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.
Slate’s subhead on the page is “How a ballot initiative, a visionary mayor, and a quest for growth are turning Los Angeles into America’s next great mass-transit city”. Yglesias provides some political/policy details:
Over the past 20 years, however [in contrast with places like the Bay Area that have zoned against growth], L.A. has chosen the bolder path of investing in the kind of infrastructure that can support continued population growth, and shifting land use to encourage more housing and more people.
The process started in earnest with the construction of the often-scoffed-about Red and Purple subway lines in the 1990s. This began to create the bones of a major rapid transit system. But it’s kicked into overdrive in the 21st-century thanks to the confluence of three separate incidents. First, Rep. Henry Waxman, the powerful House Democrat who represents L.A.’s Westside, went from being a NIMBY opponent of transit construction to an environmentalist booster. Second, Antonio Villaraigosa was elected mayor in 2004. Third, in 2008, L.A. County voters passed Measure R, a ballot proposition that raised sales taxes to create a dedicated funding stream for new transit. Thanks to Measure R and Waxman, a new Expo Line connecting downtown to some of the Westside is already open, and work will begin on a “subway to the sea” beneath Beverly Hills soon. The same pool of money also finances expansion of the light rail Gold Line and the rapid-bus Orange Line while helping hold bus fares down.
Though he doesn’t really follow through on how Villaraigosa has been visionary in this regard, other than a throwaway line that “L.A. public policy has also embraced bicycling in the wake of a 2009 mayoral visit to Copenhagen, the world capital of bike infrastructure.”
The concluding paragraph:
As work continues, people will find that Los Angeles has some attributes that make it an ideal transit city. Consultant and planner Jarrett Walker notes that the city’s long straight boulevards make it perfect for high-quality express bus service. And then, of course, there’s the weather. Something like a nine-minute wait for a bus, a 15-minute walk to your destination, or an afternoon bike ride are all more pleasant in Southern California than in a Boston winter or a sweltering Washington August. As a quirk of fate, the East Coast of the United States was settled first, so cities with large pre-automobile urban cores are clustered there. But the fundamentals of climate and terrain are more favorable to walking and transit in Los Angeles than in New York. The city could have simply stuck with tradition and stayed as the first great metropolis of the automobile era. But it’s chosen instead to embrace the goal of growing even greater, which will necessarily mean denser and less auto-focused. While the Bay Area and many Northeastern cities stagnate under the weight of oppressive zoning codes, L.A. is changing—by design—into something even bigger and better than it already is.
Post-script: Yglesias introduces this piece with an account of a carless day he spent in LA—from Claremont to DTLA to Santa Monica to Silver Lake—and adds:
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.
That reminded me of a review that caught my eye in the Sunday NYT Book Review three years ago, of a novel I still would like to pick and read sometime— ’A Happy Marriage,’ by Rafael Yglesias:
“A Happy Marriage” is unabashedly autobiographical. Yglesias, like [the novel’s main character] Enrique, sold his first novel at 16, dropped out of high school, then published seven more novels. Yglesias, like Enrique, had parents who were writers and an elder son who became a prominent political blogger. As the book jacket states, Yglesias wrote the screenplays for the horror movies “From Hell” and “Dark Water.” Enrique too finds success as a Hollywood screenwriter, which makes him feel like a failure as a serious novelist. And, most significantly, the author biography notes that Yglesias was married for almost 30 years to his wife, Margaret, until her death in 2004.