Transit Riders Can Do More, Too

20 Bus FINAL

So far this campaign has mostly been about getting car owners to reduce their time on the road by 20%.  Transit riders may be thinking, “Hey, I’m already riding the bus to work.  I’m doing all I can.”

Actually, there is more you can do.

While riding transit instead of driving will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, busses are still doing plenty of damage to the atmosphere.  You may think that because the Los Angeles MTA has converted its fleet to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) that we’re doing all we can.

Wrong.  CNG busses produce significant amounts of CO2, in addition to other pollutants.  But we could really make a dent in greenhouse gas emissions by converting the fleet to electric, and the MTA is already studying that possibility.

Not that this will be easy.  The MTA has already tested a few electric busses, and the results were less than stellar.  Electric bus technology is still fairly new, so cost and reliability are both factors.  On top of that, switching the fleet to all electric would require a massive investment in new infrastructure, and that will take years to implement.

So what can you do?  Get involved.  Stay informed about the MTA’s progress on going electric, and don’t be afraid to let them know if you think the process could be moving faster.

Follow the link below to read articles about this issue on the MTA’s blog, The Source.

The Source/Electric Bus News

 

 

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

Death by a Thousand Cuts

MTA 4

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.

MTA 5 a

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?

MTA 1

Creating Community

New development in Boyle Heights, right next to the historic Mariachi Hotel.

New development in Boyle Heights, right next to the historic Mariachi Hotel.

I’ve heard people complain that Angelenos don’t know their neighbors. To a large degree that’s true. We tend to build our own little self-contained worlds, and get nervous when outsiders try to invade. In order to make it through the day, I try to keep interaction with strangers to an absolute minimum. In part, this is because I’ve found that some strangers want way more than I’m willing to give. Living in the city, you have to be at least a little wary.

But the downside is that there are very few places in LA where you can find a real sense of community. You might find a scene where you can hang out with people who share your passions, but chances are they’re coming from all over the city. You don’t find too many neighborhoods where everybody knows each other. And because of that, we don’t know our neighborhoods. The tenants in the building next to ours could be getting evicted for a condo conversion, and we might not be aware of it until the construction crews show up. Even when we find out what’s going on, we’re likely so wrapped up in ourselves that we don’t start worrying until the eviction notice shows up in our own mailbox.

So I was really intrigued when I heard about Union de Vecinos (UV), which could be translated as Neighbors United. It’s a grassroots group that’s been working in Boyle Heights for twenty years. They got their start back in 1996 when public housing in Pico Aliso was threatened with demolition, and they worked to protect renters threatened by displacement. But UV isn’t just reactive. They’re also creative. Starting with neighborhood committees, they work within the community for positive change. This is from their web site.

[Union de Vecinos promotes] economic and environmental justice, civic engagement, preservation of housing, and building healthy and stable community neighborhoods. We do this through community organizing, popular education and direct action. In our model, solutions to a problem are developed by those most affected – community – this is what drives us and is at the heart of our work.

The part of this paragraph that jumps out at me is, “solutions to a problem are developed by those most affected.” So often in the City of LA we have elected officials meeting behind closed doors with bureaucrats and business interests to devise plans that really don’t address the needs of the citizens. When they do hold public meetings and ask for input, it’s generally just for show. They’ve already decided what they want to do, and the meeting is really about selling their own agenda.

Banner on fence at a construction site on First Street.  Art by Gabriella Claro, Salma Sosa, and Tatei Torres Thomas.

Banner on fence at a construction site on First Street. Art by Gabriella Claro, Salma Sosa, and Tatei Torres Thomas.

So the idea of a neighborhood group that sets its own priorities and creates its own agenda sounded really good to me. I went to Boyle Heights to talk to UV members Leonardo Vilchis and Elizabeth Blaney about the challenges the Boyle Heights community is facing these days. A lot of it has to do with development, and the related problem of gentrification.

In early 2015, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) announced plans for a project to be built on Mariachi Plaza. Unfortunately, the MTA didn’t bother to ask the community how they felt about it. There was a huge public outcry, and Union de Vecinos was one of the groups that raised their voices in protest. The MTA shelved the project for the time being, but they’re planning to come back with another version. I asked Leonardo if he thought the public would have more of a voice this time.

“They said they’d reach out to us, but it’s really just pro forma,” he said. “The MTA sets up these meetings with focus groups, where you have to be invited.” He didn’t seem optimistic about the process. “They have these meetings, but they don’t really seem to be seeking input.”

Elizabeth spoke about UV’s engagement with the East LA Community Corporation, one of the developers building on and around MTA land. ELACC is working on creating affordable housing in Boyle Heights, but displacement of low-income families is still an issue. “We want affordable housing for the 7,000 families that make less than $25,000 in our community,” she explained, “but if they’re demolishing existing units, we have to make sure that those tenants will be welcome in the new project.” Recently UV negotiated a deal with ELACC to ease some restrictions to allow displaced tenants the right of return.

I asked what kind of projects UV was working on in the neighborhood.

“Garcetti talks about his Great Streets Initiative…,” Leonardo said with a smile, “but we’ve been doing great streets here in Boyle Heights for years.” When local alleys were attracting criminal activity, UV got residents involved in finding a solution. Elizabeth spoke with pride about the way the community turned the situation around. “We held movie nights and swap meets to reactivate these spaces. Residents went on to build street furniture, paint murals and install solar-powered lighting. Before people had been afraid to walk down these alleys, and now they’re gathering places for the community.”

What a concept. People taking responsibility for their neighborhood and working together to make it better. It’s not a new idea, but it’s something many of us who live in LA have forgotten how to do. Maybe we could learn a few things by following Union de Vecinos’ example.

If you want to learn more about what they’re up to, here’s the link to their web site.

Union de Vecinos

Leonardo Vilchis and Elizabeth Blaney of Union de Vecinos.

Leonardo Vilchis and Elizabeth Blaney of Union de Vecinos.

Mariachi Plaza

BH 01 Virg 1

Mariachi Plaza isn’t just a place. It’s a part of LA’s history. A piece of the city’s culture. Musicians have been gathering there since the 1930s, making music, looking for work, hanging out with friends, killing time. The plaza is also a gathering place for the community in Boyle Heights, vendors setting up booths to sell their wares, crowds gathering for a celebration.

Mariachi music is the result of hundreds of years of cultural give and take between the indigenous people of Mexico and the colonists from Spain. It started to take the shape we recognize today in the nineteenth century in the state of Jalisco. Mariachi ensembles come in many different sizes. There are the full orchestras with a string section, a couple of trumpets, a variety of guitars and a harp, but the musicians often play in smaller groups, too. It depends on the occasion and how much money’s being offered.

A view of First Street, bordering the plaza.

A view of First Street, bordering the plaza.

On the plaza there’s a large bandstand that was donated by the people of Jalisco, as well as a small amphitheatre which was built in the process of constructing the MTA Gold Line station. There are also a few modest buildings that have stood on the plaza for years, their walls decorated with colorful murals. Aside from the changes that came with the construction of the Gold Line stop, the plaza has looked pretty much the same for decades.

The bandstand.

The bandstand.

The amphitheatre.

The amphitheatre.

But the future of Mariachi Plaza is being hotly debated now, and it’s hard to say who will win in the struggle to shape its future. At the beginning of 2015 there was a huge uproar when the MTA unveiled its plan to develop the site. In the agency’s view, they were doing the community a big favor by bringing in an eight story project that included medical offices, a gym, restaurants and shops. Unfortunately, the MTA forgot to ask the community how they felt about it. Local residents were furious. The people of Boyle Heights were understandably angry about the fact that City and County officials had not brought them into the planning process. The MTA backed down, saying that they were going to start from scratch, and promising to involve residents this time. Some in the community are concerned, though, that all the agency intends to do is hold a few public meetings to steer people towards a plan they’ve already decided on. If that’s what happens, it wouldn’t be surprising. That’s standard operating procedure in LA.

The people of Boyle Heights are used to being ignored. Historically, few people at City Hall have shown much interest in this largely Latino community. It’s only in recent years, with the arrival of the Gold Line and the onset of gentrification that developers have started paying attention to the area. No one would argue that the community needs investment, and some locals feel that Boyle Heights would benefit from “gentefication”, in other words, a push for revitalization that maintained the neighborhood’s Latino character. But the past several years have shown that the City really doesn’t care much about preserving the character of existing communities. Residents of Hollywood, the Crenshaw District, Koreatown, Sherman Oaks and other neighborhoods have been hammered by the unholy alliance between City Hall and real estate speculators.

I went down to Mariachi Plaza a few weeks ago to take some pictures. It was a cloudy day, and not much was happening. This didn’t bother me because I always get a little nervous about shooting photos when people are walking by. I’m not crazy about having my own picture taken, and I don’t want to intrude on other people’s privacy. But then I realized, Hey, you’re at Mariachi Plaza. You’ve gotta get at least one shot of the musicians. And there’s another layer of anxiety here, because I knew some of the guys hanging out on the plaza were probably undocumented. It’s understandable that some immigrants get a little nervous when a stranger with a camera walks up and starts snapping photos. I finally did ask a group six guys if I could take a picture. Three of them walked away, but the other three were cool with it.

Musicians hanging out on the plaza.

Musicians hanging out on the plaza.

On the west side of the plaza you can see the Mariachi Hotel, also called the Boyle Hotel, originally the Cummings Hotel.

The Mariachi Hotel.

The Mariachi Hotel.

It has stood at the corner of Boyle and First since the end of the nineteenth century. Today it’s home to a number of the musicians who populate the plaza. You can see by the sign at the top of the hotel that some residents are concerned about outsiders taking over their community.  It says, “Alto a la Gentrificación.  Un Boyle Heights, Por Boyle Heights, Para Boyle Heights.”  (“Stop Gentrification.  One Boyle Heights, by Boyle Heights, for Boyle Heights.”)

Libros Schmibros

Libros Schmibros

Libros Schmibros is right on the plaza. It’s a lending library dedicated to making books available to everybody. The statement on their web site says that, “Libros Schmibros champions the pleasures of literature and its power to change lives,” which sounds pretty cool to me. Here’s the link if you want to learn more.

Libros Schmibros

Just around the corner I found an artist working on a mural.

Artist working on a mural just off the plaza.

Artist working on a mural just off the plaza.

Another view of the mural.

Another view of the mural.

Sorry, but the alley was really narrow, and I couldn’t get far enough away to take a picture of the whole thing. I guess if you want to see how beautiful it really is, you’ll just have to go down there yourself.

I went back another day and things were much more lively. A band was on stage in the amphitheatre, people were dancing on the plaza, and the place was crowded with booths offering all sorts of stuff.

People having a good time on the plaza.

People having a good time on the plaza.

The plaza crowded with booths.

The plaza crowded with booths.

I don’t think many of the residents of Boyle Heights would argue against the need for development. What they want is to have a voice in the planning. So many of the projects proposed in this city are the result of deals made between politicians and developers behind closed doors. That’s got to stop. The only way to plan for a community is to invite the community’s participation. This can be a long, slow, difficult process, but in the end it’s more efficient than the City’s current approach. If the MTA had talked to the people of Boyle Heights first, they could have avoided the huge embarrassment of having their project shut down. If the MTA had spent some time listening to residents, by now they might be well on the way to building something that they community could really support.

If you want to dig deeper into the history of Mariachi Plaza, check out the web site.

Mariachi Plaza

And this essay with photos is worth taking a look at.

The History of the Cummings Block

Banner by artist Dalia Ruiz.

Banner by artist Dalia Ruiz.

Is the MTA Sending Mixed Messages?

Ford Woman

I was kind of surprised some weeks ago when I walked into the Hollywood/Highland Metro station and saw that the place was plastered with ads for a new line of cars from Ford. Not that I was surprised to see advertising in a Metro station. That’s become pretty routine, and even though I think some of the ads are intrusive and obnoxious, I’ve accepted it because I know the MTA needs the revenue

But advertising cars at subway stops? Isn’t that sending mixed messages to Metro riders? I thought we were supposed to be discouraging Angelenos from driving and encouraging them to take public transit. I don’t know how many subway riders will go out and buy cars because of this campaign, but Ford must think they can line up some customers or they wouldn’t have spent the money.

Ford Bike

This seems especially troubling at a time when transit ridership is dropping. Nobody’s sure exactly why this is happening, but with many MTA lines seeing a decline in the number of riders, do we really want to be tempting the people who do ride the subway with ads for affordable cars?

I know the MTA is dealing with an operating deficit, and the ad revenue is probably really helpful, but I still have to question the wisdom of this strategy. It used to be the MTA was telling us, “Dump your car. Ride public transit.” Now it seems the message is, “Go ahead and get a car. We give up.”

Ford Blur