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Transit Rides the Rail Right-of-Way With Opportunistic Approach in L.A. : Commuting: There's no real pattern to the development of mass transportation in Southern California, but what else is new?

October 21, 1990|William Fulton | William Fulton is editor of California Planning & Development Report, amonthly newsletter based in Ventura

To paraphrase "the Godfather," the deal just made for miles and miles of railroad right-of-way was an offer Los Angeles County transit officials couldn't refuse.

Transit planners celebrated this past week over the agreement to purchase 177 miles of railroad right-of-way from the Southern Pacific Transportation Co., calling it the single most important step so far in building a regional rail transit system. Without doubt, such opportunities don't come along often, and opportunism has been characteristic of the transit agency's rail strategy in recent years.

Transit officials built the Long Beach Blue Line because it was possible to build it, not because it fulfilled any particular transit need. In the same vein, now the county transportation commission is buying the right-of-way because it's available, not because it's in the best location. Such opportunism might be questionable in most cities, but it may be necessary in Los Angeles. People here have talked about rail transit for many decades; it's continually important to look as if you're doing something about it as well.

The most talked-about benefit of acquiring the right-of-way is the transit agency's ability to get commuter rail lines up and running within four years. Three lines are planned in the short-term, connecting downtown Los Angeles with Simi Valley, Santa Clarita and the San Gabriel Valley, respectively.

County transportation commissioner Christine Reed was quoted the other day as saying that, thanks to the commuter rail lines, auto drivers in Santa Clarita "will have some alternative to steaming in their automobile." This will only be true if those steaming commuters work in downtown L.A.; most of them don't.

It's important to understand what commuter rail is and how it differs from other types of rail transit. The commuter rail lines being discussed are not urban mass transit lines like the Blue Line or Metro Rail, designed to whisk people all around the metropolis for all purposes. Rather, commuter rail lines are designed to bring commuters from distant suburbs into business districts at rush hour.

In the heyday of rail travel, this approach worked efficiently. The white-collar work force lived in the suburbs and worked in downtown areas. Even in Los Angeles, the fabled Red Car system served commuters well, because downtown L.A. was truly a regional employment center, with pedestrians crowding the sidewalks on a scale that rivaled New York or Chicago.

Today, the idea is still workable in older cities, where downtown areas still contain 10%-20% of a region's jobs. But downtown L.A. contains only about 4% of Southern California's jobs; most new jobs are created in the suburbs. Even a bustling Union Station with commuter lines headed in all directions isn't likely to help traffic congestion much.

And herein lies one of the most intractable problems in trying to apply rail transit to a modern metropolis like Los Angeles. Commuter rail systems work best when passengers are funneled from all directions into some central location--like downtown L.A.--where they all work.

But business districts are now scattered across the landscape, thanks to the car. It's virtually impossible for rail lines to link them together in a way that's efficient and convenient to most commuters, no matter how much right-of-way you buy. The auto-oriented nature of the suburbs makes it difficult for commuters to get around once they get there--even when the rail stations are located in key business districts.

The only way to make the commuter rail lines a roaring success in Los Angeles is to imitate the development patterns of the 1920s by packing downtown L.A. (and other potential hubs, like Burbank) with huge office buildings. In theory, a "pack-the-downtown" development policy should reinforce commuter rail and other transit alternatives and therefore reduce traffic congestion.

But current real-estate trends emphasize bringing the jobs to the workers in the suburbs, rather than bringing the workers to the jobs in the city--a perfectly understandable approach given the sprawling nature of the region, the difficulty in getting around and the ease with which information can travel from one place to another.

When people live fairly close to their jobs, they're much more likely to drive (and congest the roads and pollute the air). This makes commuter rail seem like a quaint idea, especially when such a small percentage of people work in the downtown L.A. area.

Anyway, it's questionable that a "pack-the-downtown" strategy--or even the commuter rail idea itself--could be implemented, given the Southern California citizenry's generally bad mood about new construction. Though the region's residents keep voting in favor of more money for rail transit projects, they're pretty fickle when it comes to specific projects--whether new office buildings or new rail lines--that look like a threat to the tranquility of their back yards.

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