I keep hearing about how Angelenos are giving up their cars in favor of other means of travel. But really it looks like traffic all over the city is steadily getting worse. In spite of the fact that our public transit is slowly improving. In spite of the fact that we have more bike lanes than ever. In spite of all the hype about ride-sharing services. To me it looks like there are more people driving in LA than ever before.
Part of the reason for this is that there are more people in LA than ever before. The City’s population is around 3.9 million, with more arriving every day. But let’s face it, most Angelenos are not ready to give up their cars just yet. There are many reasons for this. For the vast majority of Angelenos I’ve spoken to, taking public transit still means at least doubling your commute time.* And citizens looking for affordable housing are having to look farther and farther away from the City’s center, making public transit more time consuming. Practical reasons aside, though, a lot of people who live in LA just love their cars. They love the freedom of going wherever they want whenever they want. They love being able to shut out the world around them. They love having a set of wheels that makes a statement about who they are or how big their bank account is. And so they’re willing to spend a large part of their paycheck to have a car, even if most of the time their car is sitting idle.
Think about it. Even if you spend two hours commuting each way every day, that means your car is parked in a lot or on the street for twenty hours a day. Seems kind of wasteful, doesn’t it? And speaking of wasteful, look at the enormous amounts of space we set aside for parking. Shopping malls, stadiums, beaches and other destinations often provide massive lots just so people can park their cars. For parking structures, the average cost per space in the US is about $15,000, though it can go much higher. This means that parking alone can increase the price tag for development by hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. And in the case of residential development, this cost is passed along to the renter or buyer.
Of course, most people don’t think about this, which is why there’s a school of thought that says developers ought to stop bundling the price of parking with the price of a residential unit. In other words, you’d pay for your new condo by itself, with no parking, and then decide if you wanted to purchase a parking space to go with it. This sounds logical. With this approach, buyers have to think about the cost of parking their car, and the idea is that some of them will dump their car to save money.
But not everybody’s buying it. In LA these days, developers are encouraged by city planners to pitch projects with reduced parking in the hope that this will encourage use of public transit. I’ve been to a number of meetings where project reps try to sell this idea to local residents, and local residents are always against it. Why? Because they believe that a lot of buyers will forego the parking space to save money, and just leave their car on the street, making it even harder for the locals who already struggle to find parking. Advocates of transit oriented density (TOD) argue in favor of projects with reduced parking, saying that parking cost and availability influence transit ridership, but there’s no conclusive evidence. There are many things that affect transit usage, and no one has proven that this is a major factor.
Parking is a huge problem in LA, and even though I don’t own a car, I sympathize with people who sometimes have to circle their block repeatedly to find a space. Transit advocates will say they should dump their vehicle and buy an MTA pass, but that’s not feasible for everybody. Some people have jobs that require a car. And those who work night shifts or graveyard shifts, say restaurant workers or security guards, may not be willing to ride public transit late at night. Having spent many hours standing on desolate street corners in the small hours, I can understand their reluctance. The number of busses that run after midnight is limited, and they only run once an hour. The subways shut down around one.
There are some encouraging signs. A number of people have chosen to give up their wheels and ride public transit instead. Car sharing services like Zipcar are becoming more popular. Apparently a lot of kids in their teens are willing to wait on a driver’s license because they’re happy socializing over their smartphones.
But we’ve still got a long way to go. For all the benefits cars offer, they suck up way too much of our resources. And in a city as crowded as LA, one of our most important resources is space. How many thousands of acres have we paved with asphalt just so we can have a place to leave our cars?
There’s got to be a better way.
* Some readers have taken issue with this statement. See comments below for details.
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“There are many reasons for this. For the vast majority of people, taking public transit still means at least doubling your commute time.” Citation needed.
You’re right to ask for background on this, but this statement isn’t based on published research. It’s based instead on talking to numerous people who use public transit in LA. I have friends who have given up their car to commute by public transit, all of whom say their travel time has more than doubled. I’ve talked to people on the bus who complain about spending two hours or more in transit on a trip that could be made in under an hour by car. While there are some trips that can be made faster by public transit (especially to and from Downtown on the Red Line), my own experience and that of others indicates that travelling by car is almost always faster.
Here’s a link to an article from the Washington Post which cites research from the Social Computing Group at the MIT Media Lab. It analyzes trip time for different modes of travel, and I think it backs up my statement.
But the statement I made was certainly too broad. I’ve changed the sentence to read “For the vast majority of people living in LA…,” since my experience is limited to this city. One of the main issues here is that even though major corridors are well served by bus and rail, once you get outside of those corridors you’re stuck on local lines with limited service. Downtown is farther from Hollywood than Burbank, but the trip to Burbank is often longer because of limited and unreliable service.
Thanks for calling me on the accuracy of that statement. I appreciate your taking the time to comment.
I ended up looking up the data in the American FactFinder, and it turns out your were pretty much spot on! In one of the surveys, they asked about commute mode and commute time, and the time nearly doubled for transit. 27 minutes for car, 48 minutes for transit.
My skepticism was based on my own experience. I’ve had a few commutes over the years where the bus ride took basically the same amount of time as driving (maybe 5-10% longer).
Thanks for your response!
There is a lot of variation. In some cases transit is just as fast or faster. I find that for me transit is pretty efficient in the corridor between Downtown and Santa Monica. But once I get outside of that zone, the trips get longer.
I didn’t know about American FactFinder. What a great resource. Thanks.
I am a carless videographer. I live in Little Armenia and commute daily with 40+ lbs of gear via bicycle/transit to jobs in law firms and municipal buildings as far north as Northridge, as far south as Irvine, as far east as Pasadena, and as far west as Santa Monica. This NEVER doubles my predictable commute time versus drive time with the possible exceptions of Burbank and Pasadena. UPS and busdrivers “need” autos for work. For an extreme majority, the claim that people “need” cars is a fictive red herring.
Parking paid for with general taxes is a wasteful misallocation of social funds that endangers public safety and makes the commons tragic. Every parking space on public property should be purchased at its full rental value by the person parking it for the duration it is parked there. This money should be put into public open space and active transportation projects. Furthermore, resident-only permit parking is an inegalitarian government taking of property from the public to give to the rich. Bad, big government.
Thanks for your comment. I’m glad that public transit has worked well for you, but the statement I made in the post is an accurate reflection of my own experience and the experiences of the people I’ve spoken to. I agree that many of the people who claim to need cars could really do without, but it is subjective. I do believe that doing without a car means changing your lifestyle, and for some the changes can be a serious burden. For parents with small children, the disabled and those who work night or graveyard shifts, getting around via bus and rail can be a struggle. Like you, I want to support public transit and I wish our system served us better. Unfortunately, while our elected officials have chosen to expand public transit, they’re really not planning for public transit. Building affordable housing near job centers would be a major step forward. As it is, they try to tell us that projects like the Miilennium Hollywood fall under the category of transit oriented density.
Thanks again for your thoughts. Hopefully if we keep pushing we can bring about a change of priorities in LA and beyond.
“Advocates of transit oriented density (TOD) argue in favor of projects with reduced parking, saying that parking cost and availability influence transit ridership, but there’s no conclusive evidence.”
Read “The High Cost of Free Parking” by Donald Shoup for conclusive evidence that the price of parking impacts how much people own cars and drive, other things equal.
I agree with a lot of what you’re saying. There are definitely neighborhoods in LA where not having a car is more feasible than others. If you live in Koreatown and work in Downtown LA, not having a car would be easy. If you live in Sylmar and work in Santa Monica, not having a car would be hard. Urban form, transit availability and the ease/cost of parking come together to determine whether or not going without a car is convenient. I’d like to see LA become more urban so that more people have access to convenient transit. Of course this will freak certain people out. But with the cost of housing being so unattainable I think the logic of densifying the city is almost inescapable.
Thanks for the tip on Shoup’s book. I’ve read articles by him, and I’d like to read more.
I’m fine with higher density, as long as it’s designed to benefit everybody. In recent years, the City of LA has pushed a number of high-rise projects, but they’re all geared toward the wealthy. I’d love to see the City make a serious commitment to building high density affordable housing near job centers.