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Near the rails but on the road

Billions have been spent on transit-friendly housing, but it appears people aren't leaving their cars behind.

June 30, 2007|Sharon Bernstein and Francisco Vara-Orta | Times Staff Writers

TV cameras in tow and champagne at the ready, a dozen of the county's most powerful civic leaders -- including the mayor of Los Angeles, L.A. City Council members and county supervisors -- touted the latest and glitziest new development in Hollywood: the planned W Hotel and apartments at the storied corner of Hollywood and Vine.

This project, they pledged at the groundbreaking earlier this year, would restore a sagging neighborhood while also minimizing traffic -- an important promise in increasingly gridlocked Hollywood.

"People could live here and never use their cars," declared MTA Chief Executive Roger Snoble at the February event.

It's a vision expressed frequently by local government officials, who see building large mixed-use developments next to mass transit lines as a key solution for not just the region's traffic congestion but also its spread-out geography and reputation for being unfriendly to pedestrians.

In Los Angeles alone, billions of public and private dollars have been lavished on transit-oriented projects such as Hollywood & Vine, with more than 20,000 residential units approved within a quarter mile of transit stations between 2001 and 2005.

But there is little research to back up the rosy predictions. Among the few academic studies of the subject, one that looked at buildings in the Los Angeles area showed that transit-based development successfully weaned relatively few residents from their cars. It also found that, over time, no more people in the buildings studied were taking transit 10 years after a project opened than when it was first built.

Los Angeles, with its huge geographic footprint and its limited public transportation system, can't offer residents of these developments the kinds of sophisticated transit networks available in cities like Washington, D.C. -- or even smaller ones like Portland -- where transit-oriented projects are believed by many to be working.

The Times decided to examine driving habits at four apartment and condominium complexes that have already been built at or near transit stations in South Pasadena, North Hollywood, Pasadena and Hollywood.

Reporters spent two months interviewing residents, counting cars going out of and into the buildings and counting pedestrians walking from the projects to the nearby train stations.

The reporting showed that only a small fraction of residents shunned their cars during morning rush hour. Most people said that even though they lived close to transit stations, the trains weren't convenient enough, taking too long to arrive at destinations and lacking stops near their workplaces. Many complained that they didn't feel comfortable riding the MTA's crowded, often slow-moving buses from transit terminals to their jobs.

Moreover, the attraction of shops and cafes that are often built into developments at transit stations can actually draw more cars to neighborhoods, putting an additional traffic burden on areas that had been promised relief.

Harry Cosmatos, a Kaiser Permanente radiation oncologist, is exactly the type of educated, upscale commuter that planners and transportation experts want to draw via transit-oriented developments.

In 2005, he purchased a townhouse in a project built partly atop the Mission Meridian Gold Line station in South Pasadena.

He works at Kaiser Sunset, which is at a Red Line stop in Hollywood.

He loves his new home, with its craftsman touches and picturesque South Pasadena setting, in arguably the best-designed transit-oriented development in the region.

Cosmatos also likes the Gold Line -- it reminds him of the village train near where he went to medical school on Long Island.

But the 36-year-old physician nevertheless drives to work.

The train?

"It's not for me," he said. "Maybe for other people, but not for me."

It takes two trains and at least 45 minutes to get to work on the Gold and Red lines, Cosmatos said.

Driving is 15 minutes faster, he said, and more convenient.

The problem -- reluctantly recognized by some of transit-based development's most influential boosters -- is that public transportation in Southern California is simply not convenient enough: Either it takes too long to get places or, more important, doesn't take people where they want to go.

The region's transit system is limited, experts say, because it was built on two assumptions that have since proved untrue: that most traffic was generated by commuting trips and that most people worked downtown.

Nowadays, people nationwide are driving so much to take their children to school, run errands and engage in other activities that these trips far outstrip commuting, according to federal transportation statistics.

To make matters worse, almost all of the transit-oriented construction that has so far been approved in the L.A. area is for housing rather than job centers or the village-style shopping areas that planners had originally envisioned.

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