal vehicle. And on a policy level, what if incentives could be given to employers who allow their employees to telecommute during set days during the week? Not practical for all careers, of course, but imagine how many people that would take off the road. Or employers that reduce hours for employees who do work while commuting via bus or rail. I would take BART if it meant that I could get a couple hours taken off from sitting in front of my desk (granted, I would take BART if the workers weren't going on strike, say, or if the cost of a ticket didn't make me wince.)

Yeah, there are flaws in the idealistic plans we may dream up. But where is genius if not in idealism? Have we given up trying?

Is creativity too much to ask? Am I undervaluing the work that has been done by planners today? Or am I right - has creativity and innovation gone out the window in favor of "widen sidewalks, protect bike lanes, keep cars off the streets"?

Enlighten me.