Traffic Jam: Amid commuter angst over lane closures on Vista Del Mar, Metro is launching an ambitious expansion of public transit. Is it a solution for the South Bay?
by Ryan McDonald
(Second of three parts)
In June, after the Vista Del Mar lane closures prompted an outpouring of anger from Beach Cities residents, Manhattan Beach Mayor David Lesser and Councilmember Richard Montgomery reached out to Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin and to the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. Neither Bonin, in whose district the lane closures lie, nor the LADOT responded, prompting the Manhattan Beach City Council to authorize litigation against the City of Los Angeles.
The legal effort cooled after the announcement last month that the lane closures on Vista Del Mar were coming to an end. Lesser was grateful for Bonin’s willingness to change direction, and described Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn’s intervention as a model for regional cooperation on transit issues. And Lesser is hopeful that the Vista Del Mar episode will be the starting point for new ways of thinking about mobility for South Bay residents.
“It’s a privilege to represent South Bay residents who believe strongly in multi-modal transportation. I would love to see these issues as an opportunity to talk about alternative modes of transit,” he said.
It’s an opportune time. Last fall Los Angeles County voters approved Measure M, a sales tax increase that will provide billions of dollars for transportation projects. Some of the money is given to cities in the form of “local return” funds, and some is devoted to highway upgrades. But two-thirds of the proceeds are slated for public transit improvements and subsidies.
Whether the South Bay is getting its fair share of projects is disputed. The South Bay Cities Council of Governments opposed Measure M, saying that many of the projects that would benefit the South Bay are clustered far in the future. Following the passage of Measure M, the group posted a video to its website that described Measure M as “Good news for the city of L.A. first. And good news for Southeast L.A. County and the South Bay… in about 40 years.”
Measure M’s highway and transit projects were selected from suggestions by local governments. But the dreams of cities were bigger than even the $120 billion Metro is expected to receive from Measure M over the next four decades. The price tag for the suggested projects was $273 billion, said Pauletta Tonilas, chief communications officer for LA Metro. Metro pared down the requests, and then decided on the order in which the projects would be built.
According to Tonilas, projects were prioritized based on a methodology devised before the election took place. Metro staff relied on metrics like enhancing mobility, improving safety and economic benefit. The agency also took into account whether the project is already underway, which can save money. Finally, the process considers “regional equity.”
“Measure M contains benefits for all areas of the county, both short and long term,” Tonilas said.
Several South Bay projects are at the front of the Measure M queue. The Crenshaw Line, which is expected to open in fall 2019, will connect the Aviation Green Line Station, at Aviation Boulevard and Imperial Highway, with the Expo Line Crenshaw Station, west of USC. An additional station, allowing rail access to Los Angeles International Airport, will open in 2024. And an extension of the Green Line to Torrance, passing by the South Bay Galleria, will begin construction in 2026.
But projects that could replace the drive from the South Bay to the Westside are decades in the future. According to the Los Angeles County Transportation Expenditure Plan, a rapid-transit corridor along Lincoln Boulevard, linking Santa Monica and Los Angeles International Airport, is set to break ground in 2043. Construction on a rail line or express bus lane connecting Westwood and LAX is projected to begin in 2048.
Bob Wolfe, an attorney and Hermosa Beach resident, regularly rides Metro. Wolfe said he gets blank looks or shrugs from his neighbors when he explains how long the region will have to wait for these alternatives.
“We don’t care. We’re not pushing for it. Why should we get anything if we’re not asking for it?” Wolfe said.
The other track
Wolfe’s squeaky-wheel theory is one explanation for the long wait for a more viable transit option between the Beach Cities and the Westside. Another is that there are more urgent transit priorities than connecting two relatively wealthy areas.
According to a 2014 study by the University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies, Los Angeles ranks third nationwide, behind only New York and San Francisco, in the share of its residents who relied on public transit to get to work. And in another category, the area ranked first: transit agencies here have a higher percentage of low-income riders than anywhere else in the nation.
These two statistics illuminate the promise and the challenge of expanded transit use in the region. Although Metro is eager to attract South Bay residents, both for the revenue and for the good done by expanding ridership, transportation officials also face an obligation to existing riders, many of whom live in poorer areas and don’t have cars.
Tonilas acknowledged that expanding service is a balancing act, but said the agency was capable of accommodating many different types of users. Throughout the Measure M expansion, Metro will maintain the lowest fares in the country for a system its size, while simultaneously increasing connectivity to new destinations like business centers and college campuses, she said
“We are here to serve the whole population. Most of our riders are transit dependent, and most of them are low-income. But what we are trying to do is look at every kind of rider out there. We have an obligation to serve everybody: the working class, students, senior citizens, occasional riders to a Dodgers or Rams game…,” she said.
Recent projects indicate that building projects in new areas may help make ridership more representative. The Expo Line’s extension to Santa Monica, for example, has proved enormously popular, both with residents of the affluent coastal city and with members of lower-income communities on the inland portion of the route. Just a year after opening, it has already exceeded ridership projections for 2030.
But as with other systems across the country, Metro’s overall ridership has fallen slightly in recent years, led by declines in bus ridership. Metro offers a host of possible explanations: declining gas prices, changing commuting patterns and, as of 2015, the ability of unauthorized immigrants in California to obtain driver’s licenses. Adjusting to these trends requires understanding who is using transit because they have to, and who is using it because they want to.
In the South Bay, public transit use is not so much low as it is asymmetrical.The share of people who live here and get to work outside the region using transit is far smaller than the share of transit-dependent people who work in the South Bay but live outside of it. The Beach Cities’ exorbitant cost of living attracts people who work in economic centers like Los Angeles, and prevents people who hold low-paying jobs in the Beach Cities from living here.
A dishwasher at one Manhattan Beach restaurant estimated that about half of the kitchen employees in South Bay restaurants arrive at work in their own car, while the remainder rely on public transit and bicycles. To save money, those who own cars often park in residential neighborhoods, far from the downtown, city-owned parking lots, occasionally prompting complaints from residents.
“Many of us can’t afford a car. But we all have to get here. Así es la vida [such is life],” the man said in an interview in Spanish. (Many local restaurant employees are unauthorized immigrants, and asked that their names and their places of employment not be revealed.)
About 7:30 on a recent Friday morning, people trickled off the 126 bus at Metlox Plaza in Manhattan. One was a prep cook, others were housekeepers on their way to clean homes. The 126 begins at the Hawthorne/Lennox Green Line Metro Station, winds its way south along Yukon Avenue, then heads west on Manhattan Beach Boulevard. After stopping at Metlox, it turns around, picking up its first passengers in front of the Manhattan Beach Library and then reversing the route.
The 126 runs only in the mornings and afternoons. Like other lines popular with restaurant employees, it is useful for getting to work, but stops running before their shifts conclude. Because of its limited hours, many night-shift workers bicycle or simply walk to their homes in Lawndale, Hawthorne and elsewhere. Ride-hailing services, the late-night transit option of choice for many Beach Cities residents, are too expensive for people surviving on slightly more than minimum wage.
“Obviously Uber is easiest. But if we pay for Uber, we don’t eat,” said one cook.
Give me convenience
Sally Harris lives on The Strand in Hermosa. She commutes to the Westside five or six days a week, a commute she says has been annoyingly extended by lane closures on and around Vista Del Mar. She linked the lane closures to the broader goals of Los Angeles planners, embodied in documents like Mobility Plan 2035.
“I think the purpose of the reconfiguration was to get us out of our cars and onto bicycles and onto Metro. Well, I think that’s a laugh, for me to ride my bicycle into town, the Westside or Santa Monica. I would have to ride my bike to the Marine Station, and take the Green Line to the Blue line to the Red line. That would take me two hours, two-and-a half hours,” Harris said at a Hermosa City Council meeting.
There are faster routes than the one Harris described. Tellingly, Harris mentioned only rail lines, not the far larger network of buses. But this only make clearer the obstacles Metro faces. Plans to expand ridership are hampered by a perception among Beach Cities residents that Metro’s offerings are inaccessible, difficult to navigate, and don’t take them where they need to be. The racial and class anxieties that historically complicated the expansion of public transit have given way to a more enduring criticism from the well-heeled: Metro is not convenient.
Currently, getting to Santa Monica or West Los Angeles from the South Bay requires at least one transfer. And it cannot be accomplished with just one transit agency — riders must switch from Metro to local lines like Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus, or the green and gray buses of Culver City’s transit agency. But while a dedicated bus or rail line from the South Bay to Santa Monica or UCLA is far in the future, smaller projects connecting different parts of the region to existing lines are already underway, and may be just as important.
Many South Bay residents do not live within a half-mile of a major transit station, which the federal government defines as the maximum distance someone could reasonably be expected to walk for transit. Projects to bridge this gap, known as “first-mile/last-mile,” are increasingly part of the transit solution.
Jacob Lieb, Metro’s senior director for first-mile/last-mile planning, said that the agency considers local access to stations as it makes regional plans. Large Measure M projects like new rail line stations are hubs that passengers will reach through buses and bike lanes serving as spokes. Lieb cited changes in bus service surrounding the planned expansion of the Green Line into Torrance as an opportunity to “connect stations to neighborhoods.”
“We have to implement improvements along those routes to make it as easy as possible for people to get where they are going,” he said.
Manhattan Mayor Lesser said that first-mile-last-mile projects could be used, not just for getting residents to and from work, but to eliminate the parking crunch in Manhattan Beach’s downtown, by providing an alternative to driving for those who don’t live within walking distance.
“It’s still a work in progress. But we don’t have to reinvent the wheel here — Metro is really focusing on this,” Lesser said.
Hermosa Councilmember Hany Fangary is his city’s delegate on the transportation subcommittee of the South Bay Cities COG. He appeared with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to promote Measure M. And he frequently takes public transit, riding the 438 Commuter Express bus to work in downtown Los Angeles.
The 438 is operated by the LADOT. It runs from south to north through the Beach Cities on weekday mornings. It does not stop between El Segundo and USC, where it starts letting out passengers. The bus makes its way to downtown job centers like Bunker Hill and the Superior Court branches, but does not take on new passengers. Starting in the afternoon, it makes the same trip in reverse, picking up in downtown and becoming drop-off only in the South Bay. In response to demand, LADOT has expanded the service in recent years. Buses still often fill to capacity.
No comparable route, however, takes people from the South Bay to the Westside. Oliver Hou, a spokesman for LADOT, said that the agency has no plans to create a Commuter Express bus for that route, saying that the agency’s projections show a Westside route would not attract sufficient ridership. And without dedicated bus lanes on the 405 or major arterials — the creation of which could easily spark a backlash similar to the one caused by the Vista Del Mar closures — it is unlikely to be time-saving.
Fangary agreed that an express bus was not an immediate solution to Westside commuting woes.
“The bus route I take is a far easier process to put in place. Even if Measure M funds were made available, we simply need more connectivity,” he said.
Part I: Lane closures are lifted, but deeper issues remain