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The city was shaped by the streetcar and was an early adopter of the automobile. What comes next?
For a few days earlier this month, a stretch of downtown Los Angeles’s Arts District was transformed into a circus of emerging transportation technology, with companies from around the world showcasing their newest and shiniest wares. Cordoned off from the rest of the “Street of the Future” by old-fashioned orange traffic barricades, a box-shaped autonomous shuttle ferried test riders from one end of the makeshift lane to the other, sans driver or steering wheel. A self-rolling tribe of cylindrical little robots intended to act as a “mechanical mules” followed close behind the legs of their designated humans. The city’s mayor posed in a sleek, 3D-printed race car. There were at least three different electric scooter brands on hand.
“My goal—and the goal of this city—[is] to be the transportation technology capital of the world,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said in his opening keynote at LA CoMotion, a five-day conference and expo devoted to the future of urban mobility. (CityLab was among the event’s media sponsors.)
Much was made of the decision to hold the inaugural LA CoMotion in famously traffic-snarled Los Angeles. Clichéd conventional wisdom has long dictated that nobody here walks—and only nobodies rely on public transit. And yet: I was born and raised in L.A., don’t own a car, and arrived at the “Street of the Future” via a humble Metro bus.
But—like me—America’s most car-centric metropolis is trying to prepare for life after cars. This will be hard: L.A. County is larger in size than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, and more populous than 41 U.S. states. The city’s urban configuration has long existed to serve the personal automobile, as have almost a century of L.A. social mores. LA CoMotion may have been about showing off the dazzling array of new technology that might help us get there, but it was also an opportunity to measure the stubborn gap between the city’s current needs and its future shape.
Life after cars, if and when it arrives, might mean something a little different for Los Angeles. Unlike its older, denser Eastern counterparts, this was never really a compact, walking city to begin with. By the time the city reached any real size, it already had an impressive streetcar system. At the dawn of the 1880s, the same decade that saw L.A.’s first electric streetcars, there were a mere 11,093 souls living in the fledgling pueblo. The Pacific Electric and the Los Angeles Railway streetcar systems entered service in 1901 and soon offered extensive interurban coverage of the nascent metropolis.
It was this early mass transit system (for a time, the most extensive in the nation) that helped power L.A.’s sprawl and single-family character. Paid for by real estate companies, the streetcars were intended not just to connect outlying suburbs, but also sell them to prospective homeowners. The city’s growth, as transit historian Ethan Elkind put it in his book "Railtown," “occurred haphazardly, driven by real estate interests rather than by good urban planning.”
The narrative of the Big Bad Auto Companies dismantling L.A.’s beautiful electric railway system to boost car sales (immortalized in the 1988 film "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?") is not entirely true. Yes, the advent of the automobile hastened the system’s demise, but that story was all but written decades before the rails themselves were pulled up. One out of every eight Los Angeles residents had their own car in 1915—that’s when the national mean was 1 car per every 48 residents, according to Scott L. Bottles’s classic "Los Angeles and the Automobile." By 1925, every other Angeleno had a car. The automobile really conquered Los Angeles in the 1920s. And car culture has arguably been the most powerful driving force of L.A. life in the near-century since—in large part because of the city’s early-adopter embrace of a then-emerging technology.
The rhetoric of the future is nothing new in Los Angeles, a city as much sold into being as it was shaped. But the new ideal life now being advertised is far more city-driven than suburban, with urban mobility suddenly edging out grassy yards and space as the answer to L.A.’s social ills.
The goals of L.A.’s self-proclaimed “tech mayor” aren’t as pie-in-the-sky as they might seem. Taken together, L.A.’s aerospace and manufacturing past, growing Silicon Beach tech community, and coming influx of investment in transit infrastructure make the city uniquely primed for a leadership role in a new transit future. Seventy percent of Los Angeles commuters still drive to work, but the civic zeitgeist is shifting—and the city is positioning itself as a laboratory of sorts for transportation innovators and startups. The car-less Angeleno remains an occasional punchline, but it’s become a decidedly lazier one.
Last November, L.A. voters overwhelmingly approved Measure M, a half-cent sales tax that will fund an unprecedented $120 billion in transit projects over the next 40 years. The scope of investment may be unprecedented for the city, but the ballot-box show of faith in Metro, the nation’s second-largest transit agency, was not. In fact, Measure M was the fourth such sales tax to support transit investment voted into place by Angelenos since the 1980s.
The much-heralded 2016 opening of the second phase of Metro’s Expo Line re-connected downtown to Santa Monica via rail for the first time since 1953. Although the Expo Line may not have dramatically improved travel times (the full trip takes roughly 50 minutes, slower than the freeway in all but the very worst of traffic jams), it represented a symbolic shift in a city where public transit had long been seen as a last resort.
By 2019, the under-construction Crenshaw Line is slated to bring light rail through parts of historically underserved South L.A. and link the airport to the Metro Rail system. And by 2027, Metro’s Purple Line Extension should be complete, providing—at long last!—uninterrupted subway service under the Wilshire Corridor, all the way from downtown to Westwood. The 2028 Olympics also loom on the horizon: That’s driving Garcetti’s “28 by 28” initiative, which aims to complete 28 Metro projects, from bus rapid transit lines to a proposed on-demand microtransit program, by the time the Games begin.
Perhaps even further in the future: Tesla/SpaceX founder Elon Musk just officially filed plans to dig below the city for his alternate transportation system—an elaborate system of private tunnels equipped with “electric skates” that boost vehicles (and capsules of pedestrians and cyclists) up to 130 MPH, so those with means can avoid more conventional modes entirely.
In other words, Southern California does not lack for big plans, transportation-wise.
“There are very few places in our country where the vision is big enough for the challenges we face,” then-U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said last year, while announcing more than a billion dollars in federal funding for that Wilshire subway extension. Where Los Angeles points the way, he said, according to the Los Angeles Times, “the rest of the country is going to follow.”
“We want your products, your ideas, your vehicles, your visions to come to this fertile ground,” Garcetti told the crowd of transit professionals during his keynote at LA CoMotion. “We’re not the kind of city that says go test it somewhere else first and come back to us when it works,” he added.
Autonomous vehicles are going to be a part of that process. Garcetti has long championed AVs—at the 2014 CityLab conference, he proclaimed that L.A. could be the first urban center to really do them right. Last year, his office authored an extensive report addressing future plans for AVs and on-demand sharing services, making L.A. the first major U.S. city to specifically address policies around self-driving cars. L.A. also recently implemented an electric vehicle car-sharing system targeted at low-income communities, and Metro has committed that all its buses will run on battery electric power by 2030.
But L.A. has a long way to go, and many basic elements to hammer out, before it can transform into a showpiece for AVs, EVs, or underground tubes full of Teslas. “Focusing on the deployment of new technologies is good, but let’s not forget the basics,” as Move LA founder Denny Zane put it during a Saturday LA CoMotion panel on the “Los Angeles’ Mobility Revolution.”
The importance of the basics—and the depth of the gulf between our varied, glittering futures and the daily reality of being a transit-dependent Angeleno—was particularly apparent once I exited the mobility revolution and made my way to the bus stop. I narrowly dodged one of the candy-colored rolling mules as I exited the temporary festival grounds, and then walked a supremely pedestrian-unfriendly half-mile to catch an express bus that spent 20 minutes circumnavigating downtown traffic before even beginning its westward crawl.
Without dedicated lanes, buses (which account for the vast majority of Metro trips) have to sit in traffic just like the rest of the cars on the road. That same gridlock makes for a notoriously not-entirely-reliable bus system, where riders like me would rather walk a mile than have to transfer bus lines—and risk being stranded mid-trip for an indeterminate amount of time.
Land use decisions are also pivotal to the success of a transit system: If densification and affordable housing aren’t prioritized in the areas around future rail lines, that rail investment will have little real effect on mobility or equity in the city. Sexier first- and last-mile solutions, like those foldable electric scooters and stuff-carrying robots on display, are likely to be comically out of reach for most riders: As of 2014, 71 percent of transit commuters in the city of L.A. made less than $25,000 a year.
Thought leadership won’t increase the frequency of nighttime service on Metro’s existing rail lines. The promise of someday paying fares with wearables doesn’t change the fact that there isn’t yet a single, easy-to-use app that offers both accurate next trip data and routing for Metro riders. The mobility revolution may be coming—and it looks great—but the future is far from here.