It’s no secret that the pandemic has devastated public transportation systems across the country, and Los Angeles’ ever-expanding Metro Rail system is no exception. With many white-collar employees now working remotely for all or most of the week, ridership on the region’s metro and light rail lines is still around two-thirds from its pre-COVID peak. The situation is even worse for systems like Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, which is overly reliant on office workers and employers who have largely abandoned downtown San Francisco.
But therein lies the key to Metro Rail’s long-term recovery. Originally conceived in the 1970s as a BART-like system serving primarily downtown employers and commuters, Metro Rail has since spread to the far reaches of Los Angeles County. At the same time, downtown Los Angeles has become a residential and entertainment destination, not just an employment center. As a result, today’s rail network serves a variety of passengers heading to many destinations for a variety of reasons. That helps explain why, for the first time since the federal government began keeping records two decades ago, Metro Rail is now service more people than its Bay Area counterpart.
However, to survive and prosper in the long term, Metro needs to take advantage of these strengths and go out of business as usual. The best recipe for long-term success, one we’ve seen in successful cities around the world, from Milan to Busan, is to allow more apartment buildings, offices and mixed-use projects to be built within walking distance of the stations. Beyond maintaining the viability of Metro Rail, more walkable neighborhoods will provide environmental, economic, and quality of life benefits for their residents.
However, it is local governments, not Metro, that control what is built around the train stations. And all too often, city leaders are captured by wealthy property owners who reflexively oppose new development, particularly high-density housing.
Even when cities condone dense development near Metro Rail stops, they often include so much parking as to mock the transit-friendly location. take the office project that the Los Angeles City Council just approved at Sunset and Wilcox in Hollywood. Sure, it’s a 15-story tower just steps from the Red Line. But with enough spaces for 1,179 private cars, it’s basically a parking lot with a few offices on top.
LA and other local governments should be required to loosen development and zoning restrictions near train stops, eliminating finicky requirements and endless hearings. With the region experiencing a large housing deficit and skyrocketing prices that have pushed low-income residents to other regions and states or, in too many cases, onto the streets, allowing denser, more affordable housing is as much a humanitarian necessity as a means of transit. one. With Metro and other transit agencies facing a “fiscal cliff” as federal COVID aid expires and ridership declines persist, state leaders could ease land use requirements as part of any eventual ransom package.
As Metro looks to build costly but critical additions to its existing rail network, such as the extension of the Purple Line along Wilshire Boulevard to Westwood and beyond, state leaders could also help the agency save money by giving master permissions authority on construction and simplified environmental review, as is done in Paris, Madrid and other transit-rich successful cities. Otherwise, projects often run over budgets and deadlines due to endless concessions to hyperlocal interests, lawsuits, and Byzantine bureaucracy. It is a microcosm of why the United States is now among the worst of the world’s advanced economies when it comes to building large-scale transit projects.
Also in the interest of efficiency, Metro should build more bus rapid transit using dedicated lanes instead of new rail routes, especially for outlying communities that are not densely populated enough to justify expensive rail construction. Dedicated bus lanes can move people as fast as trains on a tiny fraction of cost
To attract ridership in the short term, Metro will need to address crime and ridership safety concerns, which reflect broader economic and social challenges, as well as ridership shortages. Given that the lack of housing supply and, consequently, the high rents are the main cause homelessness, state and local policymakers can help Metro contribute to the long-term solution by providing more apartments near stations, which will have the added benefit of encouraging more ridership.
Four decades after its launch, LA Metro Rail faces its greatest challenges. Failure to meet them will mean a downward spiral of declining service and missing ridership, as well as a betrayal of the vision sold to voters. But if more people can live, play, shop and work near Metro stations, the system can achieve long-term stability, generate a multi-billion dollar return on the region’s investment and fulfill the promise of rail in Los Angeles.
Ethan N. Elkind directs the climate program at the UC Berkeley Law Center for Energy, Environment and Law and is the author of “Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City.”