What New York City can learn from Los Angeles about the transit biz

The Gold Line Eastside extension. (transitpeople via Flickr)
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Headline on a recent Los Angeles Times article: "L.A—transit's promised land."

"When people ask me which major U.S. city is at the cutting edge of forward-thinking transportation planning, they're always surprised when I reply that it is Los Angeles," wrote Taras Grescoe, a nonfiction writer.

That idea might seem gratuitiously counterintuitive, given Los Angeles' well-earned historical reputation as a car-centric capital of gridlock and smog.

But apparently, in terms of what's happening right now, it's not wrong.

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"Of all big cities in the country, L.A. is making probably the most substantial public transportation investment," said Joshua Schank, president and C.E.O. of the Eno Center for Transportation. "In terms of an expansion, it's unprecedented. What they're doing out there is incredible."

What they're doing is building, with money they raised themselves.

In 2008, the same year New York's congestion pricing scheme died in Albany, Los Angeles voters approved Measure R, a half-cent sales tax that over the next three decades is expected to garner $40 billion for transportation.

It's the third such transit-dedicated, voter-approved sales tax passed there since 1980. Those three taxes comprise the bulk of the agency's funding.

In April of 2011, that agency's budget included money for, "about a dozen rail lines that are either under construction or being planned," according to the L.A. Times.

New York's M.T.A. is expanding, too, in some targeted ways, but it's also chronically short of money and so lacking in political support that it's near impossible to imagine New Yorkers willingly going to a voting booth to support it with new taxes. Joe Lhota, the authority's relatively new chairman, regularly says as much, and has made improving the M.T.A.'s reputation and shoring up its political support one of his explicit goals.

But if Angelenos seem more willing to pay up for new transit than New Yorkers are, it should also be noted that the two cities, and their transit situations, are very, very different.

New York's M.T.A. spans three states and is basically run by New York's governor, with input from the legislature in Albany, even as its operations are headquartered  downstate. L.A.'s system is more locally governed.

New York's system is also relatively ancient, and much of its budget is dedicated to the unexciting task of keeping existing infrastructure in a state of good repair. In L.A., by contrast, the system is relatively new, and the metro's emphasis is on expansion.

A new subway line is more exciting than a new signaling system.

Also: L.A. has horrible traffic. New York's is bad. But really, it's no contest.

"I mean, nothing focuses the mind on the need for public transit investment more than sitting in traffic for hours on end," said Schank.

All that said, is there something, from a political and marketing perspective, that New York's transit authority could learn from Los Angeles?

Perhaps.

For one, L.A.'s political leadership is arguably focused on transit in a way that New York's politicians aren't, really.

Andrew Cuomo seems to view public transportation more than anything as a potential liability to be mitigated, going back a while before he actually became governor; the legislature uses the M.T.A. alternately as a whipping post and a piggy bank; Michael Bloomberg has given up on proposing enlightened transit-funding schemes that go to Albany to die; Bloomberg's would-be successors, so far, have focused on the easy stuff.

"Bloomberg's talked about congestion pricing and then it kind of fell off the radar when it died," said Schank.

Related: L.A.'s transportation people invest relatively heavily in P.R.

"Our metro does a great job with marketing," said Lisa Schweitzer, a professor at the University of Southern California's Price School of Public Policy. "They have terrific advertisers and cute graphics and the whole shebang."

(The Los Angeles transit agency actually budgeted more than $4 million to promote the passage of Measure R, which earned it some criticism.)

According to Tom Wright, the executive director of the Regional Plan Association, they also excel at public outreach.

"What they've done is they've gone community to community and they've been really clear, this is what we will do with the funding," said Wright.

That's risky, of course, because if those commitments fail to materialize, the political repercussions can be severe. The flip side, when little public capital is ventured, is that opportunistic politicians can redirect or just outright squash the transportation agenda with relative impunity.

Wright points by way of example to ARC, the plan killed by New Jersey governor Chris Christie to build two new rail tunnels under the Hudson, and for which Wright argues New Jersey Transit didn't do enough to drum up public support. 

"They did the responsible thing, you could say, by not pushing it," said Wright. "But then when push came to shove, it turned out communities weren't all that supportive."

Also, Schweitzer says L.A.'s metro has been "very strategic at building coalitions" with real estate developers and institutions like the Los Angeles County Museum, all of whom stand to benefit from the expansion of the network.

She said, "You really do want to control the image of public transit in the political realm and get policy and institutional actors saying yes yes yes yes yes."