L.A. proves that success depends as much on attitude as infrastructure
Los Angeles, like Vancouver, has loudly proclaimed its aspiration to become one of the greenest cities on the planet. Having just visited that city, I learned firsthand how the best intentions for sustainability can be scuttled by systemic problems, though I am more optimistic than ever that Vancouver will live up to its dream.
The difference in what’s possible doesn’t just come down to mass transit and sustainable planning; it’s also about attitude.
I couldn’t help feeling a little smug seeing L.A.’s transportation catastrophe at the street level. The place has been called 72 suburbs in search of a city; it’s synonymous with urban sprawl. Amid the endless eight-lane freeways and choking traffic, public transportation is a depressing sideshow. Ask which is the best bus to take to LAX, and you get looks as though you’ve just sprouted antennae.
The riders who roast in the heat at bus stops all seem to confirm the stereotype of transit as the “loser cruiser.” Average household income of bus riders is around $12,000, while rail riders earn about $22,000 a year. The buses never seem particularly full. Rail is a bit better, but as in most American cities, those who can most easily afford tickets don’t buy them.
L.A.’s leaders are trying to make their city more sustainable, even if it won’t be enough. L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wants to cut his city’s greenhouse gases to 35 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and make L.A. the “cleanest and greenest city in the country.”
The city is building eight rail projects, and has already doubled the number of bus routes. New electric train and lower-emission natural gas buses will be added to the fleet.
L.A. County’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) does claim average weekday boardings of nearly 1.4 million, which puts L.A. in competition with New York and Chicago for the most public transportation riders of any city in the country. But that’s only because the L.A. is one of the country’s most populous cities, with over 10 million people. As a percentage of total trips, transit accounts for only around two per cent of daily travel in L. A., and that percentage has been declining for decades. In comparison, Vancouverites get around on transit 17 percent of the time (30 percent downtown). Traffic congestion in L.A. remains the worst in the country.
Sorry, Angelinos, it’s not looking good for you no matter what you do. Sure, L.A. might actually make some progress in boosting public transit to lower greenhouse gas emissions, but only because it’s starting from almost zero. Real progress will be constrained by L.A.’s network of freeways and its runaway urban sprawl.
But more important than infrastructure, it’s attitude that really determines what’s possible. Angelinos show their disdain for public transit by not using it; as I mentioned earlier, per capita ridership is actually falling, even as the city invests billions in new mass transit options.
In contrast, Vancouver just needs to build capacity fast enough to meet demand. Witness the masses waiting at Broadway and Commercial as full buses go by on a rainy weekday morning.
Since the Canada Line opened, I’ve hopped on many times and noted the full cars – in its first week, ridership was 85,000 a day, not too short of its the goal of 100,000. As Vancouver’s manager of strategic transportation planning Lon LaClaire put it, Vancouverites don’t just use transit more to get to work, but we’re also happier to use it for personal trips: “There’s just not the same stigma here.”
That’s part of why Vancouver’s goal to be the greenest city seems not so much pie-in-the-sky as simply practical. We will build more capacity into the transportation system we’ve developed. We’ll accommodate growth around where we’ve already built it. And we can expect people to actually use transit and alternative forms of transportation. We’re already on the road to get there.
Jonathon Narvey is a Vancouver writer and principal of WRITEIMAGE.