April 30, 1993 - From the April, 1993 issue

Whiteson: Land-Use Benefits of Rail Exaggerated

In March 10, several prominent mayoral candidates discussed the prospect of $180 billion being spent on transportation infrastructure in Southern California over the next 30 years. Leon Whiteson navigates through, what he refers it as, the smoggy skies of the discussion.


"Most of the responses to this opportunity (of rail), from mayoral candidates and public officials alike, are fragmentary and incompletely thought-out."

“Utilizing Our Transit Investment to Reshape Los Angeles,” the topic discussed at the March 10th Planning Report Luncheon at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, tapped into one of the popular themes promoted by several prominent mayoral candidates. The prospect of $180 billion being spent on transportation infrastructure in Southern California over the next thirty years has suggested a host of planning strategies and development opportunities for reinventing the L.A. metropolitan region. 

However, as the luncheon discussion revealed, most of the responses to this opportunity, from mayoral candidates and public officials alike, are fragmentary and incompletely thought-out. Everyone wants a piece of the action, but the big picture remains as smoggy as our skies on a midsummer day. 

Economic Capture from Rail 

Consultant Larry Kosmont, the first speaker on the luncheon panel, said that the possibilities for private sector investment were still missing from the transportation program. Private investment, Kosmont suggested, could greatly leverage the program’s public outlay, increasing job-generation and business growth. “We’re talking here of the economic capture of Los Angeles,” he said. 

Emily Gabel, a senior official with the L.A. City Planning Department, countered that the city’s new Citywide General Plan Framework has been radically shaped by the need to integrate future land use and transportation. Over the next thirty years, Gabel said, while the transportation infrastructure was being implemented, the new Plan would encourage the development of mixed-use “urban villages” around stations and major bus routes, featuring low-cost housing and pedestrian amenities. 

However, John Murray, a Board Member of the Rail Construction Corporation and of the City of L.A. Board of Public Works, doubted whether transportation networks invariably spur development in the districts through which they pass. He pointed out that the Long Beach, to downtown L.A. Blue Line has yet to have any real economic impact on areas such as Watts. 

Gerry Hertzberg, a deputy to L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, and an alternate board member of LACTC, also questioned the premise that transportation could really reshape Los Angeles in the socially conscious, fairly distributed fashion seemingly favored by many mayoral candidates and public officials. “Perhaps we could do a lot more to help those districts by improving the bus service,” Hertzberg suggested. “After all, we currently serve 1.2 million bus passengers every day, compared to the 150,00 daily commuters who it is estimated will use the train system when it’s built out to full capacity.”

Mayoral Pitches on Transit 

After Hertzberg, the mayoral candidates or their representatives made their pitches. Candidate Tom Houston, though generally supportive of the 30-year mass-transit program, said he favored “soft” strategies such as four-day weeks, for reducing traffic congestion in the city. 

Cynthia McClain-Hill, speaking for candidate Nick Patsaouras, “The Man With the Plan,” enthused over the new industries in high-tech transportation that the transit infrastructure would encourage, along with a host of new neighborhoods. 

Gini Barrett, candidate Richard Katz’s wife, said that her husband would appoint a slate of deputy mayors to oversee transportation-related issues, and also establish a $1 billion research and development fund for new transportation technology.

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Speaking as a respondent, Pasadena Mayor Rick Cole asked the simple question: “With all this money spent on transportation, will life be better in Los Angeles thirty years from now?” Is spending $180 billion on transportation the best way to use such massive public funding, Cole wondered. 

Just Blowing Smoke? 

In the discussion that followed, the general confusion seemed to thicken rather than clear. Through the fog of talk could be perceived a deep seismic fault between how planners and politicians want to reshape Los Angeles with the tool of transportation, and the actual forces and economic thrust of development that no agency can easily control. 

When Los Angeles was young, the construction of rail lines across vast expanses of undeveloped territory did shape the city, under the control of a handful of powerful land barons. In those simple days the thrust was purely entrepreneurial, driven by private development, free of the social agendas that now weight all public initiatives. 

But the picture is much more complex nowadays. We may all want to see transportation reshape a fairer and more politically correct Los Angeles, but the economic and social realities seem pointed in the opposite direction. Given these realities, we need a plan, or a constellation of strategies, which comes to terms with the way things actually happen, rather than how we think they ought to happen. 

Until the new mayor, whoever he or she may be, and the appropriate public officials grapple with the cruel facts of contemporary Angeleno life, they are all in danger of blowing smoke while Rome burns. 

A Linear City, Not Center 

As a beginning, land use and transportation planners must recognize that L.A. is as much a linear city as a city of centers. That is, linear boulevards, such as Sunset, Wilshire, Central, Western, and La Brea have long been the main arteries pumping L.A.’s economic pulse. The notion of clustering commercial development around transit stations laid out like blips on a string of tracks goes against this fact of life, and is therefore going to have a hard time being implemented without massive public subsidy.

Also, public officials and politicians have to emerge from a cloud of humbug about L.A.’s “cultural diversity.” In fact, Los Angeles has always been a collection of distinct communities rather than a true metropolis, and the need to identify and define neighborhood boundaries is vital if our economy varied population hopes to find an honest way of living together. True common ground springs from a sense of security about one’s own private ground; only then can any citizen reach out to his neighbors with a generous heart.

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