Price Points: L.A. Transformation

You may have missed this:

With the passage of Measure R (November, 2008), Los Angeles bought itself a massive expansion of its rapid transit network. The system, which currently consists of three light rail lines and two heavy rail corridors, is already being expanded in two directions. Over the next thirty years, new services are planned for virtually everywhere in the 10 million-person county.

Transport Politic


Two reasons you did not know that Los Angelenos taxed themselves $40 billion over 30 years to pay for a massively expanded transit system:

(1) There was this other guy, a certain Barack Obama, up for election the same night.

(2) Los Angelenos taxed themselves!  For transit!  By a super-majority!  That’s just not supposed to happen.

In the land where the anti-tax movement began (Proposition 13, Reagan Revolution, etc.), how could voters approve any new tax by a supermajority, much less one for transit in the land of the auto?

But as political science professor and historian Steve Erie points out, this is in fact the norm for the people of the Southland.  From 1873, when they gave a huge whack of dough to the Southern Pacific Railway to get them into town, to the creation of a harbour at San Pedro, to the famous water and power projects associated with the name Mulholland (and dark conspiracies), to the airport and highways, “the foundational base of LA is public support for infrastructure .”

In fact, Los Angeles citizens have in the recent past voted for bond measures to support schools, parks and libraries by supermajorities.  They just wait until there’s a crisis to do it.  After decades of neglect and denial, Los Angeles will decide to reinvent itself by drawing on this tradition of collective funding.

After spending immense resources on Motordom, providing a model to the rest of the world on how to build a region around the automobile, L.A. found itself stuck in traffic with no prospect of relief – but still holding on to its essential vision of regional mobility in a sprawling metropolis.  So now transit is the new connective tissue; mobility is the new water.

As Denny Zane, the executive director of Move L.A. – the coalition for Measure R – put it: “A majority of the voters voted for something the majority may not use.”  (Or think they won’t.)  “The car is in our history, not our DNA.  Measure R aims to provide a network of convenience, sufficient to offset car dependence – not to supplant the car but to make it viable.”

Although the first light-rail expansion – the Expo Line (map here of station at USC shown below) – has just opened, it was technically not part of Measure R, having been supported by a previous initiative.  But voters are nonetheless seeing some results for their taxes, and the prospect, once the line connects with Santa Monica, is of a gamechanger for the region: the possibility of living in L.A. without having to be car dependent.


The projects assembled under Measure R, and its timeframe, are still not good enough for a lot of Los Angelenos, including the Mayor. They want to add on to the Measure R commitments, and push the whole agenda forward, building out a 30-year plan in a decade:

Different economic times, different politics, than those in which Measure R was first passed.  But if they only continue in building out what is already funded, Los Angeles will be a different kind of place, or at least one that will contradict its stereotype; it will be a Post-Motordom City.
Gordon Price is the Director of The City Program at Simon Fraser University. He sat for six terms as City Councillor in Vancouver, BC and also served on the Boards of the Greater Vancouver Regional District (Metro) and TransLink. He publishes an electronic magazine and blog on urban issues, with a focus on Vancouver, called “Price Tags” – as well as He has written several extensive essays on Vancouver and transportation issues – The Deceptive City, Local Politician’s Guide to Urban Transportation – and in 2003, he received the Plan Canada Award for Article of the Year – “Land Use and Transportation: The View from ’56” – from the Canadian Institute of Planners.

One comment

  1. I am starting to feel optimistic about mass transportation/viable light rail becoming a reality in Los Angeles.

    When I moved here twenty years ago from Manhattan I could not believe my eyes as I drove from the San Fernando Valley to the Mid Wilshire district for my 9-5 job: cars stuck bumper to bumper and in each one (including mine) only one person.  I registered for a service called “commuter computer” which was supposed to match you up with other drivers looking to share their cars in order to save on gas and driving and wear and tear on their cars.  The response came back: “no match” — I was commuting during regular business hours to and from very densely populated home/business regions and yet there were NO matched because Los Angeleans did not want to share rides.  So I tried taking the bus.  A trip that would have taken me a half an hour easily took two hours by bus due to the lack of direct bus routes and of course the heavy traffic.  Also, I often found myself sitting next to a drunk and/or disorderly fellow traveler, which was enough to put me off traveling by bus in Los Angeles permanently.  (In Manhattan I took the train, subway, buses, cabs, and of course also walked almost daily.  So I am not averse to public transportation, just forms of it that don’t work well. I hope we get this up and running soon!

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