Happening Now

Building Transit Right, in the Heart of America’s Car Culture

December 18, 2013

Written By Sean Jeans Gail

Smart transportation advocates often find themselves fighting against the “build it, and they will come” trope: the proposition that high ridership and real estate development will always result from the construction of new transit service. It is an idea that masks the hard planning work that underlies all successful transit systems, and is often used by anti-transit groups to paint smart growth advocates as idealists whose notions have little relation to reality.

The reason “built it, and they will come” has such staying power is that it often seems like such a good description of the way transportation projects play out. With so much pent up demand for transit in the U.S. it’s easy to forget that each project must be judged on its own merits, because the vast majority of transit projects have such a tremendous impact on the communities they serve. Look no further then the study released yesterday examining the effect that Los Angeles County Metro’s Exposition Line.

Undertaken by researchers from the University of Southern California, the study looks at the Expo light rail line, runs 8.7 miles from downtown Los Angeles westward to Culver City. The line only began operating in 2012, but researchers discovered compelling statistics about the impact the line has had on transportation patterns for nearby residents, lowering the average miles traveled by 10 to 12 miles each day.

The Los Angeles Times provides an inside look into how this is affecting individuals:

The Metro Expo Line was already under construction when Ryan Vincent started house-hunting. His goal: to live within walking distance of a light-rail station.

"Every house I looked at, I was doing the mental calculus," Vincent, 39, said. "Would I be willing to walk from that address to the train?"

He settled with his girlfriend and his dog in a Spanish-style home in West Adams, two blocks from the Farmdale Station. Since then, his Honda Civic hybrid has mostly sat unused.

The small changes Vincent made in his daily life, including finding a doctor and a dentist with offices near a train stop, mirror the behavior of many households living near the Expo Line, according to a USC study released Monday.

After the light-rail line opened, Angelenos who lived within a half-mile of a station tripled their rail ridership and reduced their daily driving by 40%, the study found.

Households served by the light rail line also produced 30 percent less CO2 emissions, and got more exercise then the control households. Keep in mind, this is in Los Angeles. The ancestral home of American car culture. It’s an important reminder that the public is ahead of the politicians on the need for more trains and transit.

USC’s researchers also deserve credit. This study will not only help build the case for more transit, but gives planners the data they need to build better transit systems, more efficiently. It is clear that the momentum of history is on the side of passenger rail, but as projects continue to be built, at some point the lowest hanging fruit will all be gone. In an era of constrained fiscal resources, it is extremely important to know that you are maximizing public benefit for your public investment dollars.

It can’t just be “build it, and they will come.” But a body of research is growing that shows if we build it right, the people are ready.