Bikes Los Angeles

In L.A., efforts are afoot to make bike share a genuine part of the transit network

L.A. bike share

» Late to the bike-sharing game, Los Angeles nevertheless could offer an important innovation: Transfers to and from transit.

You might say that bike sharing has conquered the world, invading city after city since the first modern systems featuring information technology opened in Europe in the 1990s. Now more than 40 U.S. cities have systems in operation. They’ve been attracted to the relative ease of implementing bike sharing, the low costs of operation, and the popular interest in the programs which indeed do a lot to expand mobility in cities.

Los Angeles is the glaring outlier, the only one of the ten largest American cities with no system. Though the City of Los Angeles planned a system in 2013, that proposal fell apart after difficulties with permitting got in the way. In the meantime, other cities in L.A. County—including Santa Monica and Long Beach—have implemented new dock-less networks.

Metro is evaluating a system that would allow customers to transfer between buses, trains, and bikes using a transit card.

Now L.A. is moving ahead with a countywide system that could eventually include 4,000 bikes distributed across the region, creating a network similar in size to systems in Chicago, New York, or Washington. The initial phase will provide 1,100 B-Cycle bikes at 65 stations downtown beginning early next year. Future phases could extend into other parts of the county and will be partly funded by local governments; communities currently identified include Beverly Hills, Culver City, Huntington Park, Pasadena, East L.A., North Hollywood, West Hollywood, Venice, and areas along the Red and Expo rail lines.

Though late, L.A.’s proposal could be a model for a new type of bike sharing. Not only will the system be operated by the county transit agency Metro (most systems are operated by city departments of transportation or independent groups), but it could also be tightly integrated into the transit system by allowing people to transfer directly from buses and trains to bikes—definitely a first.

According to the L.A. Times‘ Laura Nelson, Metro is considering a membership model similar to that offered in other cities where customers pay an annual fee for an unlimited number of half-hour trips but is also evaluating a system that would charge customers a flat fee for a bike ride equivalent to a transit fare (currently $1.75) and then allow them to transfer freely between buses, trains, and bikes for up to two hours.

In an interview, Metro Communications Manager Dave Sotero emphasized to me that bike share integration with L.A.’s TAP transit fare card is a priority and that Metro is “hoping for a unified fare structure.” But there won’t be a final plan for transfers until the agency’s September board meeting, and a decision would follow that.

Whatever solution Metro eventually identifies should prioritize direct integration with the transit network so as to encourage multimodal trip-taking and further encourage L.A.’s rather dramatic transition away from single-person automobiles that has been been a feature of the region since its residents passed Measure R, a regional transit sales tax, in 2008. This could take a number of forms.

For one, L.A. could provide its customers the option of combining monthly transit passes with bike share. This could mean a small additional cost on top of the $100-a-month price of the unlimited transit card now offered. Rather than requiring customers to sign up for the bike share system separately from the transit system, the two could be integrated into one pass; this could encourage more use of buses and trains. This wouldn’t have to exclude the possibility of allowing people to buy annual bike share passes independently of the transit system.

Unlike other bike sharing systems, L.A.’s could provide cheap rates for single rides rather than requiring people to buy day passes.

Metro could also, as Nelson wrote, allow customers to transfer from the transit system to bikes, or vice verse, at the cost of a single transit ride. This would be a dramatically different model than most bike share systems, which have a minimum one-day subscription that is much more costly and aimed toward occasional tourist use (in Washington, for example, the one-day pass is $8). This lower fare would encourage spur-of-the-moment rides by people who don’t want to commit to a day, month, or annual pass but who would still like the option to occasionally use a shared bike.*

This would allow people to use bike share without having to be signed up as a member, a current condition for other systems. This is hardly a revolutionary concept. Imagine if we only let people onto buses and trains if they had previously bought unlimited passes; why enforce such a restrictive policy on a part of the transit system?

L.A. wouldn’t be the first city to allow riders to use transit fare cards to check out bikes. Paris, for example, allows users to tap their transit fare cards to unlock bikes; so do Chinese systems in Guangzhou and Hangzhou. But the three major U.S. systems in Chicago, New York, and Washington currently require people to use transit-incompatible key fobs to check out bikes.

That’s unfortunate, since many people use bikes for a portion of a more extensive multimodal journey. In Denver, for example, 20 percent of bike share rides in 2010 were combined with the transit network. Why not, then, see bike share as another element of the city’s transit network?

Indeed, giving all bike share members transit fare cards or allowing them to use their existing fare cards on bike share would encourage transit use by building in the option of transit as a default choice—a fare card in everyone’s wallet will encourage people to take the train, bus, or bike for trips that might otherwise be accomplished by driving or taking a cab. (What New Yorker doesn’t have a MetroCard in his or her pocket? Imagine how many more people would use the city’s bike share system if they could use a MetroCard to check out a bike.)

Integrating bike share directly into Metro’s overall transit system and its fare structure could offer dramatic benefits for the riding public, making bikes, buses, and trains all more useful. A successful experiment in L.A. could be a model for cities around the world.

* Bike share passes typically require a link to a credit card, since implementers want to have insurance against stolen bikes. Metro would likely only be able to offer the transfer to bike share to customers with credit cards linked to their TAP accounts.

Image at top: A mock-up of a bike for L.A.’s bike sharing system, from L.A. Metro.

Airport Light Rail Los Angeles

Light Rail to Los Angeles International: A Questionable Proposition?

» New proposals for light rail connections to LAX put in question whether an extension project will offer any major benefits.

Of the nation’s largest cities, Los Angeles is one of the remaining few with no direct rail connection to its airport.* Over the past two decades, L.A. County has expanded its Metro Rail network considerably, but the closest it has gotten to a station at its largest airport — LAX — is a stop about a mile away from terminals on the Green Line light rail service, which does not reach downtown and requires customers to make a connection to a surface bus to get to and from check-in areas.

According to current plans, that will change in the next few decades. Metro dedicated $200 million to a light rail connector in its Measure R spending packaged passed by voters in 2008. The agency began studying potential direct links from its Green Line and the future Crenshaw Corridor, which will offer light rail in a corridor relatively close to the airport. In March, Metro revealed the initial results of the study, demonstrating that a rail connection would carry between 4,000 and 6,000 riders a day and cost between $600 million and $1.5 billion. Metro continues to study how best to connect the airport: With a rail branch line; with a re-routing of the rail corridor in a tunnel under the terminals; or with a connection to a new automated people mover or bus rapid transit line circulating around the airport. A locally preferred alternative for the corridor is to be selected in 2013 or 2014.

But new documents from L.A.’s airport authority put in question how feasible any airport-rail link would be. The agency offers three general locations for a light rail stop, two of which would include a branch of the Green Line or Crenshaw Corridor and require most customers to switch to the airport’s people mover, and the third of which would provide no additional light rail service at all. None would offer direct service from downtown.** Is this rail connection worth the massive investment in transit funding that consensus suggests is necessary?

The fundamental difficulty is that the airport authority — Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) — seems awfully reluctant to allow trains into the main terminal area. While Metro’s spring proposals suggest a light rail loop, an elevated line, or an underground tunnel directly adjacent to the central areas of the nine-terminal complex, the closest LAWA is willing to come is an “on-airport” station at the far eastern edge of the terminals area (see image (1) below). A station there, built as an extension of the Crenshaw Corridor, would be more than a half-mile from the international terminal at the western edge of the complex. Yes, light rail would get customers closer to check in areas, but few would be within comfortable distance walking, particularly with heavy bags.

The same is true of LAWA’s second proposal (see (2) below), which would extend light rail from the Crenshaw Corridor as a branch to a new intermodal transportation facility. Customers arriving here would have no ability to walk to any terminals.

In both cases, LAWA proposes a new people mover that would allow for the final connection between the light rail stations and the terminals themselves. The people mover would operate in a loop around the eight terminals, then extend to the intermodal facility, pass by the Crenshaw Corridor station planned for the intersection of Century and Aviation Boulevards (about a mile from the airport entrance), and terminate at a consolidated rental car facility.

From the airport’s perspective, there are solid reasons to support the construction of such a people mover. It would improve the connectivity between terminals for non-“transit”-using airport passengers and it would decrease road congestion by eliminating rental car and public buses from the areas in front of the terminals.

Light rail branch to airport.
(1) Light rail branch to airport. Source: The Source.

Light rail branch to intermodal center.
(2) Light rail branch to intermodal center. Source: The Source.

But these proposals effectively duplicate light rail and people mover services, requiring passengers to use both no matter the circumstances. Certain of Metro’s proposals — albeit the more expensive ones — would have allowed customers direct service to terminals on light rail, which would have resulted in significant travel time savings due to the lack of transfers. Here, those direct links have been eliminated from the discussion. Why spend public funds on two similar rail services operating in the same corridor?

If we are to take it as a given that LAWA absolutely must have a people mover and that it is reluctant to allow light rail into the main terminals area, its third proposal (see (3) below) comes across as more appealing. The light rail station at Crenshaw and Aviation, on the main trunk of the Crenshaw Corridor, would provide a bridged transfer to the people mover system, which would then offer a link to all of the airport’s terminals.

Proposed connection between Crenshaw Light Rail and LAX people mover.
(3) Proposed connection between Crenshaw Light Rail and LAX people mover. Source: The Source.

Yet this proposal also has its downsides. LAWA’s visual description of the proposed connection suggests that light rail customers would have to ascend an escalator, cross a broad boulevard on an elevated bridge, then descend an escalator, to get to the people mover. It is certainly possible to envision a more convenient approach to making this connection. Every step that makes using transit easier attracts an additional customer.

Nonetheless, this approach, which would keep light rail services within the already-funded Crenshaw Corridor, has the added benefit of ensuring adequate frequency on the light rail line. The branch corridors proposed by the first and second options would, in effect, split rail service in two: Half the trains might extend to LAX, with the rest heading in the other direction. In the case of the Green Line, assuming that headways — currently 7.5 minutes at peak — remain the same (which would not be surprising considering the relatively small number of riders expected to actually use the airport connection), splitting the service in two would reduce peak headways to just every 15 minutes. Is that acceptable for rapid transit service? Or will such low headways make it impossible to attract “choice” riders?

Providing people mover service from the main line light rail corridor would guarantee that all users of the Crenshaw Corridor have one-transfer service to all of the airport’s terminals. And indeed, the whole concept of direct light rail service to an airport like LAX may not make much sense. Unlike smaller airports with only one or two terminals or very centralized airports (like Washington Dulles, with one main entrance facility), LAX has many terminals spread across a large area, making one or even two stops too dispersed; more stops, however, would be too expensive to construct for a light rail line. It shares these features with New York’s JFK and Phoenix, for example, both of which have chosen the rail-to-people mover approach that comes across as most reasonable in L.A.’s case.

Requiring passengers to transfer to a people mover from the trunk of the light rail line has the added benefit of putting the onus of financing the rail connection in the hands of the (relatively more wealthy) airport authority, rather than Metro. This is perhaps the most important point of all. Though Metro has allocated $200 million to this project, it would need far more than that to complete the branch extensions envisioned in the first or second proposal presented above. But the third proposal, which would build off the already funded Crenshaw Corridor using only the airport-desired people mover, could — and should — be funded by LAWA, perhaps with only a small contribution from Metro. This would allow the transit authority to avoid spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a project that would benefit few passengers and force the airport’s users, the people who would be using the rail-airport connection, to pay for it.

* Other than L.A., Detroit, Houston, and San Diego are the biggest metropolitan areas with no rail connections to their respective airports. Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Providence, St. Louis, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington all offer rail connections of some kind to at least one of their airports. Boston does not have a rail connection but has the BRT Silver Line to the airport. Dallas and Salt Lake City will be adding connections in 2014 and 2013, respectively.

** Downtown-to-airport rail service may be addressed sometime in the future if funds can be assembled for regional rail operations on the Harbor Subdivision, as some have proposed.

Finance Los Angeles

Los Angeles Asks Its Voters to Extend Transit Tax Far Into the Future

» Lacking the federal support to advance its transportation projects forward as quickly as the leadership — and perhaps the public — desires, L.A. County residents will vote on whether to extend a 1/2-cent sales tax for thirty more years.

Residents of Los Angeles may already pay more in sales taxes for the upkeep and expansion of their transportation system than people in any other county in the U.S. Referenda have been approved by voters in 1980, 1990, and 2008, each of which distributes a half-cent tax on every dollar in sales to the county’s transportation system, Metro. Of the total $1.8 billion per year in revenues,* about 40% are spent on expansions to the transit system, with the rest distributed to maintenance and operations of the county’s roads and transit systems.

This very public endorsement of the need to invest in transportation (Measure R, passed in 2008, required a 2/3-vote to be approved, pursuant to California law) has allowed for the planning of the nation’s most extensive rail and fixed-guideway bus expansion program. Earlier this year, the first segment of the Expo Line opened to Culver City; two other light rail expansions are under construction, and several other bus and rail lines are funded. Most importantly, a subway rail extension running under Wilshire Boulevard through West the Westside of L.A., to Westwood and U.C.L.A., is practically ready to begin construction.

But Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has been the staunchest political advocate of improved transit in L.A., has been clear that the program is not advancing quickly enough. Because of the lack of strong federal support, the full extent of the Westside Subway will not be completed until 2036; important improvements for other parts of the county will not be done until later. That’s more than thirty more years with little significant alternative to the traffic-clogged arteries so infamous in the city. Thus the county approved, the state legislature accepted, and the governor signed late last month the bill offering to the public in the form of a referendum Measure J, which will extend the Measure R tax 30 years past its original expiration date, which was supposed to be 2039.

What is to be voted on is not a new tax. Rather, if approved on November 6, it will continue assessing the 1/2-cent sales tax between 2039 and 2069. The outcome may well determine the degree to which L.A. is able to produce a truly appealing alternative to automobile travel within a reasonable amount of time.

Why pass a tax extension now, when the revenues will not begin to be collected for another 27 years? To build more quickly.

Effectively, the mayor wants to be able to “bond against” future revenues — in other words, to take out loans from the investment market that will not be paid back until beginning in 2039, in order to pay for transportation projects now. The tax extension does not appear likely to add to the list of transit projects that will be completed — it will just allow them to be completed more quickly.

Though the measure is practically sure to win a simple majority of voters, whether it will win a two-thirds majority remains to be seen. Measure R passed with only 67.2% of the vote, just enough to succeed, and that proposal actually provided funds for new projects. This referendum, on the other hand, states that it will “accelerat[e] construction of light rail/subway/airport connections within five years not twenty,” as well as improve safety on roads and keep senior, student, and disabled fares low. Will that be enough to convince voters on this matter, especially when certain local officials make the reasonable point that the proposal would “bind our hands until 2069“?

By 2040, will the county’s citizens be content with the transit system they have constructed? If so, perhaps they will be happy to continue paying taxes. If not, will they assent to essentially continue to pay off the debt on an unwanted infrastructure for another thirty years?

The referendum would extend the tax “for another 30 years or until voters decide to end it.” What if disenchanted voters decide to cut off the tax midway through its life? The county will have to find other funds to pay back the loans that were supposed to be financed through the tax revenues (and which have the county’s credit behind them), cutting down on the county’s ability to fund other priorities or requiring a separate tax increase. These uncertainties may limit investor interest in buying the county’s revenue bonds or increase the interest the county is forced to pay to take out those loans.

Moreover, the measure does not specifically guarantee that the projects promised back in 2008 will actually be delivered. Though L.A. has moved forward on a number of its recent expansion projects relatively on time and on budget, several American cities have promised far too much. Miami’s transportation referendum, passed in 2002 and supposed to fund dozens of miles of rail expansions, has produced just 2.4 miles, a major embarrassment and an affront to the voters’ original intent. The referenda results will say a lot about the public perception of Metro’s ability to produce what it has promised.

In other words, it is hardly obvious that a large majority of L.A. voters will agree to Measure J’s passage. Significant public information campaigns will be required if it is to be approved.

Yet the truth is that if L.A. wants an expanded transportation network now, rather than 30 years in the future, it has few options. It can adopt this approach, which has several demerits, as shown above. It could increase its taxes once again, but the sales tax burden is already quite high. Or it could rely on low-interest federal loans to advance projects more quickly. The latter was the solution Mayor Villaraigosa initially proposed in 2010 as “30/10” — 30 years of projects in 10 years. His proposal, which he renamed “America Fast Forward,” was politically popular enough to make it in a certain form (through an expansion of TIFIA to $1 billion) into the federal transportation bill earlier this summer, but that aid will not be adequate to fund all the projects L.A. wants — even if the U.S. DOT prioritizes the county over the rest of the country.

L.A.’s voters, then, have a choice: Take a risk by assuming that people of the future will want the investments being made today and therefore be happy to pay for them, or slow down the rate of transit expansion tremendously.

* Thanks to the recession, revenues per referendum have declined significantly since the peak in 2007, when each tax produced more than $686 million, compared to around $602 million in 2011.

Image at top: Los Angeles Expo Line, opened for service this spring and now serving more than 18,000 riders per weekday, from Flickr user Steve Bott (cc)

Los Angeles Metro Rail

L.A.’s Westside Subway is Practically Ready for Construction, But Its Completion Could be 25 Years Off

» The Wilshire Corridor metro extension’s final environmental impact statement is released.

Of the nation’s public transportation improvement projects, Los Angeles’ Westside Subway is one of the most important: It would offer an alternative option for tens of thousands of daily riders and speed travel times by up to 50% compared to existing transit trips. It would serve one of the nation’s densest and most jobs-rich urban corridors and in doing so take a major step forward towards making L.A. a place where getting around without a car is comfortable.

L.A. County’s transit provider, Metro, released the final environmental impact statement for the 8.9-mile Westside Subway project last week, providing the most up-to-date details on a multi-billion-dollar scheme that is expected to enter the construction phase next year. The project received a positive review by the Federal Transit Administration in the Obama Administration’s FY 2013 budget, and it is likely to receive a full-funding grant agreement from Washington later this year. Local revenue sources generated by taxes authorized over the years by voters will cover the majority of the project’s cost.

But questions about the project’s completion timeline remain unanswered: Will L.A. have to rely on conventional sources of financing, or be able to take advantage of federally-backed loans to speed construction?

In addition, the project’s specific plans for station construction suggest that there are opportunities to improve station layout and do more to develop land around certain stops.

(I) The Project’s Significance

Many of the rail expansion projects being built in the United States today serve corridors with rather limited existing bus service — there are few people who currently take the bus from downtown Washington to Tyson’s Corner or Dulles Airport, for instance, but a huge Metro extension is currently being built to connect the three, fundamentally to build a new market of transit riders.

L.A.’s westside, on the other hand, already has a very large base of transit users, and most of them are concentrated on the Wilshire Boulevard Corridor, which runs from downtown, through Beverly Hills, the Century City business district, and UCLA, before reaching Santa Monica. The three intermediary areas together contain about 150,000 jobs, about as many as downtown L.A. — and most of them are concentrated within a quarter mile of the street. The city’s famed congestion, especially severe in this area, has attracted people to transit: The local and express bus routes along the line — the 20 and 720 — carry about 60,000 daily riders.

It is no surprise, then, that the corridor has been a focus of L.A. transit investment proposals for decades. The Purple Line subway, which currently terminates at the Wilshire and Western station, was supposed to extend much further into the city when it was first designed, but the threat of gas explosions, a lack of adequate funding, and significant political opposition delayed that action. Yet the election of Antonio Villaraigosa to the mayoralty of L.A. City in 2005 altered the situation entirely, as he ran on a platform that explicitly endorsed the project’s completion and he later campaigned for a sales tax increase to pay for the project — 2008’s Measure R — passed by a large majority of voters. An alignment with seven new stations was selected by Metro in Fall 2010 after three years of studies, though final decisions on station locations were not announced until this week.

Estimates released by the agency point to the degree to which the subway will improve the performance of the transit system, whose service to the westside is currently plagued by traffic-induced delays. Trips from downtown’s Pershing Square to UCLA will decline from 55 to 25 minutes. Riders travelling from South L.A. will save 23 minutes on their journeys; those from east L.A. and Pasadena will save 29 minutes (see above image). These travel time savings are enormous — more than almost any other transit project in the country — and will attract a projected 49,300 daily riders to the line.

Though the subway’s completion will likely not reduce congestion on the highways (because automobile capacity, it seems, never ceases to be consumed), those who need to travel within the corridor will get a new, much faster travel option that is in many cases faster than that which is offered by private automobile, a remarkable achievement in the realm of public transit.

(II) Questions of Time

Because all of L.A. County’s voters approved the Measure R sales tax increase, it would have been unreasonable to focus all revenues in one corridor (and indeed, one suspects that such a plan would not have been approved). Thus the Westside Subway shares the stage with a blizzard of other transit projects being funded over the next twenty years, including the Regional Connector, Crenshaw Corridor, Exposition Line, Gold Line Extensions, South Bay Green Line Extension, and Orange Line Extensions, among others. The large quantity of funds being consumed to build these lines mean that under conventional financing techniques, the Westside Subway will not be completed to its proposed terminus at the V.A. Medical Center until 2036. Only the first phase — a 3.9-mile link to the intersection of Wilshire and La Cienega — would be done by 2020.

For Mayor Villaraigosa and much of the L.A. community, this timeline is unacceptable: To have to wait almost twenty-five years to see a long-planned project completed is scary. Yet the Westside Subway’s $4.4 billion cost (in 2011 terms) is too large for the county to raise money for in a short time period.

Thus L.A. proposed its 30/10 initiative — later renamed America Fast Forward — to use federal loan guarantees to reduce the cost of borrowing and essentially use tax revenues expected to be raised in the future to pay for projects today. This proposal, concretized in the expansion of TIFIA proposed by the U.S. Senate in its transportation reauthorization bill earlier this month, would make it possible for L.A. to build its full subway line by 2022, fourteen years ahead of schedule. Advancing the project’s completion would reduce year-of-expenditure costs for the project from $6.29 billion in the 2036 completion date scheme to $5.66 billion in the sped-up scheme. And it would do it without increasing the level of federal grant commitments to the project, just by reducing borrowing costs for the local agency. Because future residents of L.A. will benefit from transit expansion now, it does not seem unreasonable to use future revenues to pay for the project.

Yet there remains a possibility that the U.S. House, controlled by a GOP delegation that has opposed practically all legislation that Democrats have proposed, will decide not to pass the Senate’s bill and therefore prevent the expansion of the TIFIA program. This would put the timely completion of the Westside Subway in serious doubt.

(III) Station Location

Whatever the Westside Subway’s overall merits in terms of travel time improvements, there remain significant questions about how exactly the line will be constructed. After all, a well-designed transit project is not only one that moves people quickly from station to station but also one that cultivates dense, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.

Though for the most part the project’s construction has been welcomed by affected neighborhoods, the Century City station — about halfway down the line — has undergone significant opposition because of the proposed alignment. Metro supports the construction of a stop under Constellation Avenue, in the heart of the Century City business district, compared to an alternative under Santa Monica Boulevard, about two blocks north. This is the reasonable choice as the latter alignment runs through an earthquake-prone zone, faces a golf course, has half as many jobs within a quarter mile (10,000 versus 20,000), and would see a third fewer daily boardings according to current estimates (5,500 versus 8,600). Though some locals have complained that the Constellation routing would run under Beverly Hills High School and therefore put students in danger, those concerns are hyperbolic considering precedent in other cities and the obvious advantages of that alignment.

Although most of the stations on the proposed line will have entrances at street intersections in relatively dense, urban areas,* the stop at the end of the line, at Westwood/V.A. Hospital, is an exception. The station exit as proposed would deposit people onto a series of winding paths just adjacent to a parking lot and a section of Wilshire Boulevard that is effectively an expressway (at the intersection with Bonsall), about 1,200 feet away from the entrance to the V.A. Medical Center (see above image). The situation is made worse by the parkland just adjacent to the stop and the impassable barrier of I-405 northeast of the stop. This is a pedestrian-hostile environment that will offer a disincentive to taking the train.

As Metro’s Steve Hymon notes, the V.A. Hospital stop will play an important role in serving the region’s veterans, but terminating the line there misses tens of thousands more people living further southwest along Wilshire in dense neighborhoods. They, too, should be provided improved transit service, but they will have to wait until 2036 or later to see another subway extension because of budget limitations. Many of them will likely want to drive to the station in order to take the subway because of the significant time savings offered, but Metro proposes no park-and-ride facilities there. Though bus connections will be important, the agency is effectively losing out on potential passengers by not providing for that need.

It would make sense for Metro to consider working with the V.A. Hospital to develop the parking lot directly abutting the stop into a high-density residential or office use, considering the significant demand likely to be spurred on by the completion of the subway.

* With stations spaced at about one station per mile, the argument could be made that these neighborhoods are not being served well enough, especially the community situated between the proposed UCLA and Century City stations, which would be about two miles apart.

See the project’s Final Environmental Impact StatementFinal Environmental Impact Statement Executive Summary and Accelerated Financial Plan.

Images above: from L.A. Metro’s The Source and FEIS Executive Summary

Airport Los Angeles

For L.A., How to Build an Airport Rail Connection That Makes Sense for Passengers?

» Linking current and future light rail lines to the airport will require a corridor extension, the construction of an automated people mover, or improved bus service.

Los Angeles leaders, like those of many major cities, are very interested in improving public transportation access to the airport. Such projects are perceived to be politically palatable transit investments because they are appealing to a wide spectrum of the population, including people — especially the economically influential — who do not usually take the bus or train. Unfortunately, even when they’re built, these connections often fail to live up to expectations. Can L.A.’s planned airport rail link do better?

As part of Measure R, the sales tax approved by Los Angeles County voters in November 2008 that will dedicate billions to new rapid transit, $200 million was dedicated to the extension of the Green Line light rail to LAX Airport — a project that has been under consideration for decades. Currently, the Green Line runs from Norwalk to Redondo Beach, mostly along the Century Freeway; customers can switch to airport-bound buses at the Aviation station.

But there is no direct rail service into the airport, and buses entering and circulating around LAX’s eight terminals are slow. As a result, virtually no one takes transit: Today, just 1% of air passengers and 9% of employees arrive by public transportation. As a comparison, according to the most recent Census statistics, 7.1% of Los Angeles County residents take transit to work and 11.0% of Los Angeles City residents do the same.* There is certainly room for improvement.

The problem is that there is no obvious answer about how to connect Los Angeles’ rapidly expanding rail network with the airport. Early plans from 1988 suggested running a line beside or below the airport on the way to Marina del Rey, northwest up the Pacific Coast. By the mid-1990s, a $215 million extension would run as a quick spur from the Green Line, where it would meet an airport people mover.

With little progress on those plans, LAX planners promoted a people mover to run to the existing Aviation station in the mid-2000s, but that effort has not yet been part of the airport’s renovation scheme. Meanwhile, the transit agency won millions of dollars in aid from the federal government for its 8.5-mile Crenshaw light rail line, which will run east of the airport by 2018 and connect to the Green Line, but again, not provide direct airport access.

All this leaves L.A. grasping about for a plan. This year, L.A. Metro planners are performing an alternatives analysis on the corridor with the goal of selecting a locally preferred alternative for the route in 2013. All but the most basic route would require more funding than the $200 million currently available, so there is no guarantee that the project will be built this decade; even so, the airport will likely contribute hundreds of millions of dollars in airplane landing fees to the line, so something will probably be built eventually.

Metro developed four basic alignments for the route, as illustrated in the figure at the top of this article. Like the Washington Metro Dulles extension (and indeed most airport links), the agency has two fundamental options: Will it serve the airport directly with rapid transit service, or will it have its customers transfer to a people mover from which they will have access to terminals?

The average customer using the line would save the most time if the light rail line were simple rerouted under the terminal (and this would attract the most new customers), but this would be an expensive and duplicative approach, since it would parallel the north-south Crenshaw Corridor. One obvious question is why the Crenshaw Line wasn’t designed to run through the airport on the way to the Green Line, but it is too far along on the design process to change course now. Other options would provide direct light rail service as a branch from the Green Line or a circulator, either in the form of a people mover or a bus rapid transit line, connected to the Crenshaw Line or an intermediate station.

Of these options, only the intermediate branch idea, with a short light rail line connected to an airport circulator, seems truly out of the question, since it would attract fewer riders, save less time, and cost almost as much as the rail re-routing.

As shown below, Metro has also begun to analyse how the new rail link would approach the terminals themselves. The first three options could be completed by light rail or people mover; the fourth would use bus rapid transit. As the analysis demonstrates, using BRT would be far cheaper, and it would allow people a direct walk to each of the eight terminals (a rail network stopping at each of the terminals would apparently cost about two and a half times as much as a system stopping at just one location, so it seems to have been pulled from consideration). The BRT would be a few minutes slower than the rail system for the average user.

This kind of analysis raises some important questions. With this many terminals, do the two or three stations that are possible with a rail scenario make any sense? Does the flexibility inherent in bus service make things easier for baggage-carrying passengers, or will they be treated to something akin to Boston’s Silver Line, where buses meander between terminals at a remarkably slow pace? Will passengers chose not to use the transit link if it is provided by a bus rather than a rail car? There are no easy answers.

Returning to the original issue, one reasonable question is to ask who might be reasonably be convinced to use this new transit connection if it were built. Consider the following L.A. Metro maps showing concentrations of air passengers and employees:

What seems clear is that while employees live mostly in the neighborhoods around the airport, passengers are concentrated across the westside of Los Angeles, along the Pacific Ocean and along Wilshire Boulevard Avenue. Will the transit improvements as proposed serve them well?

Certainly, simply branching off the Green Line would save time for people coming from the existing route and the South Bay — in addition to people coming from downtown, who will likely be able to get to airport more quickly using the existing Silver and Green Lines than the future Exposition and Crenshaw Lines (because of the larger number of stops on the latter route).

On the other hand, branching off the Green Line would require those arriving on the Crenshaw Line — in other words, people coming from the Westside, where there is a large airport user base — to switch to the Green Line to get to the airport. This will slow their commutes significantly because of the limited frequencies on the Green Line (just every 15 minutes currently at midday). A more equitable solution might be providing a high-frequency people mover from a shared Green and Crenshaw Line station that ensures that whenever a train arrives, there will be a people mover waiting. This forces everyone to transfer but at least there will be little waiting.

Of course, no matter the outcome, this link will not be the end of the conversation about better transit to LAX. None of the solutions proposed will significantly improve airport travel times for most people in the region, and none of them will get downtown within half an hour of the airport, a goal for most cities. Look to places like London and Paris — despite quite significant (and costly) transit links to their respective airports, they’re spending even more to supplement those lines with more connections. And indeed, L.A. planners have in the past mentioned express trains between Union Station and the airport, via the Harbor Subdivision. Satisfaction is hard to come by.

* Those figures, by the way, put Los Angeles (both city and county) near the top of American cities. This is not a particularly car-obsessed city by U.S. standards.

Images above: Comparative data from Los Angeles Metro LAX Extension Project