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.

LA’s Water Resources: It’s Getting Scary

Graphic from NASA Earth Observatory

The water situation just keeps getting more dire.  A brief recap: Last August the US Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) declared a Tier 1 shortage on the Colorado River, the first time it had ever taken this step.  This was not good news for Southern California, which relies heavily on water from the Colorado.  Then, in March of this year, California water officials announced that they’d be cutting allocations for the State Water Project (SWP) to 5% of requested supplies.  Another blow to Southern California, which also gets much of its water from the SWP.    

Things got even worse today, when USBR announced the first-ever Tier 2 shortage on the Colorado River.  This will not affect California immediately, since the State has senior water rights, but the way things are going it’s likely that we’ll be impacted in the next couple of years.  Scientists are predicting that the Western US will continue to get hotter and drier for the foreseeable future. 

The City of LA is in especially bad shape.  While some cities in Southern California have significant groundwater resources, Los Angeles’ supply is relatively small.  In recent years, groundwater has made up about 10% of what we use annually.  We do get water from the LA Aqueduct, but that’s not as reliable as it used to be, since snowpacks in the Sierra Nevadas have continued to decline in recent years.

Recycled water?  LADWP has been talking about that for years.  While there are big plans to reuse more of our water, right now recycling only accounts for about 2% of our supply.  It will be years before that number grows much.  Then what about desalination?  It’s very costly, very energy intensive, and causes significant environmental impacts.  There are other experimental processes out there, but nothing we can scale up quickly to replace what we’re losing from the SWP and the Colorado.

There are no easy answers.  Scientists do not see a turning point in the near future.  We’re going to have to learn to live with less water.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Over the past few decades, the City of LA has already cut its per capita water usage by quite a bit, and there’s still more we can do.  But remember, we don’t know how far this trend is going.  It’s likely we could learn to live with the level of water deliveries we’re getting now, but scientists predict that our snowpacks will continue to decline and our climate will continue to get warmer.  We haven’t seen the worst yet.

I have to say, the older I get, the more I question the wisdom of building a city of 4 million people in a place with such limited water resources.  People talk about how Hoover Dam and the State Water Project were great accomplishments, and yeah, in a way they were.  But as the water level in Hoover Dam continues to decline, as the State Water Project continues to suck the life out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, I have to wonder where this is all going.

Right now, it doesn’t look good.

Here’s an excellent breakdown of the current situation from CalMatters.

Four Things to Know about Colorado River Water in California

Can the City of LA Keep Growing If Its Water Resources Keep Declining?

The City of Los Angeles couldn’t exist without the water it imports from sources far beyond its borders.  While the ratios vary widely from year to year, on average we get about 10% of our annual supply from groundwater within the city limits.  The remaining 90% has to be imported from places hundreds of miles away.

Which means we really should pay attention to the Water Supply Alert issued by the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) on August 17.  The entire State of California, and in fact much of the Western US, is experiencing extremely dry conditions.  At this point the MWD is asking for citizens, businesses and public agencies to make voluntary reductions, but there’s a good chance that stricter measures will be needed in the not too distant future.  Through careful planning and good stewardship, the MWD has managed to build up significant reserves which might provide a buffer for the next year or two.  But we can’t be complacent.  This year the California Department of Water Resources has cut allocations from the State Water Project to just 5% of requested supplies.  It’s possible that next year the allocation could be reduced to zero.  On top of that, for the first time ever, the Bureau of Reclamation has declared a shortage on the Colorado River.  Lake Mead supplies much of the water that Southern California relies on, and storage there has been declining faster than even the most pessimistic observers predicted.  Right now the water level is lower than it’s been at any time since Hoover Dam was constructed. 

Which leaves us with the LA Aqueduct.  At the beginning of the 20th century, Los Angeles business leaders were working hard to promote the city’s growth, but they knew that the area’s water resources were limited.  In looking for solutions to this problem, they set their sights on the Owens Valley, over 200 miles away.  Using secretive and dishonest means, the City of LA managed to purchase rights to much of the water in the Owens Valley, and then began construction of the LA Aqueduct under the supervision of William Mulholland.  In LA the completion of the Aqueduct was hailed as an engineering marvel, and for a time Mulholland was celebrated as a hero.  Needless to say, the people of the Owens Valley didn’t see things quite the same way.  For them, the diversion of water resources to the Aqueduct resulted in disastrous environmental impacts, and set the stage for decades of litigation.

Mulholland Memorial Fountain from DWP Photo Collection at LA Public Library

In 1940, five years after Mulholland’s death, a fountain was built at the intersection of Los Feliz Boulevard and Riverside Drive to honor the man primarily responsible for the construction of the LA Aqueduct.  The choice to create a fountain was considered a fitting way to commemorate the role Mulholland played in securing the water that was necessary for the city’s growth.  For decades cool, crystalline plumes arched into the air and cascaded into the rippling pool below.

Today the fountain is dry and it’s surround by a chain link fence.  While a search on the net didn’t reveal any explanation, it seems likely that LADWP shut it down in response to the looming water shortage.  This is certainly a sensible step to take, but it should also raise questions about LA’s future.  Mulholland was celebrated because of his efforts to provide water that would support the city’s growth.  If the fountain is now dry, maybe this should be a cue to start asking how much LA can realistically grow in the future?

While government officials and the media routinely describe the situation as a drought, I don’t think that’s accurate.  In fact, I think it’s seriously misleading.  “Drought” is generally defined as a prolonged period of dry weather.  This implies that at some point the drought will end and things will get back to normal.  But there’s growing evidence that this is the new normal.  Both the State Water Project and the LA Aqueduct are fed by snowmelt from the Sierra Nevadas.  The Sierra snowpacks have been declining for years, and climatologists predict that they’ll continue to decline for the foreseeable future.  As for the Colorado River, California, Nevada and Arizona draw more water from this resource than it can deliver on an annual basis.  The construction of Hoover Dam masked this fact for decades, but the rapid decline of Lake Mead should be a wake-up call for all of us.  Right now it seems inevitable that water allocations to all three states will have to be reduced, but this will be a long, contentious, brutal process. 

So if all of the city’s water resources are declining, our public officials need to let go of the myth that LA can keep growing forever.  LA’s 2020 Urban Water Management Plan (UWMP) assumes that all it will take is more stormwater capture and a concerted effort to conserve.  Unfortunately, stormwater capture doesn’t really work when you’re hardly getting any rain.  And while Angelenos have shown a willingness to save water in the past, current forecasts seem to indicate that we’d have to push conservation to a whole new level.  The more you cut, the harder it is to cut further.  The UWMP’s conservation projections are extremely optimistic.  It’s hard to say whether they’re realistic.

The Mulholland Memorial was intended as a monument to the man who oversaw the construction of a massive infrastructure project that allowed the city to grow rapidly.  In the state it’s in now, it seems more like a monument to the folly of those who believed you could build a city of 4,000,000 people in an area with minimal water resources.

Rollout of Service Changes Shows Why Metro Ridership Keeps Declining

On Sunday, June 27, LA Metro rolled out a sweeping program of changes to its bus system.  On Monday, June 28, I got off Line 94 at Tuxford and San Fernando to transfer to the 152.  There was a sign that said….

“We’re making changes to this bus line or stop.”

That was all.  No specific info.  I was a little worried at first, wondering if the stop might have been eliminated.  But I told myself that wouldn’t make sense.  If Metro had discontinued the stop, surely they would have removed the signage for the 152, or at least covered it with a notice saying the bus wouldn’t pick up passengers there any more.

I was so wrong.  The stop had been discontinued.  And this wasn’t the only instance where Metro had failed to update signage before implementing its service changes.  Apparently there were a lot of problems with the updates to the bus system, and riders have been expressing their frustration on social media.  Riders Kenny Uong and Keegan both tweeted about failures to update signage at stops.  And a number of riders vented their frustration over service changes and cancellations at Metro’s blog The Source.  Here’s a sample….

ladylee1969

As one who relies on public transportation everyday, I find the cancelation of route 236 upsetting and disconcerting by MTA. Many people uses the route pass foothill to get to work. I had sent an email to some of the board of supervisors and the Mayor’s office. NOT ONE ANSWERED!!!!

Marc

The rerouting of 236, cutting off people from their jobs is a terrible idea

Al

New route 237 fails to provide local service between NoHo station to Ventura via Vineland. By forcing people to walk or be forced to use the Subway and connect to other buses is time consuming. Having the New 237 end at Universal Station would have been a better and viable choice. The other route provides a haphazard service along vineland to burbank airport.

Wes

Thanks for cutting the 720 off from East LA, been riding that line since it started and I was in high school. Still depend on it to get to work on the west side so now your adding more time by making me and others take two buses. All these cuts you’re making are asinine, as always you prove to outdo your incompetency Metro.

Upset line 83 rider

Why discontinue line 83?? I travel everyday from downtown LA to York Blvd and now I will be forced get off the 81, which seems to be the only line going close and wait and transfer to another line, it takes time as it is and I don;t even think the new line 182 will run every 5-10 minutes, discontinuing line 83 will disrupt schedule for many riders, I’ve been talking to people in the bus and we’re not happy about it. This is crazy.

Jason

Metro really needs to have staff (supervisors, ambassadors, etc) drive around the canceled bus lines / stops / segments. The signs that are strapped to the pole are not enough. And no, not everyone has a smartphone. Even if they do, they may not be following Metro or aware of the shakeup. I saw people standing at some bus stops under extreme heat yesterday waiting for the bus lines that no longer exist.

Dan Wentzel

These service changes have unfortunately been poorly executed. I am hearing reports of stops throughout the system with old signage and the maps on Metro’s websites are from 2017-18.

This all should have been rolled out together in advance, especially if fares were to be reinstituted. The “Is My Bus Line Changing” webpage is clunky. New systemwide maps illustrating the new service reflecting the new schedules should have rolled out well in advance.

Streetsblog also weighed in, compiling an assortment of complaints, and lamenting the fact that Metro can’t even seem to issue a clear statement on what’s happening with fares.  During the pandemic, collection of fares had been suspended.  When the service changes were implemented, apparently bus drivers had different ideas about whether or not riders needed to pay.  As you can imagine, this resulted in a lot of confusion, and Metro’s communications on the matter did not make things any clearer.  Streetsblog ended by saying, “Sadly, this week’s failures are more signals that Metro continues to fail to prioritize its bus riders.”

I couldn’t agree more.  But actually, I’d go even further.  Honestly, Metro doesn’t seem to care about any of its riders, whether they’re using bus or rail.  If the botched rollout of these service changes was an isolated episode, that would be one thing.  But this is just the latest in a long line of failures. 

There was the disastrous reopening of the Blue Line in 2019.  After several months of partial closures for repairs and upgrades, it reopened in November of that year, and problems started almost immediately.  While Metro promised that service would be better than ever, there were numerous issues with gate crossings, power lines and signals leading to frequent delays. 

Then there’s the fact that Metro keeps pushing back completion dates for the new lines and line extensions that are being constructed.  Yeah, I know they had to deal with the impact of the pandemic, but the Crenshaw Line was supposed to be finished in 2019, before the pandemic hit.  Metro is now projecting they’ll finally wrap it up in 2022.  The Regional Connector was supposed to be done in 2020, but now Metro is saying it will open in August 2022.  While it’s true that large scale rail projects often run behind schedule and over budget, I have to wonder why Metro keeps promising more than they can deliver.  I suspect that when they first announce these projects they know that their projections are absurdly optimistic.  It’s easier to sell it to the public if you promise quick completion and low costs.  But when construction consistently drags on way longer than expected and the cost always goes way higher than the original estimate, the impression taxpayers get is that the agency is run by inept bureaucrats who don’t know what they’re doing. 

And this impression is reinforced by the fact that ridership has been sinking for years.  According to Metro’s own statistics, estimated weekday ridership for systemwide bus and rail went from 1,459,150 in 2014 to 1,174,751 in 2019, a 19% drop.  (I’m not including stats from 2020, because people were warned to avoid using transit due to the pandemic.)  Some folks like to blame the decline on a supposed passenger preference for rail over bus, citing growth on the Gold and Expo Lines, but actually ridership fell in both categories.  It’s true that the Gold and Expo Lines have been performing well, but overall estimated weekday rail ridership went from 351,833 in 2014 to 295,889 in 2019.  Certainly construction on the Blue Line was a factor, but the Red Line has been losing riders, too, and the numbers for the Green Line were down about 25% over the same period. 

To be fair, I don’t believe the loss of ridership is all Metro’s fault.  For years the LA Department of City Planning has been helping real estate speculators gentrify working class neighborhoods.  In the process, thousands of low-income households have been forced farther away from transit hubs like Koreatown, Hollywood and North Hollywood.  I remember a meeting of the Central LA Area Planning Commission where tenants who lived in a rent-stabilized building had filed an appeal of a project that involved the demolition of their homes.  One woman told the Commissioners that if she lost her rent-stabilized apartment she couldn’t afford to stay in Hollywood, and that would mean losing access to the transit she depended on to get to work.  The Commissioners didn’t care.  They denied the appeal, and cleared the way for demolition of 40 rent-stabilized apartments to make way for a new hotel.  Hard to believe that LA City Planning has been claiming for years that they’re totally committed to transit-oriented development.  If you point out to them, say at a City Planning Commission hearing, that transit ridership has been dropping for years, they ignore you. 

But we could also ask if Metro itself is driving displacement.  When you look at the decisions made by the politicians who dominate Metro’s Board, it’s hard to believe that their highest priority is creating a reliable, efficient transit system that will serve those who need it.  They’ve spent billions of taxpayer dollars building a massive rail system while making round after round of cuts to bus service, and ridership keeps sinking lower.  Are they really interested in getting people out of cars and onto transit?  Or are they more focussed on creating infrastructure that will promote new development?  Every time a new rail line is announced, real estate investors rush to snap up whatever they can in the surrounding area.  Numerous observers have pointed out the relationship between gentrification and new rail lines.  Maybe that’s really what it’s all about. 

Whatever Metro’s priorities are, riders don’t seem to be very high on the list.  The careless, inept rollout of the recent service changes demonstrates how little the Metro Board actually thinks about the people who rely on transit to get to work, to get to school, to do their shopping.  Far from trying to attract new riders, it seems like Metro is trying to drive people away.

Burbank Blvd. Bridge Demolition

Brbk Bridge Demo from Live Feed 9 200426 CROPPED

An image from Sunday morning, when demolition was largely completed.

A few months back I wrote about the Empire Interchange/Interstate 5 Improvement Project, a massive undertaking that’s been in process for years. One component of the project is the demolition and replacement of the Burbank Blvd. Bridge over the I-5. This weekend the freeway was shut down and the demolition took place. The photo above is from a live feed that was posted on-line, and shows what the scene looked like this morning. Here are a few more shots from the live feed that show the demo in progress.

Brbk Bridge Demo from Live Feed 0 BEFORE CROPPED

An image from the live feed before the freeway closure, when the bridge was still standing.

Brbk Bridge Demo from Live Feed 3 200425 CROPPED

An image from Saturday, when demolition had begun.

Brbk Bridge Demo from Live Feed 5 200425 CROPPED

Demolition continues on Saturday, as the sun goes down.

The project is way behind schedule and there’s no telling when it will actually be completed. For more info, you can read my previous post by clicking here.

 

Building Empire

Emp 10 Fwy Banners

For years now construction crews have been tearing up Downtown Burbank. Caltrans is the lead agency on a huge infrastructure project which is remaking the I-5/Golden State Freeway corridor, as well as bringing changes to a number of Burbank’s surface streets. The actual name for all this activity is the Empire Interchange/Interstate 5 Improvement Project. Here’s a brief overview from the City of Burbank’s web site.

“This project, lead [sic] by Caltrans and funded primarily by State transportation funds and Los Angeles County transportation sales tax funds, will relieve congestion along Interstate 5 while providing an important new access to the Golden State area of Burbank, including the Empire Center and Bob Hope Airport.”

Emp 12 Fwy Bridge Trucks

The I-5/Golden State Freeway as it passes through Burbank

Emp 14 Burb Bridge Target

Traffic on Burbank Blvd. where it crosses over the freeway

Here’s a short list of specific changes that are part of the project.

> Full freeway interchange at Empire Avenue
> New freeway and railroad crossing allowing access to Empire Center
> Freeway widening including 2 carpool lanes and weaving lanes
> Burbank Blvd. Interchange Demolition & Reconstruction
> Railroad grade separation at Buena Vista Street
> Realignment / Closure of San Fernando Blvd near Lincoln Street.

You’ll notice one of the main goals is to improve access to the Empire Center. If you’ve never been there, it’s basically a massive mall that has all the same chain retail stores and restaurants you can find almost anywhere else in Southern California. But more on that later.

Emp 20 Columns 1

Excavation next to the Empire Center

Emp 21 Hill Jeep EDITED

Mounds of dirt rising above Victory Place

The project is way behind schedule. Various factors have pushed completion back substantially, including a dispute with a contractor and this year’s heavy rains. Demolition and replacement of the Burbank Blvd. bridge had been scheduled to start this year, but now Caltrans says they’ll start in 2020. It isn’t unusual for a project this big and this complex to take longer than expected, but Caltrans’ original 2018 deadline was ridiculously ambitious. Work has already been going on for over five years, and will continue for at least a couple more years.

Emp 22 SFB Winona Const 1

A barrier under construction at San Fernando and Winona

Emp 24 Const Site SFB Winona 2

Construction site at San Fernando and Winona

Emp 28 Winona Under Fwy

Work on Winona where it passes under the freeway

In the project overview above, you may have noticed that it said funding comes in part from an LA County transportation sales tax. This would be Measure R, which was approved by voters about a decade ago. Measure R money funds a lot of different things, but the major categories are: 35% to new rail and bus rapid transit projects; 20% to carpool lanes, highways and other highway related improvements; 20% to bus operations; and 15% for local city sponsored improvements.

Emp 29 Shovel SF Blvd Red Truck

Construction on San Fernando next to the freeway

LA voters have consistently approved new taxes for transit and road upgrades, but there’s an ongoing debate about the way these measures are structured, with many transit advocates saying it’s counterproductive to levy new taxes to fund both transit and highway improvements. Their argument is that if we continue to invest in infrastructure that makes it easier to drive cars, then people will just continue to drive cars, even though billions are being invested in new rail infrastructure. On the other hand, the people who write these measures say that voters won’t approve them if there’s no money for roadwork.

There does seem to be a conflict here, which may, in part, explain the dismal performance of LA’s investments in transit. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (or Metro) has spent billions on new rail infrastructure over the past two decades, and yet transit ridership is lower than it was in the 80s. Some commentators believe that LA voters like the idea of transit, but ultimately end up sticking with their cars.

You can take the bus to the Empire Center, but as you can see by the photos below, most folks drive.

Emp 30 EC Pkng 2

Parking lot at the Empire Center

Emp 32 Pkng 2

Another shot of the parking lot at the Empire Center

Burbank is a really car-centric town. Aside from the Empire Center, the Downtown area also has the Burbank Town Center and an adjacent outdoor mall. On weekends the parking areas/structures for all three of these malls are packed with cars. Burbank residents love to participate in the great American pastime of driving somewhere and buying stuff.

Emp 40 Pkng Family

A family heading back to the car

Emp 42 Pkng Shoppers

Shoppers in the parking lot at Empire Center

And let’s not forget the other great American pastime of sitting in a line of cars waiting for food.

Emp 50 INO A

Line of cars waiting for their turn at the window

Emp 52 INO B EDITED

The line of cars looping back through the parking lot

Emp 54 INO C 2 EDITED

The line of cars extends back around the building

Let’s face it. This is what powers our economy. Which I’m sure is why two of the primary goals of this project involve making it easier for people to drive to the Empire Center. Cars don’t just make it easier for Americans to buy stuff. Cars themselves are products that Americans love to buy. For decades one of the main drivers of the US economy has been the auto industry. After WWII, car manufacturing helped make the US the world’s major economic power. The jobs generated by the industry helped to create the American middle class, and the fact that they were union jobs meant fat paychecks that pumped dollars into the consumer economy. When the big auto makers were on the ropes a decade ago, Washington stepped in to rescue them, and the rebound in car sales was one of the things that lifted the US out of the recession.

Emp 70 Car Truck

Freeway onramp to be permanently closed

But it does seem like we have a problem. One the one hand, we have government officials telling us we need to get away from cars and rely more on transit if we want to fight climate change. On the other hand, we have government officials, sometimes the same ones, promoting efforts like the Empire Interchange/Interstate 5 Improvement Project. We’re spending tons of money on transit, and at the same time we’re spending tons of money to make it easier for people to drive to the mall.

Does this make sense to you?

Emp 60 New Rd 3 Depth

Completed section of new roadway near Empire Center

Here are some links to basic info about the project.

Burbank Empire Project Page

The Empire Project: A Virtual Tour

My5LA Home Page

And here’s a story from the Burbank Leader that covers some of the reasons for delay.

5 Freeway Project, Hampered by Winter Weather, Has New Finish Date

Emp 90 Detour Clouds

The River After the Rain

We had a lot of rain in February. Not long after the storms passed I took some photos of the LA River along the Glendale Narrows. While it was nothing like the raging torrent it had been a few days before, the runoff from the rains was still flowing freely. It was a great day to take a walk along the river.

Where Is this Bridge Going?

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The old Sixth Street Bridge is gone. It was torn down early in 2016. The demolition was necessary because the concrete in the original structure was decaying. Work has begun on constructing a new Sixth Street Bridge, and right now it looks like it will be finished in 2020. (For the record, the formal project title is the Sixth Street Viaduct Replacement Project.)

Bridges are about making connections. The original structure was built in 1932, and was one of a series of bridges that spans the LA River. This ambitious infrastructure project started in the 20s and continued through the 30s, eventually allowing numerous crossings between Downtown and East LA. Here are a few photos of the old Sixth Street Bridge.

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A shot from the base of the bridge.

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A truck coming down the west side.

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A view of the bridge facing west.

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Downtown in the distance.

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A view of the San Gabriel Mountains from the old bridge.

The renderings of the new bridge are striking. It was designed by architect Michael Maltzan, but the project is a team effort, and the goal is to produce something much more than a bridge. Here’s a quote from Maltzan’s web site.

The design team including Michael Maltzan Architecture (Design Architect), HNTB (Engineer and Executive Architect), Hargreaves Associates (Landscape Architect), and AC Martin (Urban Planning) began with the fundamental understanding that the Viaduct is more than a simple replacement thoroughfare crossing the Los Angeles River. The project instead foresees a multimodal future for the City, one that accommodates cars, incorporates significant new bicycle connections. It also increases connectivity for pedestrians to access the Viaduct, not only at its endpoints, but along the entirety of the span, linking the bridge, the Los Angeles River, and future urban landscapes in a more meaningful relationship.

The project also includes a park and an arts center. You can see some images here.

Sixth Street Viaduct/PARC from LA Bureau of Engineering

Here are some shots of the project site from March 2017, when work on the new bridge was just beginning.

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For the time being, this is where Sixth St. ends.

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Lots of machinery on the project site.

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Looking across the river toward East LA.

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A shot of the riverbed when construction was just starting.

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Another angle.

And here are some shots from August 2017.

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A little more progress has been made.

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A closer view.

For the team involved with the design, this project is all about bringing things together, creating connections and offering new ways for people to experience this space. One of the chief goals is to link the Arts District with Boyle Heights and the LA River. That sounds pretty cool in the abstract, but in actual fact there are a lot of reasons to worry about the downside. I’m sure Maltzan and his team see this project as a positive thing, but that’s not surprising. They’re architects and engineers engaged in creating a spectacular new piece of infrastructure. And of course the City’s website  is all about the upside.  But really, the City’s glib promo materials don’t begin to describe what’s happening here. By itself, the new bridge may sound great, but if you look at it in the larger context of the area’s culture and economy, you start to realize that this project could have serious negative impacts.

Any large scale infrastructure project, any attempt to remake the landscape, is going to affect the surrounding communities. These impacts can be good or bad, and often it’s a mix of the two. In this case, the biggest issue is one that never gets mentioned on the City’s web site. It’s the same issue that communities all over LA are dealing with. Displacement. Downtown LA has been going through a massive construction boom, with high-end housing and high-end retail largely transforming that community into an upscale enclave. Now developers are eyeing neighborhoods on the other side of the river.

The residents of Boyle Heights are already feeling the effects of gentrification, as real estate investors looking for cheap land and big profits have been buying up parcels in the area. Evictions are already happening, and many people who live in this largely Latino community are afraid they’ll be next. You may have read about the protests that have taken place in recent years. Here are some shots from an action staged by East LA residents in September 2016.  Protesters met at the intersection of Whittier and Boyle, where the old bridge touched down on the East Side.

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“Boyle Heights Is Not for Sale.”

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Families are worried about losing their homes.

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Many people on this side of the river see gentrification as violence.

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New art galleries are seen as harbingers of displacement.

The protest movement in Boyle Heights has gotten a fair amount of media attention, partly because in some cases the protesters have used aggressive tactics in trying to shut down a new coffee house and some local galleries. They see these businesses as the first outposts of coming gentrification. There are people who have questioned the protesters’ methods, complaining that they’ve gone too far. But let me ask you this. If you were in danger of losing your home and being driven out of your neighborhood, how far do you think you’d be willing to go?

It’s no accident that communities like Boyle Heights have been targeted by real estate investors. Land is cheaper there than in Downtown, and they know that the completion of the bridge and the accompanying amenities will make the area more desirable to upscale residents. We’ve already seen something similar happen in the Arts District. A largely low-income community has been rapidly transformed by a massive influx of developer dollars, and the people who had lived there for years, in fact, the people who actually built the community, have been driven out.  A similar scenario has been unfolding in Hollywood, and with the construction of the Crenshaw/LAX line you can see the same thing happening in communities like Leimert Park.

Investment in a community can be a good thing, but not when it drives out the people who have spent their lives there. And these days it’s not a gradual evolution. City Hall works with developers to target areas for rapid growth, almost all of it geared toward affluent new residents. When the City or County lays plans for new infrastructure, like light rail or parks or, in this case, a bridge, real estate investors move in quickly.  Often these investors are well connected at City Hall and already have possible projects in mind.  In other cases they’re speculators just snapping up parcels that they know will rise in value. They don’t plan to build anything, since they know they can make a profit just by sitting on the property until new infrastructure is in place.  And Mayor Garcetti gleefully promotes the aggressive transformation of these communities, apparently without giving a thought to the real suffering that displacement is causing for thousands of Angelenos. It seems he feels he was elected just to serve the affluent.

These days I hear so much talk about making LA a “world class city”, and I’m really sick of it. Garcetti’s idea of creating a “world class city” is about pouring billions into new infrastructure so that developers can cash in by building upscale enclaves for the affluent. Personally, I don’t care what class LA is in. If we can’t help hardworking people stay in their homes, if we can’t support communities that people have invested their lives in building, then this city is a failure.

You can spend all the money you want on bridges and parks and rivers and rail lines. All that stuff is meaningless if at the same time we’re dismantling our communities, the human infrastructure that really holds this city together.

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Glendale Puts Hold on Grayson Repowering

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On Tuesday night protesters gathered in front of Glendale City Hall to oppose spending $500 million on rebuilding the Grayson Power Plant. Glendale Water and Power (GWP) has put forward a plan to replace obsolete generating units with newer ones, increasing the plant’s output significantly. The process is called repowering, and the GWP says it’s necessary to provide a reliable supply of electricity for the city.

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Speakers talked about the problems with the current plan for Grayson.

But there are many who feel that upping Grayson’s output is a bad idea, since it means a big increase in the plant’s fossil fuel consumption. Debate over Glendale’s plan has been intense, with environmentalists claiming that the GWP has failed to explore clean energy alternatives. They point out that repowering Grayson would mean significant increases in CO2, ozone and particulate emissions.

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The media showed up to cover the protest.

The Grayson plan was on the City Council’s agenda that night, and council members would be deciding whether or not to approve the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The rally broke up as the meeting was starting. I went home and watched the proceedings on my laptop. It was long night. I wanted to hang on until the Council voted, but at 10:00 pm they were still taking public comment, and I finally gave up.

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Volunteers manning the table.

The tone of the meeting was civil, but tense. Evan Gillespie spoke on behalf of the Sierra Club, and he questioned some of the claims made by GWP. The utility had initially said that Grayson needed to produce 250 megawatts or there was a danger of power shortages, but then later said they might be able to do with less. He also was skeptical of the claim that the cost of the current plan wouldn’t mean raising rates down he road.

Angela Johnson Meszaros, a staff attorney with Earth Justice, stated that the EIR had serious problems. The EIR says that the project’s emissions woudn’t be significant because of offsets provided by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD). How does this work? Polluters can bank credits for emissions they don’t produce, which in turn can be traded to polluters who produce more than they should. But wouldn’t Grayson still be pumping a lot of dirt into the sky over Glendale? You bet, and Johnson Meszaros pointed this out. The idea that emissions offsets will somehow even things out across the LA area sounds good in theory, but if you live anywhere near the power plant you’ll still be breathing a lot of dirty air. She also said that the biggest problem with the EIR was that it didn’t present enough viable alternatives, especially with respect to clean energy.

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Sometimes you just can’t find a sturdy surface to write on.

Like I said, I bailed before the end of the meeting, but this morning I sent a message to the folks at Stop Grayson Expansion. They responded with the news that the Council voted 4 to 1 to put a hold on things for 90 days and issue a Request for Information (RFI). This means they’re going to look for alternative solutions for Glendale’s energy needs, including clean energy options. Stop Grayson had been hoping for an independent study of possible alternatives, but they believe that if the RFI is prepared carefully it could be a step in the right direction.

Bottom line, we need to get away from fossil fuels. This isn’t going to happen right away, but it’s never going to happen if we don’t push aggressively for alternatives. Thanks to all those who showed up at the rally on Tuesday, and thanks to all the groups who worked so hard to change the discussion about Grayson. This isn’t over yet, but things are looking a whole lot better.

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Talking to the MTA

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I’ve spent a fair amount of time slagging the MTA, so I want to make sure I don’t overlook the things they do right. Recently I learned about the agency’s NextGen Bus Study, which is an effort to redesign the bus network with an eye toward building ridership. This is an important step. Ridership has been declining for years now, and the MTA really needs to rethink what it’s doing. I was glad to hear that they were taking a good, hard look at the bus system, and I was wondering what kind of public outreach they’d be doing.

That outreach has taken the shape of Telephone Town Halls, so far two of them, held earlier this month. It’s a virtual town hall meeting where people can join using their phone or their computer. MTA staff members were on hand, and they took questions directly from callers. At intervals they asked the audience to take quick surveys, and the results were revealed wihin minutes.

I thought it was great. While I still think public meetings in physical spaces are important, I loved the fact that I could participate while sitting in my living room. I was afraid most of the meeting would be about bureaucrats explaining spreadsheets, but my fears were unfounded. The bulk of the time was given to answering questions from participants. And it was interesting to learn from the surveys what other peoples’ priorities were.

Two of these virtual town halls isn’t nearly enough. This one was actually split between the NextGen Bus Study and a discussion of budget issues. I hope the MTA schedules more of these focussed specifically on redesigning bus service. I think the decline in ridership is in large part due to the fact that the agency has lost touch with its core ridership. They really need to find out what people want, because otherwise the declines will continue.

And along those lines, I hope the MTA plans to reach out specifically to the low-income immigrant communities that depend on busses to get around. I noticed they did provide Spanish translation at the town hall I attended. I hope they were also providing translation in other languages. Many of the people who ride the MTA don’t speak fluent English, and their voices need to be heard.

But this was certainly a step in the right direction. I’d definitely log on for another one of these.

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