May 30, 2019 - From the May, 2019 issue

LA City Council's Mike Bonin on Transit Equity & SB 50's Affordability Failure

The results of the NextGen Bus Study—a multi-year project by LA Metro to modernize the county's bus system by optimizing routes, providing faster and more reliable service, and fully integrating with other municipal systems serving cities in LA County—were presented to the Metro Board of Directors last month. Councilmember Mike Bonin, who represents many communities in West LA and serves as chair of LA City Council's Transportation Committee, spoke with TPR on how his district is tackling the transit complexities on the Westside. He also provided insight on how blanket upzoning could adversely impact Metro's efforts to develop an equitable, high-quality public transportation network.


Mike Bonin

"If mandatory upzoning were tied to increased bus service, we would see people who are resistant to new development start to push back on new, faster, or more frequent bus service." —Mike Bonin

As chair of LA City Council’s Transportation Committee and a member of the Metro Board, you are heavily involved with public mass transit and with Metro’s NextGen Bus Study. Elaborate on the latter’s multi-year initiative to design a new bus network that is more relevant, reflective of, and attractive to the residents of LA County. 

Mike Bonin: The prism through which I look at my role in transportation is twofold: one, to look out for the passenger, and two, to be an architect of a genuine multimodal network for Los Angeles. Revisioning and updating LA’s bus system has been a high priority for me since well before the NextGen Bus Study began, and even before Phil Washington joined Metro.

When you talk about transportation in Los Angeles, people immediately think of the single-occupancy vehicle. When you talk about mass transit in Los Angeles, people’s minds automatically go to heavy or light rail. But in reality, the workhouse—the core—of Los Angeles’s transportation network is our bus system. It always has been, and I believe it will be for a very long time.

Metro buses see about 895,000 boardings every weekday, and the bulk of people who use our bus system are transit-dependent. Mass transit in Los Angeles will not work without a robust bus system.

What is apparent to anybody who uses the system, however, is that it is out of date. The structure and the routes are decades old—25 years old, to be precise. We’re stuck in the 1990s, and it’s time for a refresher. That means reviewing the principles at the foundation of the system, where the lines go, and how frequently they go, and looking holistically at how we can make a better product for our customers.

Your Westside council district is ground zero for many of the changes taking place in urban ground transportation. As a policy leader on public transportation, speak to how Metro’s proposed Equity Platform could help reverse a decline in LA transit ridership.

There are so many variables in transit right now, all of which create different demands on our work, and we don’t know how some of the dynamics we see today will play out in the long term. It’s hard to predict the exact impact of autonomous vehicles, for example, or to what extent Uber and Lyft will be around if their employees are determined not to be classified as contractors.

As we adapt to new mobility patterns and technologies, the one thing that stays in the forefront of my mind—and that has increasingly become a focus for the Metro Board—is that as a public transit agency, Metro has to be focused on equity. That is the prism through which I look at the NextGen Bus Study: How do we come up with a system that serves as many people as possible? How do we come up with a system that serves the most vulnerable—those who need public transit, who have no other choice but to use it? How do we invest in neighborhoods, communities, populations that we have historically underinvested in?

What makes this challenging is that Metro has yet to put the meat on the bones—that is, the specifics on paper—of their proposed equity lens. We’re trying to apply a framework that we are still developing; it’s like trying to move the cart and the horse simultaneously.

Some municipal bus operators, such as Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus, are doing internal studies of their own networks. How fundamental is it that efforts by the region’s many local operators align with Metro’s NextGen Bus study?

Some of the area’s smaller systems are doing their own updates and studies. Because they’re smaller, they’re more flexible. The Big Blue Bus, for instance, has made frequent and regular adjustments over the six years that I’ve been in office. Metro is a bigger system with a lot more to juggle, so for us, it’s a bigger process.

The fact is that Metro buses, by themselves, are not going to serve everybody. We’ve got about 2,300 buses, and the munis have about 1,500. We need to create an integrated network, and that’s going to take effort.

I’ve always said, even when I was running for office back in 2012-13, that we need to have a Yalta Conference for all the transit operators in Los Angeles. We need everybody to sit down together, look at the same data, and come up with a system that serves us all. To that end, I’ve strongly encouraged Phil Washington and Metro to play the role of convener. We are the big fish; let’s get everybody in the pond so that we can start swimming together.

As LA Metro’s NextGen Bus Study works to revise many of regional bus routes, the California State Legislature is debating land-use bills whose impacts hinge directly on bus transit service. SB 50, for example, if passed, would have superseded local zoning to mandate higher density by right based on proximity to high-frequency bus and rail transit. What impact could future legislation like SB 50 have on LA’s efforts to plan new transit routes?

From the start, a project like the NextGen Bus Study is a big lift; in fact, it’s a series of big lifts. The first big lift is sticking with our criteria: prioritizing the customer perspective, putting equity first, and creating a system that is fast, frequent, reliable, safe, affordable, and convenient—a genuine regional network that serves commute trips as well as local and non-commute trips.

The second big lift is getting the data and public input to support those goals. That’s the phase we are in now. The third big lift is actually making the determinations about which lines are going to be created, which lines are going to be reduced or removed, what their frequency is going to be, and how different systems are going to align.

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This is necessarily going to lead to some tough battles about whether we increase the share of bus funding relative to rail, and how much money we put into each. The politically popular thing with highly engaged voters is rail, not bus, and rail gets a lot of attention from the board. Personally, I’m going to continue to advocate for Metro to have a bigger pie altogether. I don’t want us to be stuck at 7 million service hours; I’d like to see us go bigger.

Regardless, there are also going to be tough conversations about where the bus routes go. Anytime you remove a bus route—even if it’s ultimately to serve a greater number of people—someone is going to be impacted. We saw such a conversation recently when it came to serving the South Bay with the Green Line, and what impact that might have on upcoming Crenshaw operations.

This dynamic would get even more complicated if a bill like SB 50 came into play. If mandatory upzoning were tied to increased bus service, we would see people who are resistant to new development start to push back on new, faster, or more frequent bus service. It’s one thing to have people object to removing bus service from their neighborhood; it would be another thing entirely to have groups objecting to additional bus service in their neighborhoods. That complicates the political discussion—and frankly, it also complicates the equity discussion.

The bulk of Metro’s bus passengers are lower-income people who need the bus to get from Point A to Point B. That means that we may need to increase the frequency of some lines or create more lines to different parts of Los Angeles, including affluent areas. It would be problematic to our equity imperative if we started to see people in wealthier neighborhoods push back against bus service because they didn’t want the density associated with it.

You are on record as advocate for more affordable housing; you are also on record as opposed to Senator Wiener's SB 50. Elaborate on your reasoning.

It complicates things considerably, to be honest. I’m an advocate for more affordable housing, and I’m an advocate for increased mass transit, including and in particular bus service. Each of these on its own is a complicated conversation in my part of town. They become more complicated when they intersect in the particular way that they do under Wiener’s bill.

I’m on the record as opposing SB 50. One of my main concerns is that I think it gives away too much in exchange for too little. The bill doesn’t provide enough affordable housing, and that unfortunately gives some merit to the argument that density increases traffic. The idea of putting density near transit is that, if there’s affordable housing there, people who live in the affordable housing will use the transit instead of driving. I don’t think that’s what we’re going to get as a result of this bill.

In the May issue of The Planning Report, architect Gerhard Mayer asserts that Los Angeles must switch to an urban rather than a suburban paradigm in order to achieve “positive density.” What is the problem with our current paradigm that leads the public to see more density as a negative rather than a positive? 

There are many different answers to this, depending on the city and the neighborhood. In my part of town, traffic is always among people’s top three concerns about new development.

Ironically, one reason the Westside has so much traffic is that we don’t have enough housing; we have a jobs-housing imbalance, resulting in more people driving to and from the area than actually live here. We need more housing on the Westside. But because people consistently see luxury housing, and not workforce or affordable housing, they believe that what they are going to get with density is more traffic and not less.

I don’t think by-right density bills will have an easy time with the public, or achieve what they set out to achieve, unless they include or are approved in parallel with other actions that preserve and incentivize affordable and workforce housing. This is why, when we did the Expo Transit Neighborhood Plan, I favored more density in my council district, but one change I made was to raise the affordability requirement and increase the footprint to allow more affordable housing.

Do you think local governments, like Los Angeles or its neighboring cities, are incapable of planning their own cities to meet public demand for both more affordable housing and neighborhood livability?

No, I don’t; I think Sacramento is incapable of doing that. The proper role of Sacramento is not to be the zoning administrator for cities. It is to set housing goals for the state of California, set requirements for cities and counties, and then allow us to do whatever we need to do to meet them. If we do not meet them, then the state should impose consequences. But a one-size-fits-all solution from Sacramento on down doesn’t work. 

Lastly, how do you explain the relative silence of Southern California’s local and state representatives and city planners on the impacts to Los Angeles communities that could arise from supplanting city authority with state power over zoning, planning, and land use?

It’s always hard for us in Los Angeles to figure out what the conversation is in Sacramento, but I heard about SB 50 from my elected officials pretty much everywhere I go. My state senator, Ben Allen, was clear about his opposition to the bill; he agrees with the objective but thinks the particulars are wrong. Autumn Burke was a co-author but removed her name, and Richard Bloom is a consistent force and voice on housing.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.