“This Is the Tipping Point”

Santa Monica

By Anne Branigin

Despite the overwhelming midday heat, Woodie Hamilton is perfectly at ease on the 534 bus to Santa Monica. Wearing an undershirt and work slacks, he casually greets other riders and lays down his laptop bag on the floor, his collared shirt and tie hanging on the handrails above him.

This is his daily commute, and in a town where cars are king, Hamilton hasn't driven a car regularly since 1996. With the upcoming expansion of the Expo Line to Santa Monica, he isn't planning on getting behind the wheel any time soon.

"Without question, I'm looking forward to the Metro Line," said Hamilton, who lives in Baldwin Hills. "It's going to open up the West Side a lot."

The Santa Monica stop at Colorado and 4th is currently under construction and is the latest in an on-going expansion of Los Angeles' Metro Rail System, a plan that includes extensions to the Expo Line, the Gold Line and the Purple Line, as well as construction of the Regional Connector and Crenshaw Line light rails.

Rick Cole, newly appointed Santa Monica city manager, believes that the Santa Monica expansion is most important in what it symbolizes for the future of Los Angeles.

"This is the tipping point," Cole said. "When [the Santa Monica stop] opens, and when the others open sequentially, you'll be able to go from anywhere in Santa Monica to a lot of places in Southern California, and a lot of Southern California will be able to get to Santa Monica. That's a new era for Los Angeles."

Although some hesitation exists, many Santa Monica business owners appear to welcome the expansion. Not only could retail businesses bring in a greater amount of customers, but they could potentially diversify their customer base. Businesses that offer professional services may also stand to win by widening their employee pool, attracting workers who were either unwilling or unable to make the commute into Santa Monica previously.

Santa Monica Responds to Expo

Audio piece by Michael Radcliffe.

Business

Audio piece by Michael Radcliffe.

Residents

For Hamilton, who runs his own marketing firm, the Expo Line doesn't just present a faster way to work, but opens up a major business opportunity.

"Our marketing initiative is called 'TriCityAlliance,' where we're working with businesses in downtown Los Angeles, Culver City and Santa Monica to create a reciprocating partnership between businesses along that corridor where they can cross-market," Hamilton said.

"There's going to be a lot of opportunities to do ... increase economic dollars from that region if there's a collective voice, if there's a centralized voice," Hamilton explains. "That's another reason I ride Expo, because I see that solution."

However, the line has raised several concerns among the area's residents.

Santa Monica already bears the marks of a booming tourist industry: from its 3rd Street Promenade one can easily locate luggage stores, daily bike rentals and foreign exchanges. Many in the area feel that the line expansion will bring in even more tourists, and with that, even more congestion.

But Cole says even without the threat of additional tourists, Santa Monica residents can expect the expansion to bring "direct, tangible, adverse effects."

"It will make auto traffic north-south in the city —— which is already pretty terrible —— even worse," Cole said.

Furthermore, he notes, there will be shortages in parking in the "more urbanized areas" and will introduce a greater potential for pedestrian injury and vehicular collisions.

Even with these challenges, one can find Santa Monica residents who are optimistic about what's to come.

"It would be nice to have more ways out of the West Side, more efficient ways, because the Big Blue Bus is kind of a mess, so that'll be great —— if it works," says Tanya Merriman, a Santa Monica resident and professor at the University of Southern California.

Cole noted that the Santa Monica extension is not a panacea for the "near-gridlock levels" of congestion on the West Side, but it's significant in the potential it creates.

"The train is just one dimension of the mobility options," Cole said.

But it's a change that could signal a fundamental shift in the way the city approaches transportation.

"It's the biggest change in transportation since the 10 Freeway opened in 1965," Cole said. "It's the spine around which we will build a range of mobility options beyond auto-dependency for the vast majority of residents."

Transportation in the "Third L.A."

Union Station

By Brian Welk
Video piece by Brian Welk

The Los Angeles Metro Rail system is currently celebrating its 25th Anniversary. And yet, Metro is in its relative infancy compared to the other public transportation systems of the world. New York and Chicago are over a hundred years old, and in the last century, their rail systems grew along with the cities.

Santa Monica City Manager Cole knows why Los Angeles has evolved so differently.

"In our case, we're overlaying a system on a city that was not designed over the last 50 years of development for transit," Cole said. "There's certain timeless principles of mobility and city-making that were ignored, discarded or flouted during this 75-year era of auto supremacy."

While L.A. County's transit system may still be dwarfed by New York's, Mobility Plan 2035, a comprehensive transportation overhaul approved by the Los Angeles City Council on August 11, makes L.A.'s new vision for transportation and mobility the largest public works campaign for public transit in the nation, if not the world. It's a period Cole refers to as "The Third Los Angeles."

"What's now dawning is the next shift in gears of a different paradigm, a different model, scenario and a new era in which transportation is changing and will change how we build and live in the city," Cole said.

As part of Mobility Plan 2035, Los Angeles now has five mass-transit rail projects undergoing construction across the county:

Rick Jager, Metro's communications manager, says the mobility plan is expected to generate $35 billion over the next 30 years toward the development of mass transit projects. Over the previous 35 years, voters have passed on three separate occasions measures that would increase their taxes in order to fund public transit improvements.

"They want a transit system. They want it to work, they want it to be efficient, they want it to be easy, and they want it to be seamless," Jager said.

For the people of LA County, that doesn't stop at trains, but also means more bus lines, new bike lanes, and express and bus lanes on the freeways. Metro is aiming for a "multi-modal" approach to transportation, such that the distance between bus stops and train depots will be minimized.

According to Jeremy Stutes, chairman and president of the public transit advocacy group RailLA, people who live within a quarter mile of any form of public transportation are significantly more likely to use it.

"As we look at what best-planning practices are in cities around the world, a complete streets initiative is incredibly important for the future of Los Angeles. This is not something new," Stutes said. "The streets are paid for by everyone, so it's very important that they serve all people who are paying for that system."

According to Jager, 27,000 people were projected to board the Expo Line on an average weekday by 2020. Already in 2015, over 30,000 people daily use the Expo Line to commute. With Phase 2 out to Santa Monica expected to be completed this year, Metro is projecting 64,000 riders daily by 2030, a number Jager believes will be shattered as well. Overall, Metro estimates 1.5 billion riders have been served since 1990, with 1.4 million boarding per day.

And yet the perception remains that Los Angeles is a car town, despite its storied history with the extensive Red Car light rail system. This shift towards the automobile began in 1924, when a coalition of businesses known as the Los Angeles Traffic Commission proposed ordinances designed to change the way people thought about cars. A year later, a traffic ordinance changed the law and psychology of road use, reserving the roads for automobiles rather than pedestrians, making jaywalking illegal and eventually phasing out the red trolley cars entirely.

Stutes of RailLA believes the region's evolving demographic wants little part of the old mythos.

"If you look at the millennial generation, they're less likely to own a home, and they're less interested in owning a home. They're less likely to own a car, and they're less interested in owning a car. There are changes happening in our demographic in which this American Dream that we've been told for generations has played itself out," Stutes said. "That is not the future of our cities anymore, and it's time to break that cycle."

Jager can attest to how drastically the culture is changing. "When I first started working here about 30 years ago, the city at 5:00 or 6:00 was just abandoned. Everyone had left. And now, 30 years later with the resurgence of the rail, L.A. Live and the Staples Center, the city is just hopping," Jager said. "There are lofts, people are moving back downtown. It's become a real city, as opposed to just a place where you come to work and get the heck out."

Jager harbors no illusions that the rail will one day replace the car in Los Angeles, saying that the goal is to offer alternatives that will allow people greater flexibility in their daily commute. And those vocal parties who previously resisted change in Los Angeles are quickly becoming a thing of the past.

"Years ago we did. Not in my backyard, Nimbyism . But today, it's almost like, "I want it, I want it. If they don't want it, I want it," Jager said.

Jager feels the region has neither the infrastructure nor the resources to support additional freeways, only to modify and improve them. This current trend recalls what some urban planners refer to as Los Angeles's "first wave," the period between 1885 and 1939 when the growing city was connected by the Red Car.

"These are ideas that are foreign to the idea on which Los Angeles was built, but originally L.A. was connected by trains," Stutes said. "So it's not that our city can't afford it; it's that our infrastructure needs to undergo big renovations and reconstruction in order to support the vision we have for the future."

"Everything Old is New Again"

Leimert Park

By Anne Branigin

Lydia Pugh makes it a point to know what's going on her neighborhood. So when a new dog started making rounds around the block, Pugh noticed.

Surveying the street with her hands on her hips, Pugh wondered out loud where the dog came from. As a middle-aged woman a newcomer —— to the neighborhood —— rolled by on her bike, Pugh called across to her:

"Is that your dog?"

It wasn't, but since the woman was new to the neighborhood, Pugh took the opportunity to introduce herself.

"Lydia Pugh, ‘66," she said, extending her hand. That's the year she moved into her house on Sutro Ave.

Since 1958, Pugh has been a resident of Leimert Park, a predominantly African-American community in South Los Angeles that is among the oldest in the city, and which has seen a remarkable uptick in real-estate prices in the last several years.

The price surge seems to have ridden in with the new Expo/Crenshaw line. Along with this has come a steady stream of new faces to the neighborhood, many of them young —— and white.

"We have five new white couples that moved over here. It sounds strange to say that, but for me when I moved in here with my parents, it wasn't. You had Japanese, you had black, and you had white," Pugh recalled.

However, as more black families moved into the neighborhood, white families left —— a phenomena Pugh and other longtime Leimert Park residents refer to as "the white flight." But for a resident who's only known the area as an African-American community, this new "white influx," as some residents are calling it, signals a notable change.

Real Estate Agent Star Jasper and her associate, Tiffany Chin, are among the realtors trying to take advantage of the hot market in Leimert Park. For them, this involves daily door-to-door calls through the neighborhood, asking current residents if they are interested in selling their homes.

Jasper believes that the increased flexibility in transportation options that has come with the Metro rail expansion in the area, and its corresponding commercial development, has played a significant role in increasing property values.

"I feel that may have been the biggest tip, which has created that surge … people thinking ‘Oh, this is really going to pop now,'" Jasper said. "They don't have to drive, they're close to the subway. Easier proximity to everything; I think it's big."

Pugh displayed a recent house listing she came across —— a house, she noted, her friend had bought for $19,000. The current listing price now: over $660,000.

The write-up boasted a "Leimert Park Gem," an elegantly remodeled home with marble countertops and floors, recessed lighting, ample storage and hardwood floors. It also noted, in the final sentence, "the close proximity to the Crenshaw/Expo line and the proposed Crenshaw/MLK line provides excellent access to all areas of Los Angeles."

In fact, the opening of the Crenshaw/Expo Line in 2012 appears to coincide with the pricing surge, according to Jasper.

"We've been looking at properties that people have just bought three years ago, and their homes are worth twice what they were bought for," she said.

But Leimert Park could also be viewed as another domino in an on-going chain of displacement. As housing prices rise throughout the city, particularly in Downtown L.A., some residents have been forced to look to other areas in which to live. Young families and artists who would normally live downtown have been "priced-out" of the area, noted Jasper, and are now looking at areas like Leimert Park to settle down.

James Rojas, an urban planner and community activist, observed that this is one of the drawbacks to bringing in a better rail system.

"What's happening now is that rail lines … are a wealth creator. With the Expo Line, all those station sites are now worth millions of dollars," Rojas said. "So a lot of people are going to really support these rail projects because they're going to create wealth for their community."

"Twenty years ago, when we worked on rail projects, it was just trying to get the working poor from point A to point B. Now you have a new situation. You have developers looking at the rails as being a wealth creator for them."

Data from heatmap.silk.co
Real-estate data from Zillow.com. Map by Mengchen Liu

However, this same wealth is accompanied by displacement of lower-income residents, who are pushed further out from the city.

"You see more displacement happening in public transportation with the urban poor," Rojas said. "Go to Washington D.C., all the black (urban poor) are displaced in D.C. because of all the transportation systems," which have increased property values and made them more attractive to newcomers.

"Now all the Millennials want to live in D.C. in these downtown properties, and they're displacing the black culture that was once a big part of D.C."

Pugh shares the concern that African-American families will be priced out of the new homes up for sale. But overall, she remains positive about the changes to the neighborhood, and the possibility of even greater traveling options with the construction of the Crenshaw/MLK line, offering even more opportunities to connect to other areas of the city, and other people.

"We got into the automotive, and it separated us," said Pugh. "When we get into our car, you're all by yourself, and it separates you from everything else. You're into your own thing … But when you get on the train or the bus, it puts you into a different mindset."

That mindset, Pugh said, is more community-oriented. Something she once experienced when she traveled on the city's old rail system, the "Red Car," and a quality that she feels her neighborhood has managed to hold on to despite its recent changes.

"I've lived my life here, met some of the best people. Black people, white people too. My neighbors were Japanese ...I learned how to understand everybody's different culture," Pugh said.

"People that lived here mostly, when it was predominantly black, it's strange for them to see this turning." Pugh explained. "You have to just accept things like that because it's good. People will learn more about each other. And it will also make the kids get on the transportation."

Get On the Bus

Profiles of Local Bus Riders