Are Downtown Residents Really Dumping Their Cars for Transit?

The pandemic wasn’t really over in April, but a lot of people, including me, were tired of being shut up at home. I wanted to get out into the world again. I’d been thinking for a while about paying a visit to Los Angeles State Historic Park on the outskirts of Downtown. I finally just got on the train and headed down there.

The park has been a work in progress for over a decade. I wrote a post about it in 2014, when many people still called it The Cornfield. Back then it was mostly just grass and dirt. Since then, it’s been transformed into a well-manicured open space….

It certainly seems popular. On the day I showed up there were plenty of folks enjoying the park, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s impeccably landscaped, with gently curving paths winding through the grass, and rows of beautiful trees. There’s a good-sized field for those who want to get a game going. It seemed like the crowd was mostly younger, with a number of moms and dads and little kids.

It also seemed like the crowd was mostly made up of relatively affluent millennials. I have no hard data on where they came from, but I suspect that many of them live in Downtown. If that’s the case, they’d have to be making fairly good money. The listings on Apartment.com show that most of the studio apartments in the 90012 zip code start around $2,000, with one-bedrooms going for between $2,500 and $3,000. Rents at the Llewellyn, a fairly new building just across the street from the park, go from $2,450 to $5,155.

The City has had a good deal of success in luring people to Downtown, but let’s face it. Downtown is not open to everybody. If we go with the standard assumption that you’re supposed to spend about a third of your income on housing, you’d need to make $72,000 a year to afford a studio apartment in the area. A small family would probably have to have a combined income close to six figures just to get into a one-bedroom.

Back in March, I was listening in on a meeting of the City Council’s PLUM Committee where Director of Planning Vince Bertoni boasted about how proud he was of the City of LA’s Transit-Oriented Development program. I can’t imagine why. While City Planning has approved numerous residential skyscrapers near transit stops over the last decade, transit ridership has been declining steadily since 2014. Even in 2014, LA Metro was actually serving fewer people than it did back in the 80s, and it’s only been downhill since then.

If you want to know how successful LA’s attempts at Transit-Oriented Development have been, take a look at the parking area next to the State Historic Park. It was packed with cars on the morning I was there. And Spring St., which is on the park’s perimeter, was also lined with cars.

Please note in the last photo above that the L Line (Gold Line) Station is visible in the background. I’m sure some of the folks who showed up at the park that day rode the train, but obviously a lot of people decided to drive instead, in spite of the fact that the station is just a few hundred feet from the park entrance.

LA City Planning talks a lot about revitalizing LA’s urban centers, but we need to ask what they actually mean by “revitalization”. The cost of renting an apartment Downtown makes it clear that living there is mostly for the affluent. While thousands of new units have been built in Downtown over the past decade, the vast majority of them are for the upscale crowd. The same is true citywide. According to LA City Planning’s Housing Progress Dashboard, of the more than 184,000 new units that have been approved since July 2013, only about 26,000, or 14%, have been for middle-income, low-income and very low-income households. To be clear, these three categories COMBINED make up just 14% of the new housing approved.

As I said before, the City has been successful in luring people to live in Downtown, and I’m glad of that. Looking at US Census data for the 90012 zip code, which covers much of central Downtown, it’s clear that the area has seen substantial growth. According to the American Community Survey (ACS), the population in 90012 has grown from 29,298 in 2011 to 37,268 in 2020.

Unfortunately, even as Downtown’s population has grown, ridership on transit lines serving the area has been dropping steadily. The graph below shows the changes in ridership on lines serving Downtown in 2014 and 2019. It includes all rail lines serving the area, but only selected bus lines.

You can see there’s been a significant drop. It’s important to point out that the biggest decline was on the A Line (Blue Line), and much of this was due to the fact that portions of the line were closed during 2019 for repairs and upgrades. (They didn’t do much good. Problems arose soon after the line re-opened.)

But even if we pull the A Line out of the chart, we still see a loss in ridership. If the City’s Transit-Oriented Development program is such a success, then why is transit ridership declining in Downtown, even as the population grows. (If you don’t trust my numbers, and you want to do your own research, visit Metro Ridership Stats. Under the heading Systemwide (Bus and Rail), click Details.)

I think the answer has to do with the kind of people who are moving to Downtown. While I hear a lot of hype about young urbanites who love walkable neighborhoods, the crush of cars I saw crowding around State Park leads me to believe that many of Downtown’s new residents own some kind of vehicle. Of course, that’s just my personal view based on my personal experience. To get a more accurate idea of how many Downtown residents are car owners, let’s take another look at the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey.

Looking again at the 90012 zip code, let’s check out the stats for vehicle ownership in 2011.

2011 ACS Data on Vehicles Available to Population in 90012
Workers 16 Years and Over in Households

No vehicle available 10%

1 vehicle available 42.9%

2 vehicles available 36.4%

3 or more vehicles available 10.7%

Now let’s look at the stats for 90012 in 2020.

2020 ACS Data on Vehicles Available to Population in 90012
Workers 16 Years and Over in Households

No vehicles available 6.6%

1 vehicle available 42.4%

2 vehicles available 40.0%

3 or more vehicles available 11.0%

You can see that the number of workers 16 years and over with no vehicle available dropped from 10% to 6.6%. The number with one vehicle available is basically unchanged. Those with two vehicles available went up from 36.4% to 40%. These are not huge changes, but they do show that percentages of workers 16 years and over with access to a vehicle has gone up, not down. And when we consider that the population in 90012 rose from 29,298 in 2011 to 37,268 in 2020, this seems to indicate that there are a lot more cars than there used to be in Downtown. Put this together with the drop in transit ridership, and it’s hard to understand why the City thinks its efforts at Transit-Oriented Development have been a success. (If you believe there are a lot more people walking and biking in the central city, feel free to show me the data. I’ve looked, and I can’t find anything less than six years old.)

I want to emphasize that I’m a transit rider and I don’t own a car. I also want to say that I believe we need to focus new development around transit hubs, in areas where jobs and businesses are close by. In theory all this is great. In reality, though, the City of LA doesn’t seem to have achieved anything. In fact, it seems like the numbers are going in the wrong direction. And if we’re going in the wrong direction, shouldn’t the City assess the situation, find out what’s wrong, and try to do better?

Unfortunately, rather than being used as a strategy to create a more sustainable city, Transit-Oriented Development seems to have become an excuse to approve residential projects that are far too expensive for the average Angeleno. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at hearings held by City Planning where staff and/or Commissioners claim that big, new residential projects geared toward the affluent are exactly what the City needs to get people out of cars and onto busses and trains. When I present data showing that transit ridership has been going down since 2014, they don’t seem to hear. I’ve never gotten a response. The projects are always approved.

I think the State Park is cool. I’m glad people are spending time there. But I don’t buy the story that young urbanites are ditching their cars for busses, trains and bikes. The cars lined up across the street from the park seem to tell a different story, one that City Hall doesn’t want to hear.

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