LA Metro trains don’t have to be half-empty and full of crime

LA Metro trains don’t have to be half-empty and full of crime

  • US News
  • March 17, 2023
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It’s no secret that the pandemic has devastated public transit systems across the country, and Los Angeles’ ever-expanding subway system is no exception. With many employees now working remotely for all or most of the week, ridership on the region’s subway and light rail lines is still at only about two-thirds of its pre-COVID peak. The situation is even worse for systems like Bay Area Rapid Transit or BART, which rely heavily on the office workers and employers who have largely abandoned downtown San Francisco.

But therein lies the key to Metro Rail’s long-term recovery. Originally conceived in the 1970s as a BART-like system primarily serving downtown employers and commuters, Metro Rail has since expanded into the wider Los Angeles County. At the same time, downtown LA has become a residential and entertainment destination, not just an employment hub. As a result, the current rail network serves a variety of passengers traveling to many destinations for various reasons. That helps explain why Metro Rail is now serving more people than its Bay Area counterpart for the first time since the federal government began keeping records two decades ago.

However, to survive and thrive over the long term, Metro must build on those strengths and go out of business as usual. The best recipe for long-term success — one we’ve seen in thriving cities around the world from Milan to Busan — is to build more residential, office, and mixed-use projects within walking distance of train stations. Aside from keeping Metro Rail viable, more such walkable neighborhoods will provide environmental, economic and quality of life benefits for their residents.

But it is local governments, not the metro, that control what is built around stations. And all too often, city leaders are captured by well-heeled homeowners who are knee-jerk against new developments, particularly high-density housing.

Even when cities allow dense development near Metro Rail stations, they often include so many parking spaces that transit-friendly locations are mocked. Take the office project that the LA City Council just approved in Sunset and Wilcox in Hollywood. Sure, it’s a 15-story tower a short walk from the Red Line. But with space for 1,179 private cars, it’s basically a parking garage with a few offices on top.

LA and other local governments should be asked to relax restrictions on building and zoning near train stations, eliminating nitpicking requests and endless hearings. As the region suffers from severe housing shortages and sky-high prices that have pushed lower-income residents to other regions and states, or in too many cases onto the streets, enabling denser, accessible housing is as much a humanitarian necessity as transit one. With Metro and other transit operators facing a “fiscal cliff” as federal COVID-19 aid expires and ridership continues to slump, state leaders could make relaxed land-use requirements part of an eventual bailout package.

As Metro seeks to build expensive but important additions to its existing rail network, such as For example, extending the Purple Line along Wilshire Boulevard to Westwood and beyond, leaders could also help the agency save money by giving it the permitting authority for construction and a streamlined environmental assessment, as has been done in Paris, Madrid and other successful, congested cities. Otherwise, projects often exceed budgets and deadlines due to endless concessions to hyper-local interests, lawsuits, and Byzantine bureaucracy. It is a microcosm of why the United States is now among the worst of the world’s advanced economies when it comes to building large-scale transit projects.

Also in the interests of efficiency, the metro should build more dedicated-lane bus rapid transit rather than new rail lines, particularly for remote communities that aren’t densely populated to justify expensive rail construction. Dedicated bus lanes can move people as fast as trains at a fraction of the cost.

To lure riders back in the short term, Metro must address rider crime and safety concerns, which reflect broader economic and social challenges and ridership shortages. With housing shortages and the resulting high rents being the leading cause of homelessness, state and local politicians can help Metro contribute to the long-term solution by allowing more housing near train stations, which has the added benefit of being more passengers are encouraged.

Four decades after its inception, LA Metro Rail faces its greatest challenges. Failure to meet them means a downward spiral of declining service and ridership, and a betrayal of the vision being sold to voters. But with more people able to live, relax, shop and work near subway stations, the system can achieve long-term stability, deliver a return on the region’s multibillion-dollar investments, and deliver on the promise of rail in Meet Los Angeles.

Ethan N. Elkind directs the climate program at the UC Berkeley Law Center for Law, Energy and the Environment and is the author of Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City.

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