Rail Killer, Me

Eastbound and downtown, one hour before Rams game

Eastbound and downtown, one hour before Rams game

Here’s a bittersweet factoid: halfway through a massive buildout of the rail system,  Metro ridership is down 16% in the past three years. Transit ridership is down nationally, but nowhere more so than Los Angeles, which alone accounts for nearly a quarter of all rider losses in America, even as we’ve connected the San Gabriel Valley to the beach through the addition of the Gold and Expo Lines.  Anyone want to guess how many riders ended up in the back of my car?

This is a forbidden topic of conversation in policy circles, where 30-year plans continue apace, as though rideshare never happened.

On the gentrification corridor

A Hopper-esque tableau, along the gentrification corridor

On paper, transit oriented housing has much to offer.  If we build snazzy new apartment complexes adjacent to train stations, the thinking goes, we can whisk people to and from work without anyone having to get into their car. It’ll be clean and fast, and people can sip their coffee and look down on the gridlock below with bemusement and relief. Throw in a little music, and….here, why don’t I just let Cameron Crowe perform the honors:

If we gave them great coffee! And great music!   Such was the pre-Jobsian America before the iPhone, and the Cambrian explosion of apps.

Overlooked in the optimism is an inherent contradiction in transit-oriented development.  It ain’t cheap. The very people who pay $2400 for a very modern, desirable one-bedroom apartment, fully stocked with amenities, are the least likely to utilize public transportation.  The train ushers in the housing, the housing sets gentrification in motion, the transit-oriented demographic gets pushed further away from transit lines, where people can afford to live.   If they can swing it, they take UberPool home for maybe a buck or three more.

I drive a lot of people home from work.   As rideshare spreads, this is more and more of my clientele.  In 2014, Uber lowered the per mile rate in Los Angeles to 90 cents, an act greatly decried by the drivers. The Uber argument was: the cheaper the rate, the more the demand, and greater revenue overall for drivers.  Uber runs on metadata, and the data was correct. My hourly has risen significantly each reach year I’ve driven.

Los Angeles does not run on metadata, it runs on politics.  Metadata says you match shift workers with employment zones. Which is to say, you start the rail system in Van Nuys, and East LA and Torrance, and you work your way toward downtown.  Politics says you do the reverse.  You build trains in the whitest, wealthiestliberal precincts of the city, where there is 98% approval for public transportation…for other people.  Because, climate change.

Last Sunday, we rode the Expo Line from the Rams game to Bergamot. We whisked silently along the treetops,  peering down into pedestrian-free neighborhoods brightly jeweled with succulents.  Near the stations, giant excavations were being dug for parking garages atop which fresh Bento Box transit-oriented apartments would soon sit. It was the most civilized public transportation experience I have enjoyed since crossing Puget Sound in a ferry, way back in the ’90s.

I had two thoughts. First, if we cannibalized our not insignificant equity at Chez UpintheValley, a princely sum in the red states, if I could obtain every dollar of paper profit today, fat stacks of cash in my eager hands, there was nothing we could buy here, as far as the eye could see.  Secondly, where we build trains, the whiter it gets. The whiter it gets, the more money I make driving.