population 18,238,998 (2012)
Los Angeles is known as the archetypical automobile city. But Los Angeles is a generation older than other sunbelt cities like Houston, Dallas, or Phoenix. It was one of the ten largest cities in the United States by 1910, and it more than doubled in size in the next decade. This growth was supported by what was then the world largest electric railway system, the Pacific Electric, with over 1000 miles of track (including a short downtown subway) that connected the city to its suburbs. Before LA was a freeway city, it was a transit city; the first segment of the Hollywood Freeway even included Pacific Electric tracks in the median.
Thought Los Angeles’ first rail system was gone by 1963, it left a city that is still friendly to transit. The city of Los Angeles has an average of 8,000 people per square mile within city limits, about the same as Seattle and Baltimore and more than twice as many as Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, or Denver. Much of the city has a regular street grid, and the climate is conducive to walking. Transit never went away; the streetcar lines evolved into the nation’s second largest bus system, carrying 1.1 million boardings on an average weekday.
Planning for a new rail transit system began even before the old system was torn up; the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority, the ancestor of today’s MTA, was created in 1951. to study monorail between Los Angeles and Long Beach. By 1962, it had abandoned monorail and held ground breaking ceremonies for a subway under Wilshire Boulveard which faltered due to lack of funding. In 1968, 1974, and 1976, voters turned down rail proposal. In 1980, a rail plan finally passed. Work began on three different lines: a subway west from Downtown under Wilshire (the same route ground was broken on in 1962), a light rail line to Long Beach (on the same corridor as the Pacific Electric rail line MTA itself has abandoned in 1961), and another light rail line in the Century Freeway, on right of way preserved as a result of local opposition to the freeway project.
The early years of the rail construction were difficult. The Red Line ran into concerns about gas pockets, leading to a 1985 federal law prohibiting construction of a subway on Wilshire . The route, already under construction, was frantically redesigned to turn north instead, leaving an odd one-mile spur on the original alignment. The Green Line was designed to connect population areas to defense plants near LAX; by the time the line opened in 1995 the Cold War was over, the plants were shutting down, and the original ridership projections have still not been met. But the Blue Line, opened in 1990, was widely successful; at 90,000 weekday boardings it’s now the busiest single light rail line in the country, and the opening of rail built momentum for more.
Meanwhile, the Southern California Regional Rail Authority , spanning 5 counties, spent $450 million to buy 175 miles of freight rail lines in 1990 and began operating commuter rail the following year. That system is now the thord longest commuter rail system in the United States at 512 miles.
Rail system expension has continued steadily since. There’s been a rail line under construction in LA in every year since 1986, and a steady stream of openings: subway to North Hollywood in 2000, light rail to Pasadena in 2003, light rail to East LA in 2009, the Expo Line to Culver City in 2012. Today, two major rail projects are under construction and three more are in the planning stages.
LA has also made dramatic improvements to its bus system. A grid of “Rapid” buses, running in mixed traffic on major streets, provides high-frequency limited stop service across the urban area. In the San Fernando Valley, Orange Line BRT vehicles run in a dedicated busway along a former freight rail line, serving LRT-like stations and connecting to the subway. Busways along the San Bernadino Freeway and the Harbor Freeway, carrying numerous local and express bus lines as well as Silver Line BRT vehicles.
But the experience of taking transit in LA can remain a frustrating one. Despite the success of the Rapid system, attempts to dedicate street lanes for transit have failed, and LA bus riders spend most of their time stuck in the same traffic as drivers. Despite its exclusive right of way, the rail system can be frustratingly indirect: the Gold Line heads straight towards Downtown from tow directions but stops short, forcing passengers to transfer to the subway to get to the employment core. The Green Line gets within half a mile of the runway at LAX but does not serve the terminal; a trip from the heart of Downtown to the airport by rail takes three rail lines and a shuttle bus. Most critically, the densest employment corridor in the region – Wilshire Boulevard from Downtown through Wilshire Center, the Miracle Mile, Beverly Hills, Century City, and Westwood to Santa Monica does not have a rail line along its length, leaving many of the city’s jobs outside of convenient transit access.
Much of LA’s transit shortcomings are the result of politics: lines have been built where right of way exists, not where the greatest demand is. But today the politics look better: Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa took office in 2005 promising a “Subway to the Sea” under Wilshire. His support helped pass a half cent sales tax increase in 2008 for transportation, and he has lobbied in Washington for federal loans to accelerate rail construction. Construction is now scheduled to start in 2013 on the subway, with a first segment opening in 2019, and a connector subway bringing the light rail system directly into the heart of Downtown. A link to the airport will follow.