Can a transit line transform South Los Angeles?

By Anita Little

In the opening scene of the film Crash, one of the characters laments on how there is “no sense of touch” in Los Angeles. “In L.A. nobody touches you, we’re always behind this metal and this glass.”

The prevalence of driving in Los Angeles is one of its most identifying characteristics. Everyone here drives and in order to survive in the City of Angels, you need wheels to be your wings.

However, some low-income and minority segments of Los Angeles do not own cars. For decades, this has denied them access to goods and employment in other parts of the city. City planners and urban advocates have pushed for the development of more viable mass transit in Los Angeles and with the building of the Crenshaw Light Rail, disenfranchised communities are now on the verge of greater mobility and, perhaps, an enhanced quality of life.

At a relatively short 8.5 miles, each one of the route’s miles carries high expectations that go beyond simply providing people transit options.

“It will have long-term impacts on the community including improved accessibility to other parts of Los Angeles and a connection to the rest of the transportation network,” said Roderick Diaz, the Metropolitan Transit Authority senior planner for the light rail construction. “People who formerly couldn’t get to where jobs are will be able to reach those places and also have better access to recreation and possibility better health care through the new line.”

The Crenshaw Light Rail would run along Crenshaw Boulevard and connect with the already-existing Metro Green Line and the Expo Line. The rail is only one arm of the city’s master plan to make Los Angeles’ public transportation more cohesive. Though it will significantly benefit the neighborhoods and cities south of downtown specifically, this rail can affect everyone, according to Diaz.

“There is no one beneficiary to this new transit corridor,” said Diaz. “Communities in South Los Angeles and Inglewood, commuters trying to get to work without dealing with traffic, people trying to get downtown, to the West Side, to the South Bay, to LAX[...] This rail will mean a lot of things to a lot of people.”

The light rail is being primarily funded through Measure R, a voter-backed $40 billion initiative to fund traffic relief and aid transportation upgrades and also through an anticipated $20 million loan from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The Crenshaw Light Rail costs $1.7 billion and will stretch from the Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw area to Los Angeles International Airport. The high-price tag project faced fierce opposition from city planners who felt a Crenshaw bus line instead of a rail line would be more cost-effective.

“The rail was chosen as opposed to a less expensive bus option because of the connection it would make to other rail lines and the synergy it would have with the airport connection,” said Diaz in response to detractors. “More bus lines wouldn’t be as time-saving.”

The new transit corridor, a vision conceived shortly after the city’s 1992 riots as a way to serve transit-dependent residents in South Los Angeles, was the result of a nearly 20-year effort by urban advocacy groups like the Los Angeles Urban League, the South Los Angeles Neighborhood Council and the Urban Land Institute of Los Angeles.
View Map of Crenshaw Light Rail by Anita Little in a larger map

The project was then picked up city officials after studies found that there was a substantial loss to the Los Angeles economy stemming from the geographic mismatch between where jobs were available and where the unemployed or underemployed lived. The light rail has the potential to increase employment by putting people where the jobs are. Despite these studies, some experts doubt the Crenshaw Light Rail will ever live up to the lofty expectations set by the MTA and advocacy groups.

“There is no evidence that these system do anything for the community. The Blue Line, Green Line and Gold Line light rails have been in operation in L.A. for some years, and I’ve seen very little in the way of serious development impacts,” said Dr. Peter Gordon, a professor at the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development and an expert on urban economics.

“These systems are hugely expensive, and MTA has been shutting down bus service to pay for these rails. As a result, we barely have as many transit riders today as we had back in 1985. Could it be any worse?”

In the face of criticism, the project has still been funded and approved and is now in a stage of environmental review, meaning that the MTA is doing a full environmental analysis of the upcoming project to ascertain what impact the construction could have on the surrounding community. Once the review stage is over, the MTA can break ground on the new line, which most likely will occur in late 2011.

“It’s part of a broad approach to increasing quality of life in South Los Angeles and stabilizing communities,” said Carolyn Hull, the South Los Angeles regional administrator for the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles.

“Over the next twenty years, South Los Angeles will have a completely different transportation system. The light rail will allow people in communities without cars to connect and turn South Los Angeles into a more walkable community.”

Just the mere construction of the rail will create more than 7,800 jobs, according to the MTA; officials expect even more job creation as a result of the economic boost the rail will provide.

“Not only will it create jobs and provide long-term accessibility along with new opportunities for people to get around, it will continue to be an economic asset after its completion,” said Diaz, who studied urban planning and transportation efficiency at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Projections show that additional development would also accompany the new lines. Residential and commercial development occurred along other lines like the Hollywood line and we expect a similar effect here.”

The new rail has a projected completion date of early 2016, and MTA officials expect an initial ridership of 13,000 to 16,000 people a day. The ultimate goal is increased mobility in South Los Angeles; some residents expect that will happen.

“It has the power to make my life easier and the lives of my neighbors easier,” said Danita Blanco, a hairdresser with no car access who lives in Greater Crenshaw with her five-year-old son, De’Ante.  “I’ll have more choice of where I want to work, what food I want to buy and where I want my son to play. He needs to know a world exists beyond this block.”

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2 Responses to Can a transit line transform South Los Angeles?

  1. LAofAnaheim says:

    I guess Peter Gordon hasn’t seen how Downtown Long Beach has been transformed to a much safer and liveable neighborhood with the arrival of the Blue Line. Coincidence? What about downtown LA and how it now has bustling neighborhoods and residents..with the Red, Purple, Blue, Expo and Gold Lines over last 20 years. Coincidence? What about the emergence of South Pasadena and Old Town Pasadena’s growth (60,000 + riders at Rose Bowl time) with the Gold Line. Coincidence?

    Neighborhoods have transformed for the better with the advent of Metro Rail, not worse. Peter Gordon is just using “talking points” without substance.

  2. Carlton Glüb says:

    I think the crux of Gordon’s argument is that development and communities don’t happen automatically with the presence of rail.

    Some communities, say, along the Blue Line still have systemic problems — poverty, fear of crime, unpleasant places to walk — that limit what infrastructure investments can do on their own.

    A key to making sure Crenshaw is effective is to make sure that simultaneous investments are made in the community to enhance its character — through street trees, public furniture, etc. — that will draw people out into the public sphere and to the new public transit infrastructure.