They Work by Night

Workers 01 Dark

There was a night, maybe a couple years ago, when I was going home after visiting a friend. I was at a Red Line station, waiting for the train to come. There were probably about twenty or thirty people standing on the platform. But before the train showed up, an interesting procession emerged from the tunnel. A group of vehicles rolled slowly out of the darkness and into the light. One of them was a flatbed truck with a few guys in orange and yellow vests riding along. The people on the platform called and waved to them. They waved back. The truck kept rolling along, and so did the rest of the vehicles in the caravan, and in a minute or two they were out of sight.

Don’t ask me why, but after that happened I kept hoping I’d catch another glimpse of these workers and their machines. It’s probably a sign of how dull my life is that I get excited about seeing an MTA maintenance crew. But I guess part of why this caught my attention was that I’d never really thought about who kept the subways running. The city we live in is woven together by massive infrastructure networks, but most of us rarely think about how they’re maintained. We just want things to work, and we get ticked off when they don’t. But most of us are completely clueless about the massive effort it takes to keep LA running day in and day out.

So I kept hoping I’d catch another glimpse of the workers who maintain the trains. And since then, whenever it happened I snapped a few photos. As far as I can tell, most subway maintenance is done at night. These people spend hours rolling around in shadowy tunnels doing the many large and small jobs it takes to keep the trains running.

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A caravan of maintenance trucks.

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Another shot of maintenance trucks.

One night I got a shot of this….

Workers 30 Harsco

A rail grinder.

I’d never seen a rail grinder. I didn’t even know they existed. But they’re routinely used by rail lines all over the world to maintain tracks and increase their lifespan. I went looking on YouTube and found a video. Interestingly, there are dozens available. (I guess there are a lot of folks out there whose lives are as dull as mine.) The model you see here is different from the one I saw, but it gives you an idea of what these things look like in action.

Loram Rail Grinder

And if you want to find out more about what rail grinders are and how they work, here’s the article from Wikipedia.

Rail Grinders

Last weekend I was making my way down the stairs at the North Hollywood station and saw a couple of trucks on the track and some workers hanging out. I pulled out my camera and started taking pictures. Then I thought, why not ask them what they’re doing? Turns out they weren’t doing maintenance, they were installing the hardware to make cell phone access available on the subway. I asked them if I could take their picture, and they said yeah.

Workers 60 Guys

Here are the rolls of cable they’re installing.

Workers 65 Cable

The point of all this being, this stuff doesn’t happen by magic. So many of the things we rely on every day, subways, cell phones, roads, sidewalks, TVs and water taps, are only there because people put them together and people keep them maintained. Most of the time the folks who do all these jobs are completely invisible to us. But I think it’s good to remind ourselves that they’re out there. They make the city work.

Workers 70 Tunnel

Traffic-Oriented Development

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For over a decade people at City Hall have been talking about transit-oriented development (TOD). In theory, if we create high-density residential and commercial developments near transit centers, people will be encouraged to take busses and trains instead of driving their cars. Makes sense, right? So for years the City has been telling us we have to build up instead of out, that we need to go vertical instead of horizontal. And they’ve approved a slew of high-rises, all the while insisting that this will get people out of cars and onto transit.

Before I go any further, I’d like you to watch a video. It lasts about twelve minutes, and it was shot during rush hour not too far from Hollywood and Vine.

I hope the video makes my point clear.* The City keeps approving high-rises, and when communities complain that congestion will get worse, planners and politicians invariably say that the people who live and/or work in these buildings will surely take transit. But they’ve been saying that for over a decade now, and it ain’t working. The MTA station at Hollywood and Vine is a hub for a number of bus lines, as well as the subway. But these people are all driving right past it.

I’m not against TOD, but to make it work, you’ve got to do some planning. Instead of creating a well thought out framework for all this development, the City keeps dumping project after project in the Hollywood area. Mayor Garcetti will tell you that the City did produce the Hollywood Community Plan Update (HCPU), and residents sued to overturn it. That’s true. Among the HCPU’s many shortcomings, the population figure it was based on was inflated by about 10%, in spite of the fact that US Census numbers were readily available. The judge who threw the plan out called it “fatally flawed”.

To give you an idea of how little City Hall cares about planning, let’s go back to those two buildings in the video. The residential high-rise on the southwest corner is just getting started, and the hotel on the northeast corner isn’t quite finished. But look at how bad traffic is already, long before these projects are completed. Unbelievably, the City is considering approval of a third high-rise at the very same intersection. How clueless can you get?!

As I said in the video, I don’t own a car and depend on transit to get around. I support planning to encourage transit use. But TOD isn’t working in LA. Why? I think primarily it’s because that’s not really what the City is building. If our elected officials were really interested in building TOD, they’d be pushing high-density housing made up mostly of affordable units. But instead, the City has been encouraging developers to build high-priced housing by offering them generous entitlements.

I got on the Department of City Planning web site and took a look at multi-family projects in Hollywood and North Hollywood that have been built near Red Line stations since the subway was completed. The Lofts and The Gallery at Noho Commons combined contain 724 units. Eastown, when the second phase is completed, will have over 1,000. The Jefferson has 270, and is the only one that offers any affordable housing, 27 units. So out of about 2,000 apartments, only 27 are accessible to people in lower income brackets. And if you’re not one of the lucky few to snag one of low cost units, you can expect to spend at least $2,000 a month for a one bedroom. Let’s not even talk about what it might cost to live at The Vermont, which sits just across from the Vermont/Wilshire station. And call it a hunch, but I don’t think the massive Wilshire Grand Tower, which is rising up next to the 7th/Figueroa station, will be offering any affordable units at all.

According to a story published by the LA Times earlier this year (Measuring Income along LA’s Metro Stations, March 4, 2016), the median income in almost all communities served by the Red Line is well below the County median of $55,870, ranging roughly from $22,000 to $46,000 a year. (Universal City is the lone exception, with residents there making well above the County median.) For the people in the lowest income bracket, renting an apartment at the newer “TOD” buildings would consume pretty much all their earnings, and even at the higher end of the scale it would mean spending over half what they make in a year. The City says these high-density projects encourage transit use, but most transit riders couldn’t afford to live in them.

Could this be one of the reasons that transit ridership is lower now than it was back in 1985? There may be many reasons for the decline, but you’ve got to wonder why the MTA is serving fewer people than it did three decades ago. The drop in ridership is even more disturbing when you realize that the population of LA County (the area served by the MTA) has grown by over a million since 1985. Does anyone see a problem here? City Hall has been telling us for years that their policies will get people off the road and onto transit. Instead, we’ve seen a net loss in transit ridership since the eighties, in spite of the fact that the population has continued to climb. And the traffic that used to just clog the main thoroughfares is now spilling over onto side streets.

The City’s claim that they’re promoting transit-oriented density is bogus. What they’re really doing is allowing developers who spend a fortune lobbying City Hall to cash in on projects that don’t serve the majority of Angelenos. They’re backing projects geared towards the affluent, which is what developers want because that’s where the highest profits are. Meanwhile lines of cars sit on our streets and freeways at rush hour, burning fossil fuels and spewing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

You call this transit-oriented development? I call it a disgusting sham.

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*
Just in case you’re thinking traffic is bad because it’s a Hollywood Bowl night, it’s not. The video was shot on Tuesday, October 25. Nothing was on the schedule that evening. But I can tell you the back-up on these streets can get way worse when something is happening at the Bowl.

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I Can’t Vote for Measure M

Construction moves forward on MTA's Regional Connector in Little Tokyo.

Construction moves forward on MTA’s Regional Connector in Little Tokyo.

I ride public transit almost every day. I really believe we need to invest in building a better transit system. And I used to think we were doing that, but not any more.

Measure M, the LA County Traffic Improvement Plan, is an ambitious attempt to do a lot of things. By adding another half cent to our sales tax, the County hopes to fund a variety of projects, with a good part of the money going toward enlarging the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s rail system. The MTA has already embarked on an ambitious program of building new rail lines and expanding others. You’d think that would be a good thing, but looking at the facts, I’m really not so sure.

For years now the MTA has been building rail all over LA County. First we got the Red Line and the Purple Line, then the Green, Blue and Gold Lines. The Expo Line was recently extended west, and the Crenshaw/LAX Line is currently under construction. You’d think that with this massive investment in rail, taking public transit would be so easy and fast that everyone would be jumping on board.

But that’s not what’s happening. In fact, transit ridership in LA County is lower than it was 30 years ago. When the LA Times reported this disturbing fact at the beginning of the year, the article sparked a lot of heated discussion. Some claimed that the Times was giving a distorted view. Others looked to the future, saying that stats would get better with time. But in the reading I did, there was one crucial fact that no one commented on. The County’s population has grown by over a million since 1990. To my mind, when you take that into account, there’s only one conclusion you can reach. Our current approach has been a disaster. If the population has grown by more than 10% over the past 30 years, how can we say that a decline in ridership during the same period represents anything but failure.

Another shot of construction on the Regional Connector.

Another shot of construction on the Regional Connector.

There are a lot of different theories floating around as to why ridership hasn’t grown along with the system, and I’m sure there are a number of factors in play. But I think one of the most important factors is the City of LA’s insane approach to planning. I read a lot of the stuff that comes out of City Hall, and over and over I hear the refrain that transit and land use must be considered together. Sounds logical, doesn’t it? It would make sense to think about where you’re putting housing at the same time as you think about where the next rail line goes. In theory, people could just step out of their apartment, walk down to the platform and catch a train wherever they’re going. Who needs a car?

The problem is, when the housing starts at $2,000 a month, and often goes much higher, you’re really not building housing for the people who use public transit. For the most part the people who depend on the MTA can’t afford that kind of rent. And the people who can pay that much are more likely to own cars. What’s even worse, as the rail network has expanded, City Hall’s policies have actively encouraged gentrification around new rail stops. It used to be pretty much anybody could afford to live in Hollywood. Not any more. As the Department of City Planning approves an endless parade of high-end housing projects and chic hotels, as they continue to hand out liquor permits to trendy restaurants and clubs, rents keep spiralling higher and the demographic most likely to use transit is being squeezed out. A similar scenario has already played out in North Hollywood, Downtown, and Highland Park, and you can look for more of the same in Leimert Park and Boyle Heights in a few years. So while City Hall claims to be thinking about transportation and land use together, in reality their policies are driving transit riders farther away from transit hubs.

Construction site for Purple Line extension at Wilshire and La Brea.

Construction site for Purple Line extension at Wilshire and La Brea.

Another problem I have with Measure M is the fact a large portion of the funding goes toward road and freeway improvements, and this is something many people have commented on. There are those transit critics who complain that the MTA is heavily subsidized by our tax dollars, but they never seem to mention that a huge share of our tax dollars also goes to subsidizing travel by car. If we’re trying to reduce our use of fossil fuels and cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, then our focus should be on investing in public transit. But Measure M continues our current policy of investing in both at the same time. How’s this working? Well, our recent experience with widening the San Diego Freeway tells the story. After years of work and millions of dollars, traffic is still awful. We do need to maintain roads and freeways, since busses travel on both, but massive investment in “upgrades” is just encouraging people to keep driving their cars.

I’d love to see us build a transit system that made travelling by rail and bus attractive to a majority of Angelenos. But that isn’t what’s been happenning. Instead, a bizarre tangle of policies has led to a decline in transit use even as the County has continued to grow. The City of LA seems dead set on continuing its drive to build upscale urban enclaves, forcing low-income Angelenos away from transit hubs. And for all the money Measure M would put into transit, it would also spend a lot of money on keeping people in their cars.

Sorry. I can’t vote for Measure M.

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and La Brea.

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and La Brea.

The Sky Above, the Traffic Below

a MTA UC 10 Persp

Lately most of the press on the MTA has been about its rail expansions, but there are other, smaller projects that deserve attention, too. Work was recently completed on both the North Hollywood Station Underpass and the Universal City Pedestrian Bridge. There have been some complaints from transit advocates about these projects, but I have to say I think both offer significant benefits.

The smaller and less flashy of the two is the underpass. The construction phase was a huge pain, but now that it’s finished I think it’s a big improvement over the previous set-up. Using the tunnel to transfer from the Red Line to the Orange Line is much faster, and much safer. I remember waiting for the light to change so I could cross Lankershim, and I’d see people dashing across the street, dodging oncoming traffic, just so they could catch an Orange Line bus. So it’s definitely a step up in terms of safety. I also like the bright, playful design of the underpass. It fits in well with vibe of the Red Line Station.

Street level entrance to the North Hollywood Station Underpass.

Street level entrance to the North Hollywood Station Underpass.

A closer view of the entrance.

A closer view of the entrance.

Looking down the stairwell.

Looking down the stairwell.

Looking up the stairwell.

Looking up the stairwell.

The first time I checked out the bridge at Universal City I had some reservations. While it’s an interesting structure, my initial reaction was that it was a little too severe. But while I was taking photos the other day, I was really impressed by the spaces it creates, and also how it exploits the views of the surrounding community. On one side you have the low roll of the Hollywood Hills, on the other side the Valley is stretching out to the horizon. Look up and you see massive high-rises cutting into the sky, look down and you see the traffic swirling on the street below.

A view from the west side of the Universal City Pedestrian Bridge.

A view from the west side of the Universal City Pedestrian Bridge.

Looking across the bridge to Universal City.

Looking across the bridge to Universal City.

Looking down on Lankershim Blvd..

Looking down on Lankershim Blvd..

A view of the Hollywood Hills.

A view of the Hollywood Hills.

A crowd of people leaving the theme park.

A crowd of people leaving the theme park.

Another shot of Lankershim.

Another shot of Lankershim.

Shadows stretching across the bridge as the sun goes down.

Shadows stretching across the bridge as the sun goes down.

The west end of the bridge, with the hills in the distance.

The west end of the bridge, with the hills in the distance.

Transit planning is a large and complicated puzzle. I don’t claim to understand all the intricacies, and I know that some people feel the money spent on these projects could have been used for other purposes. But I see definite advantages in both the bridge and the underpass. I’m glad to have them.

a MTA UC 75 Brdg Silh

Keeping the River Clean

LAR 05 Riv Trees Fwy a

Yesterday I got up earlier than I usually do on a Saturday. It took some effort, but by nine o’ clock I’d made it to Marsh Park so I could take part in the annual LA River clean-up event organized by Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR).

This stretch of the river is bordered by a mix of older stucco homes and industrial buildings. Marsh Park seems to wind its way through the neighborhood, I’m assuming because it was planned to take advantage of unused open space. It’s nicely landscaped, and has a cool play area for kids.

The entrance to Marsh Park.

The entrance to Marsh Park.

A grassy expanse in the park.

A grassy expanse in the park.

There's a cool play area for kids.

There’s a cool play area for kids.

These yellow flowers caught my eye.

These yellow flowers caught my eye.

The gate that leads to the river.

The gate that leads to the river.

A shot of the river with the freeway in the background.

A shot of the river with the freeway in the background.

You'll find a mix of residential and industrial on the streets adjacent to the river.

You’ll find a mix of residential and industrial on the streets adjacent to the river.

An artist's effort to beautify a wall.

An artist’s effort to beautify a wall.

Dozens of people had made it there ahead of me. I got a pair of gloves and a trash bag, and after a brief orientation they set us loose on the river. The guy who gave us the ground rules said that twenty seven years ago, when FoLAR started doing these annual clean-ups, they came across all kinds of things in the river bed. In the early days they’d be hauling out mattresses, shopping carts, and even cars. These days, he went on to say, it was mostly a matter of picking up plastic bags.

A quick orientation before we got started.

A quick orientation before we got started.

Heading out to tackle the trash.

Heading out to tackle the trash.

Exploring the river bed.

Exploring the river bed.

Looking high and low for trash.

Looking high and low for trash.

When the bags were full, we left them along the bike path.

When the bags were full, we left them along the bike path.

And this guy threw them in the back of a truck.

And this guy threw them in the back of a truck.

FoLAR has been taking care of this long-neglected natural treasure for thirty years. Unlike the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, a latecomer with a pro-development agenda, FoLAR’s members have been trying for decades to realize the river’s tremendous potential as a public resource. Back when most of us were making jokes about this massive concrete channel that wound its way through the landscape, Lewis MacAdams and his cohorts saw what the river had once been and could be again. They’ve been working diligently since the eighties to protect and restore the LA River, and to educate the rest of us about its past and possible future.

Developers have realized that there's money to be made by building along the banks.

Developers have realized that there’s money to be made by building along the banks.

One of the river's current residents.

One of the river’s current residents.

The Griffith Observatory was visible off in the distance.

The Griffith Observatory was visible off in the distance.

Standing under the freeway you could hear the steady din of the cars above.

Standing under the freeway you could hear the steady din of the cars above.

I spent a while collecting trash, and then I wandered off to take pictures. I’d never walked along the river bed before. It was pretty cool. I don’t know about you, but for most of my life I barely noticed the LA River. Encased in concete, bounded by industrial parks and rail lines, running beneath dozens of bridges, it’s as if the river has been buried by the city. We’re only starting to dig it out now. It will be many years before we uncover its real potential.

I’m so glad I made the effort to be there for the clean-up. It was a great day. And it’s just one of many events that FoLAR holds throughout the year. Check out their web site for more info.

FoLAR

LAR 90 Riv Path

Death by a Thousand Cuts

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Not too long ago I was riding the bus and saw a pamphlet on display. The title was Public Hearing on Proposed Service Changes. Even before I picked it up, I more or less knew what it was about. The “service changes” are mostly service cuts, yet another round of reductions by the MTA.

This isn’t surprising. Last I checked, the MTA was running an operating deficit of over $30 million a year, and that deficit will continue to grow. One solution would be to raise fares, but the last time they did that there was a decline in ridership. Of course, ridership has been going down for a while now. Some argue that the decline may be reversable, and point to the rail extensions that are currently under construction. New rail stops will bring new riders, but they will also increase operating costs. And actually, fares don’t nearly cover what it takes to run the system. I really doubt that increased ridership from these extensions will make a serious difference in the budget picture.

There’s no simple solution here. While I’m not happy about further cutbacks, I know Metro is probably doing the best they can to balance their budget under challenging circumstances. But I’ve gotta say, it’s getting harder and harder to get around LA on public transit. A number of the lines I use regularly run only once an hour. The Rapid busses, which were great to start with, don’t run as often as they used to. I don’t read when I ride the bus, but I’ve started taking a book with me when I’m going somewhere because I never know how long I’ll be waiting to make a connection.

What I’m leading up to here, is that I’m really starting to question the MTA’s long term strategy. For years now we’ve been told that we need to invest in rail to solve our transit problems. Well, we’ve built a lot of rail, and things don’t seem to be getting any better. Looking at the budget issues and the trend in ridership, I don’t believe the rail we’re building now is going to make a huge difference. At some point we have to ask ourselves if this approach is working.

That brings us to Measure R2, the ballot initiative we’ll be voting on in November, which will increase the sales tax to raise billions for transit. About 40% of the projected revenue will go to rail projects, and looking at the results we’ve gotten from rail so far, I’m increasingly skeptical about whether this is the right way to go. Trains are great if you’re travelling in a straight line from point A to point B, but as soon as you get away from that straight line, things start getting complicated. Rail works great in New York, where the system is centered on a very dense urban core. LA is much more spread out, and even though Downtown is attracting more residents and businesses, it doesn’t function as the City’s center the way Manhattan does. There are those who argue we need to build high density hubs along transit lines, which sounds good, but City Hall has been pushing that policy for years and it’s not producing the promised results. Transit ridership is down. If our leaders had pursued a policy of building affordable housing that would make job centers easily accessible by rail, it might be a different story. But renting near rail stops is pretty pricey. A studio at Noho Commons goes for $1,777. Digs at the Jefferson in Hollywood start at $2,238. And I don’t know what they’ll be charging at the Wilshire Grand, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be more than the average transit rider can afford.

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Measure R2 will deliver other things besides rail, and I don’t want to say I’m opposed to it, but at this point I can’t say I’ll vote yes. It seems like there are others who have doubts as well. This post on StreetsBlog breaks down the MTA’s 2016 budget, and raises some important issues. The comments are worth reading, too.

A Preview of Metro’s $5.6 Billion Fiscal Year 2016 Budget from StreetsBlog LA

I also came across this article in the Daily News that talks about how the Valley has gotten less than its share of transit infrastructure in the past, and how leaders on that side of town are worried about getting shortchanged again with R2. One of the points the author makes is that with big infrastructure projects, the longer they’re delayed, the more expensive they become.

What the Valley Would Get, and Not Get, in New Transportation Tax from Daily News

LA County is promoting R2 in order to fund a massive expansion of our rail network. Basically I’m asking if rail is really worth the money, time and trouble. Busses are much cheaper and much more flexible. Also, investing in busses won’t saddle the MTA with a huge debt load the way these infrastructure projects will. Debt service already accounts for a significant portion of the agency’s budget, and expanding the rail lines will make that burden even heavier.

You’re going to be hearing a lot about R2 in the coming months. City, County and State officials are already making an aggressive push to promote it. Again, I’m not saying I oppose it, but as you listen to our elected officials give their spiel, ask yourself if our public transit policy is taking us in the right direction. And if not, is it time to change course?

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