Looped: A Downtown Streetcar Isn't Transit

Sometimes, you can have too much of a good thing. A case in point is a downtown streetcar.

Cute and nostalgic - maybe a double-decker, like the one at The Grove - a trolley on a 3-to-5-mile loop from the Disney Concert Hall to LA Live via Broadway has enthusiastic backers already on board. (Among them are the billionaires at either end of the circuit: Eli Broad and Phil Anschutz.)

Rail advocates and downtown boosters see more progress for the city's revitalized historic core. Contractors and their lobbyists see a $140 million construction project payday. Council Member Jose Huizar sees the happy political benefits. Building owners see the potential for juicing property values and rents. (But some are skeptical; $50 million to $60 million in construction costs will come from assessments on property owners).

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The rest of us may have a harder time seeing the point.

The point doesn't seem to be improved mobility. Downtown already has the region's densest transit network: Metro's local and rapid services, other municipal commuter lines, the city's DASH buses, Blue Line light rail, and the Red and Purple subway lines. When the Regional Connector beneath downtown is completed in 2020, more stations on that spur will expand access to the subway system.

There are so many choices and so many modes in the same neighborhood that some transit users find the tangle confusing.

According to critics, the addition of a streetcar doesn't rationalize this network; it adds another, very specialized layer with unique rolling stock and estimated operating costs of $5.3 million to $6.9 million a year. (Some critics fear that the streetcar may cannibalize passengers and operating subsidies from existing services, potentially reducing transit options rather then increasing them.)

In fact, the point doesn't seem to be transit at all. The current streetcar plan is a single-track, one-direction loop that would compel riders to travel from north to south and back again to get from one side of the loop to the other. As Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic points out:

People on Broadway would have to go south, then west, then north - just to get to the center of downtown. And people at L.A. Live, where a new football (stadium) is planned near Pico station, would have to go north, then east, then south - just to get to Broadway. That is out-of-the-way thinking that does not address the travel needs of most people. Unsurprisingly, similar one-way transit loops in other cities have had difficulty attracting ridership.

But some occasional riders would benefit (to the benefit of some businesses and institutions along the right-of-way). Tourists and conventioneers could ride the trolley as a convenient and low-cost way to go from the sell-scape of LA Live/Staples Center/Farmers Field to the culture-scape of the Broad Museum/MOCA/Disney Hall.

And that does seem to be the point. It's not a bad point, just not the one all the trolley talk is about.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user Brandon Doran. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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Mr. Waldie, did you do any amount of research before posting this misinformed blogpost? First of all, it's a streetcar, not a trolley. Second: "Cute and nostalgic - maybe a double-decker, like the one at The Grove" Seriously? That is not at all what is being proposed. Third, you criticize it for being a a single-track, one-direction loop, when if you take a look at modern streetcar projects in any city in the U.S. (perhaps the world) you will see this is the current best practice for creating walkable couplets between streetcar rails in urban environments. Had the esteemed Mr. Yonah Mr. Freemark seen the ridership projections for this streetcar before concluding it would have a hard time attracting ridership in his misguided missive? Did you bother to do that research before propagating his misinformed opinion?

Both you and Mr. Freemark seem to have been so anxious to post something negative about a project that has earned rather widespread support (not only from billionaires, but from regular working class Downtown residents like myself) that you have misrepresented not only the project but its intents, purposes and projections. That's not only irresponsible, it's disappointing because we simply expect more of you.

For those who want to know what the project is really about, and why it's really being done, and what it will really do downtown, watch this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h5C65fZLwg8

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DJ, I loved your book about Lakewood, but I think your knowledge of transit is also stuck in the 1950's. The Streetcar would connect the Broadway Corridor with Metro Stations at either end...and hopefully Union Station. The Downtown "Bus Network" is a confusing maze or routes and stops that can confuse even the experienced rider. The Streetcar would simplify all that and provide a catalyst for development at stops. I suggest you visit Protland OR or Seattle WA to see how it works.

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I have read that Mr. Waldie is a regular transit rider, and I think this knowledge shows in his look at streetcars proposed for downtown. The city core is exceptionally well served by many MTA bus routes, by LADOT and, of course, by rail services. Streetcars may appeal to tourists, and I think some portion of their cost could be justified for that reason. But they're just not needed to get folks around in the city core.