By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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Beyond this construction near the area’s few rail lines, the city's many bus corridors are also attracting apartments, lofts, town homes and condos — La Brea Avenue and Lincoln Boulevard, Vine Street and Ventura Boulevard, Western Avenue and Washington Boulevard. Higher-density housing is being recommended for any corner where a bus arrives every 15 minutes or less.
And that leads to one huge problem: For all the talk of a subway to the sea, Los Angeles is a bus town. For each mile of rail operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, there are 40 miles of bus routes. And in 2007, the average speed of the widely used orange bus is just 11.7 miles per hour. Buses, which will serve in many ways as the backbone for smart growth, are stuck in traffic along with everybody else.
If smart growth is about changing behavior — getting people to give up the car, the backyard, the five-bedroom house on a cul-de-sac — then planning gurus are taking a tremendous gamble in Los Angeles, the city that made sprawl the urban form of the 20th century.
Smart-growth enthusiasts believe motorists will become so fed up sitting in traffic that they will abandon their cars for a substandard transit system. The bus, in particular, provides a series of indignities: the lone screaming passenger who makes everyone else miserable; televisions that noisily broadcast commercials for gym equipment; the ban on beverages and food. (You can bring a travel mug on the bus; you just can’t drink from it.) And despite all that inconvenience, MTA daily passes are set to double in price — to $6 in 2009.
Advocates of smart growth are making a second risky bet, arguing that once someone makes a home in a condo or a multistory apartment building, he or she will work nearby — reducing the number of cars on traffic-choked streets. Or, as a newsletter published in 2005 by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce put it: “More [transit] funds and smart growth are key to correcting L.A.’s traffic woes.”
So here’s an unpleasant thought: Unless enough people can be persuaded to change their behavior, the L.A. traffic nightmare will be much, much worse under smart growth — miles and miles of high-density neighborhoods, with public transportation no one but the poorest residents will use, or tolerate.
Smart-growth advocates say they aren’t worried. The city will need density either way, they say, just to qualify for federal funding that pays for rail. If traffic gets worse in the short term, neighborhoods will finally rise up and demand the light-rail and subway lines that could transform Los Angeles into a functioning city, says Gloria Ohland, vice president for communications with Reconnecting America, an organization that promotes rail and transit-oriented development.
“Traffic, which is the problem, is also the solution,” Ohland says. “So I would argue, boost the density in Century City. Build it out to the max. And then, there will be the constituency to build a subway down Wilshire Boulevard.”
Ohland and many other smart-growth backers assume that at some unknown point, the number of commuters who abandon their cars will reach a critical mass and the city will become more livable. But no one knows precisely when — or if — that will happen. To make it work, they will need commuters like Tohline, the 26-year-old office worker who gave up her car.
With a three-hour daily commute, Tohline could easily succumb to the boredom and get back behind the wheel. After all, no subway will reach Century City for at least a decade. And even if it does, that subway will come from Koreatown, not from the Hollywood neighborhood where Tohline lives.
Asked how long she can last on the bus, Tohline pauses. “I don’t know yet,” she says, as her bus heads past the skyscrapers of Century City. Even the upbeat commuter on the No. 304 is no sure thing.
The Unnerving New Map
Los Angeles has always had an uneasy relationship with growth. The archetypal boom-and-bust town, L.A. repeatedly sees its real estate market surge and recede, with each growth spurt followed by a period of financial pain. Transportation was the catalyst for one of the earliest booms, with newcomers flooding into the city after fares on the transcontinental railroad from the Midwest to L.A. dropped to $1 per ticket. Land values soared — until a bank crisis caused a collapse in 1888.
For much of the 20th century, growth was considered good in Los Angeles. The city accommodated its continual influx by creating the most extensive trolley network in the nation. It was dismantled after World War II, replaced by the “Motor Coach” — General Motors’ halfhearted marketing term for the bus — and by the sprawling freeway system.
With the freeways came discontent, as traffic choked the Westside and then much of the city. The symbol of anti-growth ire was Proposition U, which voters easily passed in 1988. Proposition U shifted L.A.’s planning equation from unbridled growth to “slow growth,” by limiting the height of buildings on major boulevards to 45 feet and cutting in half each commercial building’s “floor area ratio” — a formula used to determine the mass of a building. Then, in the wake of the 1992 riots, a crushing recession stopped development almost completely, and growth slowed on its own.