This is a Guest Post by Peter and continues his series on overseas cities.

Los Angeles is a poster child for automobile dependent sprawl – a moniker that is somewhat justified, even if it also happens to be one of the denser American cities (if you use the rather dodgy measurement of average density). But Los Angeles’s story is actually a bit more complicated than the normal story – especially if you look at where LA is now heading with its transport policy and its funding priorities.

To start with, Los Angeles’s highly dispersed urban form was not originally the result of the automobile, but rather the result of it once having the world’s most extensive electric railways network – the Pacific Electric System:ย At its greatest extent in 1925, the Pacific Electric Railway system had over 1600 km of track – linking towns with each other and with downtown Los Angeles. Coupled with the “Los Angeles Railway“, a system of streetcars in the very inner suburbs of LA, you would have struggled to find many cities in the world in the 1920s with a more extensive rail network: particularly as population wise Los Angeles wasn’t the huge conurbation that it is today.

Obviously in later years Los Angeles decided to go down the “build motorways exclusively” path, arguably to a greater extent than just about any other city in the world – particularly in terms of constructing such an extensive system relatively early (the Arroyo Seco Parkway opened in 1940). By the 1970s Los Angeles didn’t have a passenger rail network – quite staggering for the second largest city in the USA, and leading to pretty massive congestion and pollution problems. So for much of the last 20 years, a major focus for Los Angeles has been the construction (or in many cases reconstruction) of the city’s rail network. A lot has been achieved:

  • The Blue Line (opened in 1990) is a light rail line running between Downtown Los Angeles and Downtown Long Beach.
  • The Red Line (opened in 1993) is a subway line running between Downtown Los Angeles and North Hollywood.
  • The Purple Line (opened in 1993 as part of the Red Line) is a subway line running between Downtown Los Angeles and the Mid-Wilshire district of Los Angeles.
  • The Green Line (opened in 1995) is a light rail line running between Redondo Beach and Norwalk in the median of the Century Freeway (I-105), providing indirect access to Los Angeles International Airport via a shuttle bus.
  • The Gold Line (opened in 2003) is a light rail line that runs between East Los Angeles and Pasadena via Downtown Los Angeles.
  • The Metro Expo Line is Metro’s newest light rail line that will open to the public on April 28, 2012. The line has been delayed for nearly 2 years.The line will initially operate between Downtown Los Angeles to La Cienega/Jefferson and in the summer 2012 to Culver City. It will share 2 Metro Blue Line stations (7th Street/Metro Center and Pico).

Along with a couple of bus rapid transit lines, Los Angeles has managed to build a fairly decent network over the past 20 years – pretty much from scratch: But what makes Los Angeles particularly interesting is looking atย where it’s headed now. Despite the investment over the past 20 years in the network shown above, as well as a pretty clever bus system, Los Angeles remains a car dependent city that continues to suffer from congestion and pollution. However, unlike Auckland – where we remain under the illusion that perhaps if we just widen one more motorway we might finally fix congestion for good – Los Angeles has come to the realisation that the only solution is to offer people alternatives to sitting in their cars getting stuck in traffic. In short, there’s a general realisation that the vast bulk of investment in transport needs to go into these alternatives.

Reflecting this general understanding in the population, in November 2008 Measure R was passed by a two-thirds majority in Los Angeles County. Measure R added 0.5% onto the existing county sales tax over 30 years, with the money raised from that sales tax increase being specifically allocated to transport projects. Over the 30 years, the tax is expected to raise around $40 billion – with all money raised needing to be split across different transport activities in the following way:

  • 35% for transit capital projects (i.e. new rail and bus rapid transit lines).
  • 3% for transit capital on the Metrolink commuter rail system.
  • 2% for transit capital on things like rail cars and rail yards.
  • 20% for highway capital projects.
  • 5% for operations on new rail lines.
  • 20% for bus operation improvements.
  • 15% for local return (i.e. transportation money that individual cities decide how to spend).

The graph below also illustrates the funding split quite well:While ย there probably remains some uncertainty about where the local improvements money will end up, generally the funding split for Measure R funds is tilted extremely strongly towards public transport projects, as well as ensuring there’s sufficient money available to also improve services.

The map below shows that a pretty extensive range of projects are able to be advanced due to Measure R: The biggest project of the lot here is the Westside SubwayExtension, with the full project expected to cost around $9 billion (but is hugely needed as it runs under Wilshire Boulevard, an enormously dense activity corridor).

What becomes increasingly clear, when you look at the long-term transport plans of supposedly auto-dependent cities like Los Angeles, is how they’ve realised the pointlessness of continuing to add more and more motorway capacity, just to watch it fill up again. But for some reason Auckland doesn’t quite get this yet, for some reason even a 50/50 split between roads and public transport funding is seen as “too extreme” – the Auckland Plan shifting away from that general funding split that had been in the Regional Land Transport Strategy. It seems that anywhere else in the world a 50/50 split would be seen as extremely roads-focused, yet in New Zealand it’s the complete opposite.

Why are we so out of step with the rest of the world when it comes to transport matters?

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  1. I don’t think it’s Auckland that doesn’t quite get it yet, it’s New Zealand, Wellington and the NZTA. The crucial things about the LA story you tell is that they’re able to enact a local sales tax and decide what they are going to spend it on. Not everything about local revenue raising and proper ‘federalism’ works well (the hollowing out of places like Detroit is the flipside of leaving local regions to their own devices), but it does give LA a level of autonomy that NZ’s highly centralized state doesn’t. Every proposal made at an Auckland local level to enable the funding of major investments gets knocked back by Wellington, and Wellington politicians anxious to be seen as not ‘favouring’ Auckland – even if 1/3 of all NZers live there.

    1. Exactly David, anyone see Jane Clifton’s piece on politics in the Listener where she says, in support of Gov’s intention to even further extend their control over local gov that:

      “if Auckland is struggling we all struggle. We’re all entitled to an opinion about how Auckland is run, right down to rates rises”

      I find this a very poor excuse for forcing a provincial model on the country’s only city of scale, of overidding the desires of the local population, a full third of the nation. And like much else of the government, anti democratic.

      I also note, no matter how good a writer Clifton is, the fact that the Listener fails to note somewhere on her columns that she is married to Murray McCully is inexcusable and misleading.

    2. Is it possible to lay off the Wellington bashing? If you mean central government, say it. Conflict between central government and local/regional government isn’t just an Auckland issue – it happens elsewhere too (including in Wellington).

      1. Sorry, no. “Wellington” is an accepted shorthand for “the bureaucratic and political administration of New Zealand”, in the same way that “Washington” is accepted shorthand for “the federal bureaucratic and political administration of the United States of America.”

        That it makes you feel picked-on doesn’t mean the problem is with those who use the word. For pretty much the entire rest of the country, “Wellington” as a noun in the context of “Wellington did xyz” means “central Government and the machine therein did xyz”, not the city and its residents. You’re the third-largest city (and only rank that high because we had the decency to merge four of the top five into a single city), and somehow that gives you grounds to feel like you should get to monopolise your name to a single purpose?

      2. Kegan, it is completely accepted shorthand for The Government use the name of the capital city, I don’t think there is any confusion that this is what is meant, as in; London, Washington, Lisbon, etc.

        Anyway, it would be absurd to complain about a charming little fishing village at the bottom of the North Island, we’re it not the seat of government. No one is ‘bashing’ the people of Wellington.

      3. Blimey… hadn’t meant to spark such fireworks… I can confirm that what I mean by ‘Wellington’ is not the town and its redidents, but NZ’s central government.

        Maybe Wellingtonians will start to feel the same way about ‘Wellington’ that many Aucklanders do, if ‘Wellington’ creates a supercity down there too, as they are currently threatening to do.

  2. on a lighter nore, the closure of the Red line is a subtext in the delightful move “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”

    but I feel that LA is maligned to a degree, I recal the corner of Hollywood and Vine (and what could be more LA than that location, with a frequent bus service with quirky bus shelters at the surface, one level down was the LRT service, a further set of escalators got you to the heavy rail,in an arched tunnel where the ceiling was covered with old movie reels, quite charming and unexpected

  3. They do say you learn something new every day – this post being that something new :O ๐Ÿ˜€

    I wish Central Government here (notice I didnt say Wellington ๐Ÿ˜‰ ๐Ÿ˜› ) would give Auckland Council some better revenue tools available such as a localised Sales Tax and the capability of claiming some GST revenue (GST Sharing as is done in Aussie).

    With the extra dosh maybe some much needed heavy projects can be brought forward and be completed now rather than when I get grey (btw I am 26…).

    However while I have noticed the Better Government Program from Wellington ๐Ÿ˜› I caught somewhere on my Facebook a comment about Councils can only Debt raise from Central Government with Wellington approval. This was from a right winger which shocked me. I thought they were for smaller government and a clear distinction from Local and Central Government. No what they were proposing was rather Muldoonist and would only entrench Wellington’s control over Auckland.

    Back to this topic of LA – ๐Ÿ˜ฎ <<<< wow I would have never known. Maybe LA might give Auckland and Central Government here some hope on we can fix things in a large sprawl city.

    Oh and I was purposely interchanging Wellington and Central Government for the giggles value – usually I stick with Central Government references but that post above was worth a "crack at." ๐Ÿ˜€

    1. Correction: However while I have noticed the Better Government Program from Wellington I caught somewhere on my Facebook a comment about Councils SHOULD only Debt raise from Central Government with Wellington approval. How about BUGGER OFF and leave Local Democracy alone… [rest of the reply is as above]

  4. As you note, here just getting a 50/50 split is hard, just the other day at one of the council meetings Dick Quax claimed that doing so would kill the city.

  5. I also remember seeing busway stations in the middle of freeways so it’s not just rail they are investing in. I would also say they do a better job at optimising roads, almost all freeways have transit lanes which are normally T3 and they have a small flush median separating them from the general lanes. There are heavy fines ($400) for using them illegally and there are frequent signs reminding people of that.

    1. Yeah the Orange and Silver line are busway, plus they have an extensive sort of street BRT grid on their avenues where the buses don’t have priority lanes (for political reasons) but the do have priority at intersections.

      Dare I say it but Los Angeles is shaping up to be the paragon of PT network design for the new world: designing the network then fitting the mode to it, be that subway, light rail, busway or street bus priority.

  6. I think the reason why our central Govt politicians continue to embrace roading is because they see NZ as being the last paradise on earth where we enjoy the pleasure of driving our cars wherever/whenever we want.

    The folk at NZTA embrace roading because they’re dominated by roading engineers who just want to get on with road construction, no matter what the consequences are. Also NZTA’s spending is influenced by their funding model (ie: it is in their interest to maximise fuel tax revenue). Unfortunately PT, walking & cycling undermine NZTA’s fuel tax revenues so struggle to be taken seriously at NZTA.

  7. I think Auckland falls behind because those who make the decisions refuse to be convinced that there is an economic benefit to PT.

    It’s plain short-sightedness really. Does anyone in the current government have a ‘vision’ of Auckland as it will be in 50 years time? Do they honestly imagine a city swamped by motorways as a good thing?

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