LORINC: How Los Angeles found religion on transit: A lesson for Toronto?

This just in: thanks to the fiscal disciplinarians in the Ford administration, the TTC will be able to sock away $135 million for transit vehicles. Can we surmise that in Rob Ford’s Toronto, we’re now building transit on the lay away plan?

Just 37 more years and we’ll have enough to buy us a subway on Sheppard….

I’m being facetious, but that $135 million will do nothing to alleviate the persistent lack of capital for transit development in and around the City of Toronto.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s perverse decision to bury $2.1 billion of provincial transit funding in the soil under Eglinton Avenue East – about a quarter of which comes from provincial taxes collected inside the City of Toronto – is a capital-B boondoggle, and leaves nothing but crumbs for other transit expansion projects (including the Sheppard subway) for years to come.

But as TTC chair Karen Stintz said in a speech to the Board of Trade a few weeks ago, the Commission (and, by inference, the Ford administration) wants to completely cede responsibility for financing transit expansion to Metrolinx, which has a $50 billion plan for Greater Toronto, but no clue how to pay for it. (The agency has pledged to release a revenue-generating plan in 2013.)

Here’s my unsolicited advice for both Stintz and Metrolinx chair Rob Prichard: If you want to figure out how to rapidly and permanently crack the long-term funding riddle, then look to Los Angeles — a quintessentially car-addicted city that, in the past three years, has found religion on transit in a serious way.

But be warned: the story of LA’s dramatic conversion puts us to shame.

Before anyone starts lecturing me about how LA and Toronto have little in common, consider this: while LA County is more populous and geographically larger than the GTA, the two regions have almost identical population densities (just under 800 inhabitants per square kilometre). Both struggle with crippling gridlock and virtually unrestrained sprawl, support competing commercial centres, and have highly diverse populations with large numbers of low-income immigrants.

Now cue Antonio Villaraigosa, mayor of the City of Los Angeles. In the summer of 2008, the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which serves LA County, voted to ask the California state assembly to approve a half-cent on the dollar increase in the regional sale tax. With a mandated 30-year duration, that tax hike would raise an estimated $40 billion that would pay for new subways and LRTs, highway and local road improvements and even cycling infrastructure.

Villaraigosa, a wiry Democrat with a keen sense of retail politics, championed the proposal both locally and in Sacramento, ultimately ensuring “Measure R” would end up on the ballot in the November, 2008, election. While Californians in the state’s conservative south have been responsible for tax revolts that crippled local government, voters there endorsed Measure R by more than the required two-thirds of votes cast – an indication that Angelinos had finally grown sufficiently weary of LA’s mind-numbing congestion to sign off on a historic spending plan.

And this in a city where the affluent simply do not use transit. LA’s poor, of course, have long relied on municipal buses to get around, meaning that in LA’s car culture, transit use is strongly equated with poverty and race. In other words, the support for Measure R cut across the extreme social divisions in a city riven with freeways – not a small accomplishment.

Over the three years since then, LA has witnessed a rollicking public debate over what gets built and where. Supported by the editorial boards of LA’s major dailies, Villaraigosa has pushed his agenda even harder, vowing to fast-track the whole show – he wants much of the work completed in 10 years instead of 30 – and lobbying for additional federal stimulus funds. He hasn’t sought to pit transit users against drivers. And he’s pledged to use some of the funds from Measure R to quadruple the size of LA’s bike network, to over 2,700km in the next few years.

Most importantly, Villaraigosa hammered away at a critical theme, which is that this massive amount of civil construction activity will create over 200,000 jobs and pump $32 billion into the region’s hobbled, high-unemployment economy. The comparisons to Fiorello La Guardia, New York’s New Deal mayor, are unmistakable.

To put this in perspective, in just three years, LA laid the political groundwork, hashed out the plans, began collecting the revenue, established accountability mechanisms, and commenced construction. As it happens, some of the earliest projects have involved road/overpass repairs, which just strikes me as incredibly savvy staging.

Back here in Toronto, we’ve spent the same period sucking our thumbs and making bad decisions.

So the question, with apologies to Frank Sinatra, is this: if transit can make it in LA, can make it anywhere, even Greater Toronto?

In theory, we are, or should be, far further ahead than Villaraigosa was in 2008. From a planning perspective, Metrolinx’s Big Move strategy is finished and waiting to be switched on. Politically, transit use here isn’t nearly as alien and freighted with cultural baggage is it is in LA. As for the problem, well, everyone knows the GTA’s traffic crisis is hurtling towards some kind of tipping point.

What we don’t have is a political champion (sorry, Mr. Prichard) with the credibility, optimism, and raw courage to do what Villaraigosa accomplished in LA.

Which, in a nutshell, was this: He was honest, telling millions of Angelinos, state legislators and local business interests that they simply can’t wish their way out of the region’s transportation nightmare. But then he persuaded them that there’s much to be gained from that half-cent premium on the region’s sales tax.

Villaraigosa, in short, is leader for the ages – LA’s gamechanger. Who’s ours?

photos from Metropolitan Transport Library & Archive


  1. Might John Tory be the gamechanger? With conservative + business credentials to earn the trust of that crowd, and now that he’s Chair of Greater Toronto Civic Alliance, he has the platform for engaging the big-picture issues in a non-partisan way. TransitCity was under-evangelized, both to the neighbourhoods that would most benefit from it, and to the frustrated car drivers fearing it would add to surface traffic. But that process can be re-set with a face-saving name-change and tweaking now that Karen Stintz and others acknowledge the folly of Ford’s plan for the underground Eglinton LRT. Maybe a slogan like CLEAR THE WAY could sound appealing to all sides suffering from inadequate transportation options. And pitching the jobs and economic benefits, as Mayor Villaraigosa is doing in L.A. (and as David Miller did here, unsuccessfully) should also make this a winning proposition.

  2. Should be remembered that Rob Ford’s phobia to surface rail would be hard to overcome by the rest of the commissions/councilors, especially when they are his yes-men and yes-women. They need to overcome their fear of going against his wishes and listen more to transit users (and not just those who only ride the Subway).

  3. While this all sounds rosy (and don’t get me wrong, in many ways it is) there’s still a lot of other issues that Measure R didn’t address.

    LA is cash strapped (as is the state of California) and there is little new revenue for operating expenses of LA Metro, which is currently creaking along, let alone funding for the new and expanded lines that Measure R is bringing in.

    There’s also a lot of criticism that the lines being put in are centred around political and not ridership considerations, further increasing costs and not helping congestion at all. Toronto/GTA also has this issue, wherein we get subway expansion into Vaughan and pushes for expansion of Sheppard as well as Yonge into Richmond Hill and no DRL, which anybody focusing on ridership would be building.

  4. Thanks for opening people’s eyes on this, though getting any Fordie to realize life exists past the 416 is a bit of a challenge.  

    Yes, riding transit in LA was definitely a third-class thing to do in the past.  I rode the bus downtown a couple times in the late 90s, very clearly not the TTC.  But since then much has changed – remember that LA had no rapid transit at all in 1990, while the TTC has changed very little since then.  Couple other LA tidbits:

    – fare is $1.50 vs $2.60 to $3 for TTC

    – seniors pay $0.55 vs $2 for TTC

    – monthly pass is $75 vs $115 to $126 for TTC

    – LAX is extending their people mover out to the nearest LRT line, vs Pearson bringing a commuter rail line to the airport for much higher cost.

    – LA red/purple lines are about as long as the TTC Bloor/Danforth line

    – LA blue line is about as long as the TTC Y-U-S line

    – LA green line is outside the core (nowhere to nowhere), like Sheppard, only about six times as long.  It is also being expanded.  It was chosen as LRT so that it could be built and expanded without ruinous cost (hello, TTC?)

    – LA gold line a mix of surface and separated LRT that opened in 2003 and represents a bit of what Eglinton LRT surface sections might be like at the edges

    – LA has two legitimate BRT lines that feed into the rail services that have no parallel in Toronto

    Hard to swallow, but transit is looking pretty attractive now in LA compared to Toronto.

  5. Thanks for this article John.

    The only point I wanted to make is logistical:

    While the densities of Los Angeles and Toronto are similar, the total population of the jurisdiction for which Measure R was mandated (Los Angeles County) has a population that is quadruple that of the city of Toronto (9.8 million versus 2.5 million).  Therefore, an equivalent strategy of levying a local sales tax to raise $40 billion would necessitate a 2% raise in Toronto.

    Those of us living in the heart of transit infrastructure in Toronto (downtown) and affluent enough to afford a 2% sales tax increase may support, I’m not sure there is political or social will for that kind of tax raise over the city as a whole.

    Now if the $40 billion is less for the GTA, and if cities in the 905 chipped in to the sales tax, we could get away with something like a 0.5% levy.  But the devil is in these details.

  6. Interesting that Stinz has chosen to break with Ford over the burying of the ends of the Eglinton LRT – might things be a’changin’?!?

  7. @Peter — I compared the population densities of LA County and the GTA, not the City of Toronto. 

  8. California’s ability to achieve VMT reductions though land use changes associated with transit investments is mixed. Residential density in California is above the U.S. average and rising. But employment density is below the U.S. average and falling—and employment density is more closely associated than residential density with transit ridership, meaning that California’s job-related land use patterns are less conducive to economically feasible transit investments than land use patterns in other states.
    ….Strategies to encourage density in California must focus at least as much on employment density as on residential density. Our findings emphasize that employment density is more closely tied to transit ridership than residential density is. We also highlight the importance of proximity to transit stations: for ridership levels, proximity is even more important for workers than for residents.
    It is surprising that, on average, employment growth around new transit stations was no faster than in comparison areas, which were selected because of their similarity in land uses, densities, and proximity to other transit stations and highways. It is especially surprising that even around lower-density primarily residential stations employment growth was, on average, no faster than it was in comparison areas, particularly because employment growth around stations in residential areas has additional benefits: increasing employment around stations that are largely suppliers of commuters toward downtown jobs can increase two-way utilization of costly rail capacity. Therefore, planners should aim to ensure that employment growth near stations, even those in residential areas, exceeds employment growth in nearby similar neighborhoods that lack transit access.

  9. While the TTC and GO Transit are the LEAST subsidizing transit agencies in North America (at 66.7% and 88.4% of the revenue coming from the farebox), Los Angeles get only 30.6% of its revenue from the farebox.

  10. Can anybody tell me why St. Clair was built not as LRT, but Spadina-style old fashion street-car? That is a huge opportunity wasted. Imagine if we could point St. Clair and say, see that is LRT, with spaced out stations and signal priority, sleek, fast, reliable, how many more Toronto residents would be convinced? Instead, today all the naysayers point to St. Clair and say, look, that is what you will get on Eglinton, people run away screaming, no matter how much the supporter yell, “no, LRT is different, trust me, you can see it in Europe…”

  11. Yu —

    St. Clair was built not as LRT but as a streetcar because that is what is needed on that street. LRT is needed on Don Mills, on Finch, on Jane, where the streets do not have much human scale, backyeards of houses face onto the street (not retail), and the roads are used as tunnels of car traffic.

    St Clair is much different than that. It has shops along its entire length. It is a pedestrian-oriented street, and the road is not used, from a transportation perspective, in the same way as any of the proposed Transit City routes mentioned above.

    Simply put, you’ve suggested that St Clair should’ve been built so that it could be used as an argument for other transit lines. All that does is ignore what is needed on St Clair to justify the construction of other lines.

    As someone who lived on St Clair during the entire consultation and build-out phase, I can easily say that all the negativity about the ROW is massively overblown. The street is more beautiful and vibrant, new businesses are opening up, and transit service is much much much better than it was before. The line is not perfect by any means, but it’s decent and, in the long-run, will have many more positives to speak of than negatives.

  12. I agree with Matthew, but St. Clair could have had more LRT elements built into it (a few less stops, better priority) while still maintaining the neighbourhoodness of the streetcar. Some of these things may be forced upon it regardless when it starts to (eventually) use the longer LRT trains.

  13. @W. K. LIS  That statistic is dangerous to use.  Fares are much lower in California, so the farebox ratio is therefore lower.  If LA raised it’s fare levels to ours (which may have to as upper governments are going to have tough time finding more money for operating costs) they’d have more money and a similar ratio.

  14. Woo Hoo! Love it when LA gets some transit love. It’s a pardigm that surprises many, since the meme for 50 years has been of LA as the city of freeways, with no pedestrians, no transit, and a place where people drive their cars 50 feet to their neighbor’s house (see Steve Martin’s LA Story).

    But Los Angeles really has rail transit in its DNA. Southern California was first opened up to settlement (by white Americans from the eastern half of the continent) thanks to several railroads reaching the area and starting price wars to sell tickets. 20 years after that, the streetcars came to town and stayed for 55 to 60 years. Los Angeles and its surrounding megalopolis had THE LARGEST network of urban passenger transit in the ENTIRE WORLD. This was both streetcars in the crowded urban areas (the “Yellow Cars”) and larger LRT connecting the various activity centers (the “Red Cars” of the Pacific Electric, made famous in Roger Rabbit).

    So the “new” embrace of Los Angeles towards transit is not really new at all, just a matter of rediscovering what was hidden for about 30 years. Regarding the Green Line going from nowhere to nowhere, this is the result of legal action. Like most things in the United States. They wanted to build a freeway through the area, and the only way the courts would allow it was if transit was included in the ROW. Of course using that line now proves with use what a bad idea it is to build a rail line and stations in the middle of a freeway median, which is convenient to exactly no places that people desire to live nor work.

    Regarding the relatively low fares in place by LA County MTA, that (surprise!) is also due to legal actions by the dreaded Bus Riders Union (which is neither a union, nor composed of Bus Riders, but Google that if you want about two years of reading material.) Anyway, appreciate the post. Nice stuff.

  15. Almost everything being built in Los Angeles is “light rail”, these lines have done very little to relieve severe traffic congestion on freeways in the city which is much worse than Toronto. Like Toronto, Los Angeles needs subways, and lots of them. Light rail is just not adequate.

  16. As a resident of one of the most gridlocked parts of LA (the Westside), I’m thrilled with mayor Villaragosa’s leadership on the public transportation front.  And I enjoyed the article.  But the true roots of today’s change of heart in Los Angeles go back to mayor Tom Bradley and the success of the pioneering Red Line subway and Blue Line rail network.  I tip my hat to Mayoy Bradley (rip), and give my full supprot to Mayor Villaragosa, while I look forward to our baby daughter growing up in a city with 21st century transportation options!

  17. “Like Toronto, Los Angeles needs subways, and lots of them. Light rail is just not adequate.” Toronto needs subways where density is appropriate aka not all of Eglinton and not Sheppard.

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