Moving the Future

Metro Expo Line over the 110 Freeway | Photo: Julie and Steve/Flickr/Creative Commons

A confession: I drove to the South L.A. transit forum last Saturday. This despite the fact I live less than two miles from L.A. Southwest College, where it was being held. I had thought more than once about walking, but the morning drizzle that intensified into a light but steady rain sealed the deal. You know how we are.

Yet I'm always ready to be converted from my car dependency into public transportation. The South L.A. community forum was a good place to start the process. It was sponsored by Move L.A., a pro-transit organization that's trying to expedite the development of rail and other projects all over the county. I was invited there by my friend Jerard Wright, a policy analyst with Move L.A. and a 30-ish graduate of Hamilton High School who got the transit bug early growing up near an Exposition Boulevard right-of-way, and later near USC. His environs sparked his imagination about the possibilities of public transit, he said. That right-of-way is now part of the Expo Line; if Jerard and Move L.A. get their way, we'll have a lot more rail relatively soon -- ten years.

Move L.A. is the broad and somewhat unlikely coalition of elected officials, business interests, environmentalists, and others who came together back in '08 to advocate for Measure R, the landmark county ballot measure that approved a half-cent sales tax for transportation funding. Raising $36 billion over thirty years made it the biggest transit expansion program in the nation, though now Move L.A. is focused on an accelerated "30-10" plan, meaning that it wants to see all 12 Measure-R funded rail lines built in ten years instead of the less ambitious thirty. One of the ways they're trying to fund it is through another county ballot measure R2, slated for 2016.

It all sounds exciting enough, though the rub -- always the rub with big publicly funded projects that cover huge, dense urban areas -- is distributing the resources and vision to where it's needed most. Transportation equity is in some ways no different than education equity. The question is how poor and/or communities of color with the greatest need of public transit and the economic development it potentially brings get in the mix. The Southwest College forum, the first of several, was meant to educate and also solicit input from South L.A. folks about the transit projects coming online, starting with the Crenshaw-to-LAX line now under way. The questions asked were the same ones asked more than 20 years ago when post-'92 redevelopment in South L.A. was all the buzz: What do we need? What would we like to see? When can we see it?

We haven't stopped asking those questions; the prospect of improved transit just frames them differently. One of many things I learned Saturday is that South L.A. has double the number of pedestrians than the rest of the county and far fewer car owners. That's a good thing in one way, but it also speaks to an impoverished landscape that needs more help than transit alone. Malcolm Carson of Community Health Council, who sat on the forum's first panel, made that point. "What we really need is community revitalization," he said, "not just moving from point A to point B."

More than one attendee expressed concern about displacement of residents that can happen when making way for rail and other kinds of transportation projects; the history of our freeways, notably the 105, still live in the minds of many. Then there was the question of just how much improved are the neighborhoods where rail has been running for decades, like Watts. The fact that the Blue Line hasn't turned the poorest part of South L.A. into Beverly Hills isn't feasible, and it isn't transit's fault. Having rail breaks Watts' isolation from the rest of the city in an important way; it quite literally moves L.A. But the link between transit and major community development needy places is still largely missing. Let's just say that transit's role as a development catalyst has yet to be fully exploited.

Move L.A. is looking to change that. Nolan Rollins, head of the L.A. Urban League, reminded everyone that such a change in South L.A. is not optional, but essential. "This is not a conversation about altruism," he said. "It's not about feeling bad for anybody. Policy has to be created for the people. The people invest every day. South L.A. is demanding a return on its investment."

He didn't say it, but I will: public transportation -- good public transportation, built with the needs of people in mind -- is a civil right. Martin Luther King, whose birthday we observe Monday, would likely agree. Next time I come to Southwest College, I'll be walking -- or better yet, I'll be on the bus.