For decades, New York City has been the transit capital of the U.S.A. We enjoy an expansive 468-station, 722-mile subway system that runs 24 hours a day and stretches across five boroughs. Transit’s daily ridership is higher than the combined total from every other subway system in the country, and without the subways, New York City as it is today would simply not be a viable geographic urban hub.
But over the last four decades, as the region has struggled to maintain its vast infrastructure, expansion plans have fallen by the wayside. Since the opening of the Chrystie St. Connection in 1968, the city hasn’t built out its system. A modest expansion along Archer Ave. and the completion of the 63rd St. tunnel were the major projects during the 1980s and 1990s. Today, at a cost of nearly $7 billion, the MTA is adding one stop to the 7 line and three along the Upper East Side’s stretch of Second Ave. It isn’t, by any means, impressive.
Three thousand miles away, on the coast known more for its cars than its trains, the City of Angels is working toward its own subway system. Los Angeles is planning to spend $40 billions on a 28-mile expansion of its rail transit system. The city will build an 8.6-mile extension of the Purple Line through Koreatown, an 11-mile addition to the Gold Line, an 8.5-mile light-rail route from LAX and another light rail route from Santa Monica to Culver City Adam Nagourney in The Times today takes a look at this reimagining of the Los Angeles transitscape:
Taken together, these developments have emboldened mass transit enthusiasts here and lent credibility to what has become something of a legacy project for Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa, who ran for office pledging to build a transit system that would upend long-established commuting habits and ease what has long been a bane of life in Los Angeles.
“This put to rest all this talk of, ‘Will we ever build a subway?’ ” Mr. Villaraigosa said, somewhat triumphantly, in an interview. “This is a big deal. People have been talking about it for years. And they were making fun of me: ‘Where is the subway?!’ ”
Los Angeles once had a large, intricate and thriving public transportation system, with so-called Yellow Car trolleys that ran on downtown streets and a vast network of Red Cars, operated by the Pacific Electric Railroad, that ran throughout the region. This was dismantled amid the city’s fervent embrace of the automobile (encouraged, in no small part, by oil interests in Los Angeles that realized the economic potential of the car).
But with a vote by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority’s board last month to approve the Purple Line expansion, there is a consensus that these projects are going to be built, even among those who describe them as a waste of money in a region that will never embrace mass transit. The projects are being financed by a half-cent sales tax surcharge approved by Los Angeles voters two years ago and expected to raise $40 billion over the next 30 years.
Yet, in LA, as the pipe dream of the Subway to the Sea inches closer to reality, residents, planners and politicians are still questioning the wisdom behind the spending. For Mayor Villaraigosa, the $40 billion appears as a traditional bond issue. Since the city plans to add distance and capacity, they can bond against future anticipated fare revenue, but even then, many wonder if Los Angeles can become a city of the subway.
One mass transit consultant from the Bay Area has labeled the plan in no uncertain terms. “They have been pushing rail expansion for decades now,” Tom Rubin said, “and it has not had much of an impact in terms of increasing transit ridership. The big problem is that these are very, very expensive, and we wind up spending so much money on building these rail lines that there is not enough to operate bus service. So we wind up cutting back on bus operations and then raising fares, which drives the riders away.”
Rubin highlights the same capital-vs.-operations battle being fought in New York, but he seems to ignore that adding distance to rail makes pushing for it as a viable modality more appealing. If the subway goes where people need it to go, they will leave their cars behind. If, as promised, a 50-minute drive becomes a 25-minute subway ride, driving becomes a waste of time.
“The science of public transit is not too complicated,” Robert Cervero, director of Berkeley’s Transportation Center, said to The Times. “It comes down to how time-competitive transit is with the private car. If it takes two to three times longer to get from Point A to Point B by transit, the vast majority of folks will drive. If it’s faster going by bus or train, then most will forsake their car and ride transit.” (Jonathan Hiskes at Grist disputes this simplification.)
Ultimately, Los Angeles won’t move ahead of New York anytime soon, but the Land of Freeways is moving forward. On the East Coast, we’re stuck in neutral. Saddled with debt, unable to issue bonds appropriately and faced with crushing costs, our 106-year-old subway system expands outward slowly, if at all.