Transportation Segregation: Los Angeles Versus Chicago

If you think Chicago’s public transportation is segregated, the numbers from the comparatively desegregated metropolis of Los Angeles will surprise you. Is it race or class at work? I’d start with parking.

LA bus


On Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome, my favorite comedy album of all time, Maria Bamford describes one of her attempts to be a good person: taking the bus in Los Angeles.

One thing that seems to be really disturbing people is that I’ve started taking the bus.
“Where are you right now?”
“I’m on the bus.”
Oh my God. What happened to your car?”
“It’s fine, I just thought I’d take the bus.”
“Do you need me to pick you up?”
“No… I’m on the bus.”
“Maria… are you okay?”
“I don’t know anymore.”

It’s funny because it’s true. Specifically, because it’s a very oblique joke about something Amanda Hess has a good piece about today at The Atlantic Cities:

Carr deemed this lifestyle shift so significant that she launched a blog, Snob on a Bus, to detail her experiences. When it comes to L.A. bus riders, Carr—a 20-something white woman—is a unicorn. In Los Angeles, 92 percent of bus riders are people of color. Their annual median household income is $12,000. On her blog, Carr cataloged her “WTF moments” with the bus system’s regular ridership.

This is a curious phenomenon. Chicago is a very segregated city, and its public transit system is segregated by areas, but not particularly segregated by form. Los Angeles is comparatively desegregated, yet despite its extensive network of buses, its public transportation is very segregated.

Los Angeles is sort of the Schrodinger’s cat of urban planning. It’s very dense, except it’s not. It has a great transit system:

Of all major metropolitan areas in the country, Los Angeles does the best job of giving people without cars access to public transportation, according to the study. 99.1 percent of no-car households in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana area have access to public transit, a figure bested only by much smaller Honolulu, where 99.3 percent of carless residents have transit access.

Except it doesn’t: “[O]nly 36 percent of zero-vehicle households can get to their place of employment in 90 minutes or less (that figure includes areas not served by Metro).”

The density of Los Angeles is actually pretty interesting. Sometimes you’ll hear that Los Angeles is more dense than New York or Chicago. And that’s true, sort of. On average, it’s more dense. But that density is spread out:

The densities of older cities (New York City, Chicago, and Boston) are essentially bimodal, with a dense, older urban core surrounded by low-density suburbs built up after World War II, although Boston’s curve is oddly flat.  The densities of newer cities are essentially unimodal.  Everyone in LA lives at broadly the same density – it’s no accident even Italo Calvino called it a city without form.

That’s Fedor Mann, writing about what happens when you look at what percentage of the population lives at certain densities. He has an amazing chart that shows how Los Angelenos live in a near perfect density bell curve—a vast number of people live at a narrow, moderate range of density, which is a considerable challenge for public transportation. It’s also a city that essentially doesn’t have an urban core:

One way to size up a CBD as a trip generator is to sum the square footage of built space within a walkable area. Using this measure, Los Angeles has by far the smallest CBD relative to its UZA [urbanized area] population of any major US city. In 1980, when Prop A passed, LA’s CBD was less than one quarter the size one would expect for its population.

Instead, LA has multiple urban centers, what Jarrett Walker calls “a city of cities,” in contrast to Chicago’s city of neighborhoods. Successful public transit in LA would have to connect everyone to everywhere, roughly speaking. It’s a challenge for public transportation to do that well. Jarrett Walker makes a convincing case that LA could be an outstanding city for transit, but it’s a comparatively new city that doesn’t fit older U.S. modes of public transportation. And it’s still unwinding a lot of bad ideas, such as its expensive, confusing system of switching between modes of transportation. If you think the CTA/Metra/Pace situation is frustrating, try LA:

The L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the leading provider of bus and rail service in Southern California, charges $1.25 per trip (it’ll go up to $1.50 in July). You can pay an extra 30 cents to transfer to another provider.

But you can’t get a transfer to switch from one Metro route to another, or from a bus to a subway. Switching from a Metro rapid bus line, say, to a Metro local line will require you to pay the full fare twice.

So you can switch between providers with a cheap transfer, but not between modes on the same provider, unless you have a monthly pass.

What does get everyone everywhere, provided they can afford it, is cars. It helps if there’s parking, and there’s a lot of parking in LA: 0.52 parking spaces per job in the central business district, compared to 0.13 in Chicago and 0.06 in New York City. Spread out over the entire CBD of Los Angeles, its parking would cover 81 percent of it, the highest figure on earth.

This, I think, speaks a great deal towards the segregation of public transportation, especially buses, in Los Angeles. It has substantial challenges in building a robust transportation system, not least because it got a late start and then blew up what it did have. But just as importantly, the alternative to public transportation in LA is much more convenient. The lack of a single urban core, and the ease of parking in the urban cores that do exist, means that the carrot isn’t very good and the stick is nonexistent.

That’s why I’m skeptical of the idea that “there’s a social understanding and a construction around that if you take the bus, you take it because you don’t have money.” Or if there is, it’s because there are practical reasons why people with money don’t take the bus, foremost among them LA’s cornucopia of parking, which makes driving cheaper and easier. I don’t think there’s anything particular to Los Angelenos when it comes to class, race, and public transportation, any more than habits that have been reinforced by public policy. Chicago’s shown that you can segregate just as easily on the same modes of transportation.


Photograph: valli_mark (CC by 2.0)


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