The Capital of Car Culture, Los Angeles Warms to Mass Transit

An extension of the Los Angles Expo line makes it possible to go from downtown to the Santa Monica beach by train, escaping a drive that could take two hours.

LOS ANGELES — When the extension of the Expo rail line opened here in May, it was almost as if the city had stepped into another century. Suddenly, it was possible to go from downtown to the Santa Monica beach by train, escaping a drive that could take two hours. The inaugural runs were packed with people, carrying beach chairs and recording the 15-mile, 45-minute long ride with cellphones.

The $1.5 billion, aboveground Expo project is not the only piece of the transit transformation unfolding here. An 11.5-mile extension of the Gold Line, running from Pasadena to Asuza, just northeast of downtown, opened this spring. If not as glamorous as a train to the Pacific Ocean, it was certainly appreciated by people in the San Gabriel Valley, who otherwise have to navigate the traffic of Interstate 210.

And all of that is likely to be dwarfed by an initiative that is expected to go before the voters in November, pending a final vote by the county Board of Supervisors, that would impose a countywide 1-cent transit sales tax, raising $860 million a year. The tax would finance 40 major transit projects over the next 40 years, including 100 miles of new rail lines and what has been a touchstone for mass transit advocates (and frustrated commuters) for decades: A train tunnel under the Sepulveda Pass, connecting the Los Angeles basin with the San Fernando Valley.

There may be no part of America more identified, for better and for worse, with the automobile than this city. But this burst of activity, and the considerable interest it has stirred here, suggests that a fundamental reconsideration of Los Angeles may be at hand, a shift to an era when mass transit — subways, light rail, buses — could be as central to getting around, and perhaps even to this region’s image, as the car.

“For the car capital of America, if not the world, this is a bold new chapter,” said Eric M. Garcetti, the mayor, who has been pushing the sales tax measure. “It doesn’t ignore cars. But it really builds out a mass transit network that gets you from Point A to Point B.”

“New York has opened one new station in the past five years,” said Mr. Garcetti, a Democrat. “We opened a dozen. We have a lot of catching up to do. But we are finally saying we are going to do it.”

Brian D. Taylor, the director for the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, noted the attention received by what was in the end a modest expansion: 13 new stations along the Expo and Gold lines. “In incremental terms, these new lines aren’t revolutionary,” he said. “They are more revolutionary in symbolic terms. They are a very public and specific commitment to spending on public transit.”

The obstacles are considerable, starting with the sheer size of Los Angeles County — a collection of 88 cities scattered over 4,000 square miles.

“L.A. transit rarely takes you into the center of where you need to go,” said Brigham Yen, a blogger who charts development in downtown Los Angeles and calls himself a fan of mass transit. “There’s not enough walkability related to the transit to feed that system. That’s L.A.’s problem. It’s just a giant sprawl of suburban areas that depends on cars to get around.”

Still, this region has never tried anything quite this ambitious. And while drivers here have long revered their cars, for every Jan-and-Dean moment of rolling up the Pacific Coast Highway, sun glistening off the waves, there is the punishing attempt to cross town on Wilshire Boulevard at rush hour. There is reason to think that what once might have seemed implausible could happen.

“We want to once and for all solve the transportation infrastructure challenges in Southern California,” said Phillip A. Washington, the head the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “It’s a big challenge. Los Angeles is the car capital of the county. And it’s getting worse with 2.3 million more people expected in the county in the next 40 years. The roads are not built to accommodate the influx of people.”

There are signs of interest. Downtown is bustling with development, filled with people who make a life without cars, relying on walking, bicycles and mass transit. The city’s last mayor, Antonio R. Villaraigosa, also championed mass transit, passing a half-cent transit sales tax increase and pushing for an ambitious housing development now rising along a subway that runs under Hollywood Boulevard.

Dan Goldberg, 46, a film marketing executive who moved from New York a year ago, lives here without a car, commuting from his apartment in downtown to his office on Sunset Boulevard on the Red Line. He did not have a car when he lived in New York and said he does not miss having one here, even given the limitations of the mass transit system.

“I take the subway every day to work because it’s extremely convenient,” he said. “The subway to the beach is just an amazing new addition, which I’ve been taking every weekend.

“I think one can credibly have a Los Angeles existence without a car,” Mr. Goldberg said. “It’s entirely possible. The train system is very modern. It feels very well-run and efficient, certainly compared to New York. It’s a credible existence in Los Angeles, if not the most convenient.”

Under California law, a tax initiative needs the support of two-thirds of voters to win. Mr. Garcetti said he would make campaigning for it a top priority this fall; its prospects of passing are enhanced, city officials said, because it will be on the ballot during a high-turnout presidential campaign.

Mr. Taylor said the importance of mass transit had long been underestimated here. Ridership here is the second-highest in the nation. And on a per-capita basis, people in Nashville and Houston drive more miles a day than people in Los Angeles. There are now 105 miles of rail, drawing 1.5 million riders a day.

“The thing to understand about public transit in the U.S. is there is metropolitan New York and there is everything else,” he said. “So that influences what everyone thinks the base line is.”

The latest additions to the system are far from perfect. There is hardly any parking at the new station stops for people who want to drive from their homes to the train; part of the reason for that is the idea that development will cluster along the lines, but part was to save money. Because the train runs at grade and has to stop at red lights, again to save money, it can take as long to get from downtown to the beach as making the trip by car.

“I wish this were a happy column about the advance of California public transit,” Joe Mathews, a columnist for Zócalo Public Square who has been commuting from Pasadena to Santa Monica, reported in a glum dispatch. “I wish I could report that my own life is better now that I ride the brand-new Metro Expo Line extension to work in Santa Monica. And I wish I could validate all the triumphant talk of the great metropolis of Los Angeles becoming a fabulous train town again.

“But I was unprepared for just how slow — and painful — a commute via light rail could be,” he said.

Mr. Washington, who came here from a similar job in Denver, acknowledged the obstacles. But he said he expected that within 20 years, 25 percent of the population here would be using mass transit, compared with about 7 percent of the population now. “That’s taking a hell of a lot of cars off the road,” he said

“It’s going to be a cultural shift out here in the West,” he said. “It will take a while for Denver, Los Angeles, to develop the culture. But that is coming.”

Denny Zane, the executive director of Move LA, a transit advocacy group, said he thought that the changes would permanently alter the city.

“It’s truly transformational,” he said. “It doesn’t mean freeways and highways will become obsolete, not at all. But we will be seeing a gradual shift to transit over the next 25 years. That’s not very long.”

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