'Tis the season for local and national politicians to co-opt the media into singing their praises. November 6 is right around the corner -- making one positive article by a respected journalist the (free!) equivalent of 100,000 campaign mailers.
But because L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the president's longtime Latino pet, has burned through all his shills here at home, he now relies on D.C. journalists to spot his political ambitions. And boy, are they delivering:
Then, earlier this week, Slate's Democratic political reporter Matthew Yglesias gave the Los Angeles mayor and his proposed Measure J transportation tax the slobberiest cross-country blow job to date.
The piece has since blown up on Reddit, and has been shared on Facebook over 3,500 times. Read it here: "L.A.'s Transit Revolution: How a ballot initiative, a visionary mayor, and a quest for growth are turning Los Angeles into America's next great mass-transit city."
Villaraigosa is nothing if not "visionary." But as has been concluded many times before by papers like the Los Angeles Times, L.A. Weekly and The New Yorker (after sticking around long enough to follow up on his ambitions), the man has a hell of a time turning his visions into functional reality.
Upon taking a day trip to Los Angeles and apparently committing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's self-promotional blog to memory, Slate reporter Yglesias felt he had seen/heard enough to declare an unlikely "transit revolution" in a land infamous for its sprawl.
On a recent visit to Southern California, I began my day in Claremont, where I'd spoken the previous evening at a Pomona College event. I walked from a hotel near campus to the Claremont Metrolink station, where I grabbed a commuter rail train to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. From there I transferred to the L.A. Metro's Red Line and rode up to the Vermont/Santa Monica station and checked into a new hotel. I had lunch in that neighborhood, and later walked east to meet a friend for dinner and drinks in Silver Lake.
My father, a lifelong New Yorker and confirmed L.A. hater whose screenwriting work has frequently taken him to the City of Angels, found the idea of a carless California day pretty amusing. But the city that's defined in the public imagination as the great auto-centric counterpoint to the traditional cities of the Northeast has quietly emerged as a serious mass transit contender. It's no New York and never will be--Los Angeles was constructed in the era of mass automobile ownership, and its landscape will always reflect that--but it's turning into something more interesting, a 21st-century city that moves the idea of alternative transportation beyond nostalgia or Europhilia.
This news blogger can relate. Sometime last winter, I got my Corolla impounded (don't ask), and had no choice but to explore the city's bus and rail systems. I, too, found myself pleasantly convenienced: There were plenty of bars and city services within busing distance, and the hands-free commute allowed for reading and ear-budding and window-gazing like I was in high school again. I'd study the Metro map every day, looking for new destinations. It was like a game.
But for daily commuters traversing the county's 4,000 square miles -- mostly low-income, mostly minority workers who rely on a complex web of bus routes to get from, say, their homes in South L.A. to the wealthy Westside -- Metro's public transportation system is a rapidly darkening nightmare.
That's because Metro has cut 16 percent of the county's bus lines, or close to 1 million hours in transport time, over the last four years.
Metro spokesman Rick Jager has bragged that this will save the county about $50 million per year. But that's a sad little pouch of pennies compared to the cost of Metro and the mayor's gold-plated subway dreams:
According to Reason Magazine managing editor Tim Cavanaugh, a raging critic of L.A.'s discriminatory and ineffective transit priorities, Metro has spent $2 billion on eight new miles train track since 2009. And according to our calculations, at least $11 billion worth of rail construction is still in the works. (That number will likely skyrocket, thanks to unforeseen construction costs and lawsuits from angry homeowners and businesses. Not to mention the cost of keeping the tracks nice and safe enough for its new white-collar constituents; the L.A. Times believes Metro is nowhere near prepared.)
These funds are flowing directly from the mayor's Measure R tax, passed by voters in 2008 -- basically a fat $40 billion loan that Metro will slowly pay off until the year 2039. And some of our money is also going to new transit-oriented development (TOD) alongside the rail lines, all of course filled with parking spaces. You know, just in case!
So is our subway investment paying off? Not so much, writes Cavanaugh in Reason:
Buses move more than four times as many Angelenos as trains do. In 2009 MTA buses carried about 1.2 million riders a day. Multiplying that by 16 percent, we can estimate more than 180,000 people had their service canceled while fewer than 40,000 had service introduced.
Not surprisingly, the result is that fewer people are using mass transit overall in Los Angeles than in 2009 (about 5 percent fewer, according to MTA statistics). This is a continuation of a long-term trend. Since the MTA began rail construction in 1985, more than 80 miles of railroads have been built, but mass transit ridership as a percentage of county population is lower than it was in 1985.
Will Dominie, an urban-studies graduate student at UCLA, believes this trend will only worsen under the forced Metro gentrification of the future. He concludes in a June 2012 report that...
... Although not all Los Angeles transit stations have gentrified over the last two decades, many did. Those that did lost transit riders and gained drivers much faster than the rest of the county. These effects are quite robust -- gentrification is the most powerful predictor of neighborhood transit use. Since transit riders in Los Angeles are overwhelmingly low-income people, immigrants, and people of color, it is perhaps not surprising that where these groups are displaced, transit use has declined.
These findings yield compelling implications for policymakers concerned with our environmental future. Specifically, they suggest that current TOD practice, with its emphasis on attracting wealthier residents to new, mixed-income development, is entirely counterproductive.
The Bus Riders Union -- not so much a union as a coalition of bus riders -- held a massive protest last week over Measure J, a countywide transportation tax that would tack another 30 years onto Measure R. In other words, we'd be funding Metro's skewed priorities until the year 2069.
Slate's sole evidence that more Angelenos might be riding rail is a survey showing "a 10.7 percent increase in the share of the metro area's population that relies on mass transit to get to work, matched with a 3.6 percent increase in driving" from 2000 to 2009.
But Sunyoung Yang of the Bus Riders Union says that the 10.7 increase could be an effect of the recession, and that it definitely includes low-income bus riders -- who, since that survey was conducted, have seen their services hacked to pieces. In some cases, bus lines have been stunted so severely that they're as obscure and un-useable as the rail lines replacing them.
"People hate change," Metro spokesman Jager once told L.A. Weekly, referencing another brutal round of bus cuts. "Anytime there's talk about modifying services, people are concerned about that -- because it changes their routine."
For the larger labor force living on the cheap outskirts of Los Angeles, that routine is a livelihood.
Yet every few months, Mayor Villaraigosa and his supporters stage another splashy ribbon-cutting for a new subway station. The shiny, bullet-shaped new Metro trains are almost phallic in nature, and local politicians can't help but puff up with macho glee at the sight of their extended metallic manhoods.
(Even when the train breaks down on its highly publicized trial run. Oops. Not that Metro or L.A. City Hall officials ever have to worry about their dysfunctional new system again, considering they all happily drive taxpayer-funded gas guzzlers.)
All this is to say: The wealthy liberal fantasy of awkwardly jamming a Manhattan-style subway system onto L.A.'s established urban sprawl is stupid growth at its most ambitious.
As ace L.A. reporter David Zahniser predicted for the Weekly in 2007:
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.