CityWatch is refreshing for its willingness to allow advocates on each side of an issue to really air it out and allow readers to make up their own minds.
Case in point, a debate over the Westside subway extension, which began last week with a Richard Lee Abrams attack on the subway, ominously titled, “The Manhattanization of L.A.” Today Alex Thompson responded with “Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics.”
By now the arguments are fairly familiar, though their full airing is a useful exercise.
The (Environmental Impact report) concludes that at best the Westside Subway will reduce traffic congestion by 1 percent. As a county project, it will serve 4/100th of 1 percent of the county. If we serve the entire County with a subway system that's $2,000,000,000,000,000 ($2 Trillion). That is $202,979.00 for each person in L.A. County. What is so wonderful that we should continue down this path?
When people refuse to live in the tenements which the developers want to build along the subway route, the rider ship will not be large enough to support its operation. The subway's operating costs will become another drain on the County and City tax base, which will have already shrunk into insolvency as all the CRA projects will have taken billions more dollars of more property off the tax rolls.
Allow us to take exception to the sneering word “tenements,” as if people living along Wilshire will be hanging their laundry out their windows and cramming 10 people into a flat without a bathroom. Abrams claims rich people won't use the subway, so to justify the subway's existence, the city will cram a bunch of poor people into these high-rise “tenements” who will be “dependent” on the subway. The assertion that middle class and wealthy people won't use the subway is just that, an assertion, and if New York City or London or Washington, D.C. are a guide, it's not true. Yes, there is a tiny class of ultra-super-rich who take car services or cabs everywhere in those cities, but lots of rich people take the subway in New York City. Including the mayor.
Abrams then takes a strange detour into the true solution to our transportation problems: We'll never need to leave our homes because of advances in “Virtual Presence,” which is a fancy word for telecommuting, except “VP” will provide the psychological “illusion of presence.”
Virtual Presence frees each person to go anywhere in the world like Star Gates allow people to go anywhere in the universe. One minute you can be conferencing with your partner in Milan and the next you can be visiting your Dad at his home in Bronx as he had a heart attack a week ago. Then you can be at Target to buy a new coffee maker and have it sent to your home in Cheviot Hills. You can do all this in the time it would take you to walk to a subway.
Bear in mind: Abrams seems to think this would be a good state of affairs, rather than a dystopian nightmare out of a Phillip K. Dick novel. Count us among the skeptical who would rather visit our father in person than through “the Illusion of Presence,” and in general have no interest in being prisoners in our own homes, no matter how fancy the doo-dads of technology. Go out and get some fresh air Mr. Abrams!
Regardless, this doesn't necessarily invalidate the anti-subway argument, that will serve a fairly small population base and won't significantly reduce traffic.
In comes Thompson, who argues Abrams badly underestimates the population served by the subway extension. When Abrams claims it will only serve 4/100th of 1 percent of the county, he likely means geographical area. As Thompson notes, “Transit doesn't serve real estate, it serves people.” In fact, about 200,000 people live in the corridor, or 2 percent of L.A. County.
Proponents of the Wilshire subway extension are not proposing subways as a catchall solution that should be built to every corner of LA County in a one mile grid. They're supporting a subway as a partial solution in the densest corridor in all of Los Angeles. Where there is less density, light rail, rapid busses, or even just simple improvements of the roadway are the prevailing proposals.
As for the failure of the subway to reduce traffic? Thompson says the subway will improve the quality of life for the aged who cannot drive, the young who cannot drive, and anyone who wants to avoid driving and is wiling to plan ahead and take the subway. (The point here, and it's a fair one, is that it seems backwards that transit projects must always be justified by how much they improve the quality of life of drivers, who are the root of the problem, by reducing traffic.) The real point of transit is to make life easier for people who can't or don't want to drive.
The question for L.A. taxpayers is whether this amenity is worth the cost.