L.A. Breaks Driving Addiction as Bike-Train Commutes Grow

Los Angeles embodied America’s love affair with the automobile in the last century. In this one it’s trying to kick the car to the curb.

The city that put drive-thru restaurants on the map has doubled its network of bike lanes to 292 miles (470 kilometers) and expanded light rail by 26 percent in the past eight years, with another 18 miles of track coming by 2015. Bus and train ridership is on the rise, while the total number of passenger cars registered has declined in Los Angeles County -- evidence more commuters are breaking their dependence.

“I feel pretty spoiled by the transit system in L.A.,” said Madeline Brozen, a 26-year-old transplant from New Orleans who uses a bicycle and buses to make a 12-mile trek from the Los Feliz neighborhood to the University of California, Los Angeles in Westwood, where she researches urban transportation.

The one-family car Americans grew up with, combustion-engined and gasoline-powered, is under assault from an array of options: electric cars, hybrids and alternatives like bikes, light-rail and car-sharing plans such as the one operated by Avis Budget Group Inc.’s Zipcar Inc. Los Angeles, the largest market in the biggest U.S. state for vehicle sales, could be the ultimate test of the conventional car’s future.

Shrinking Allegiance

“The next 10 years will be as important to the auto industry and transportation literally as the invention of the Model T,” Scott Griffith, former chief executive officer of Zipcar and a strategic adviser to the company, said at the Bloomberg Link Next Big Thing Summit in Half Moon Bay, California, on June 17. “We’re now on the edge of all these new business models coming along and the intersection of information and the car and transportation. If you look out 10 years, I think we’re going to see a huge change, particularly in cities.”

While the new-car market has rebounded from the recession, Los Angeles County had 28,000 fewer passenger cars registered in 2012 than five years earlier, according to California Department of Motor Vehicles data. Boardings on the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s buses and trains increased 4.7 percent to 41.3 million in May 2013, compared with May 2011.

Authority officials plan to spend $14 billion to accelerate that shift. A shrinking allegiance to cars in the region, where a two-car garage and freeway gridlock are a given for many commuters, would present challenges to automakers if it took hold.

Toyota, Honda

Americans are on pace to buy at least 15 million new cars and light trucks this year for the first time since 2007, led by General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp.

Toyota, Honda Motor Co. and Ford have the most at risk if drivers in Los Angeles decide to park their cars. Combined, the three accounted for almost half the new cars and trucks sold in California in the first quarter, led by Toyota, with 21.4 percent and its top-selling Prius hybrid, according to the California New Car Dealers Association.

Honda’s sales are rising in Los Angeles County, Robyn Eagles, a spokeswoman for the automaker’s Torrance, California-based U.S. unit, said in a phone interview. The company offers alternative-fuel and fuel-efficient cars including the natural gas Civic, plug-in Accord and Fit EV, she said.

“We want to provide Angelenos with a range of options,” Eagles said. “There will always be a need for cars here.”

Traffic Jams

Angelenos have been among the most car-dependent U.S. commuters, with 67 percent getting to their jobs driving alone in 2009, compared with 24 percent for New York and 51 percent for Chicago, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Detroit, home of the U.S. auto industry, the figure was 71 percent.

The region’s notorious traffic endures. Los Angeles had the longest congestion-related delays in the U.S. in April, according to Inrix Inc.’s scorecard, with the average driver wasting 5.2 hours, up from 4.5 hours in April 2012.

Los Angeles’ aim is go partway back to the future, 50 years after transit authorities ripped out the last line of the Red Car network of electrified streetcars that once rolled along more than 1,000 miles of tracks in four counties. A mass transit system that comprehensive would be prohibitively expensive today in a city that covers 469 square miles (1,215 square kilometers), about 55 percent more than New York’s five boroughs.

Under outgoing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who accelerated funding for light rail and subway systems, Los Angeles is working to reach almost 115 miles of track, from the current 88 miles, by 2036.

New Identity

The city’s sprawl will prevent mass transit from completely replacing cars, said Villaraigosa’s transportation director, Jaime de la Vega.

“More people will choose to take transit because it’s either more economical or it’s faster,” de la Vega said in an interview. “In a lot of cases, people are still going to take cars.”

Villaraigosa, a 60-year-old Democrat elected in 2005, championed a 2008 ballot measure that raised sales taxes in Los Angeles County by half a percentage point for 30 years, with the projected $40 billion in proceeds earmarked for rail lines, expanded rapid bus service, widening highways and adding carpool lanes. Twenty percent of the revenue was devoted to highways, with the largest share, 35 percent, for rail and bus rapid-transit lines.

“Los Angeles in the eyes of people outside of L.A. has always been 72 suburbs in search of a city, very much an automobile-driven place,” said Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, associate dean of the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA. “I don’t think we can see Los Angeles as a solely auto-centric city.”

Bike Sharing

The city has become more accommodating to bicyclists, adding bike lanes and reminding drivers they must share the road with riders. Los Angeles is making plans for a bike-share program similar to New York’s Citi Bike, the network inaugurated last month in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Privately held Bike Nation USA last year announced plans for bike sharing in Los Angeles, beginning downtown this year, with as many as 4,000 bicycles eventually. The program is looking for a corporate sponsor, Derek Fretheim, chief operating officer of the Tustin, California-based company told the website Curbed LA last week.

‘Bumming Rides’

The changes are making it easier for two-wheeled commuters like Brozen, who studies urban mobility as director of the Complete Streets Initiative at UCLA, and Mehmet Berker to bridge the gaps between bus and rail systems.

Berker, a 27-year-old graphic designer, sold his car after moving from Minneapolis. He said he rides his bike, takes the subway and bus, asks for rides from friends and uses Zipcar’s short-term car rentals.

“It’s sometimes a matter of bumming a ride,” he said, “and sometimes, it’s just impossible.”

Villaraigosa, whose two terms in office end June 30, leaves behind a city partially reshaped by his bus and bike initiatives, with the potential for a denser, more developed urban core. He envisions extending the current subway on Wilshire Boulevard west to the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, although current plans have the route terminating near UCLA. The city also plans to extend a light-rail line to Los Angeles International Airport within the next decade.

Red Cars

As Los Angeles continues to develop its public-transit lines, builders, business owners and investors will be enticed to areas near transit stations for development opportunities, said Robert Cervero, a professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California, Berkeley.

“L.A. pioneered intra-urban rail in the U.S. with its Red Car lines more than a century ago and, in my opinion, is poised to shed its auto-centric identity and become a more balanced, multimodal, transit-friendly city,” Cervero said in an e-mail.

The city tore out its Red Car network of electrified streetcars in the mid-20th century as cars became ascendant after the 1940 opening of the Arroyo Seco Parkway, the first freeway in the western U.S.

Since then, Southern California’s growth patterns have frustrated large-scale public transit, said Joel Kotkin, a fellow in urban futures at Chapman University in Orange, California, who has lived in Los Angeles since 1975.

The region’s current transit push isn’t likely to change how people get around, Kotkin said by telephone. He said public-works contractors and retail and housing developers are leading the drive for new transit lines, seeing profit building rail lines and stations and apartments and stores near them.

‘Not Paris’

“The DNA of this city is just not that,” Kotkin said. “You couldn’t conceivably build enough subway lines to make it work. L.A. is not going to be Paris. You could densify it and maybe get Tehran.”

Northeast of downtown, residents and store owners are protesting plans to restripe road lanes to make room for bicycles, saying the loss of car lanes will worsen congestion. De la Vega said city officials are receptive to their concerns and could return new bike lanes to cars if they’re shown to significantly add to congestion.

The city of Beverly Hills, its school district and residents are fighting a Metropolitan Transit Authority plan to tunnel below Beverly Hills High School, which would allow the subway to reach Westwood. Both the city and the district have sued the Federal Transit Administration to block funding for the project.

Los Angeles’ incoming mayor, Eric Garcetti, who supported rail and bike-lane expansion as a city council member, said he will carry forward Villaraigosa’s transit philosophy when he takes office next month.

“I will continue expanding rail and will also focus on local connectors that bridge the gaps between people’s homes and main lines,” Garcetti said in an e-mailed statement. “There is no silver bullet to addressing traffic. We must pursue a comprehensive approach.”

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