The Downtown Los Angeles Streetcar
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been building new rail lines at breakneck speed for the last 25 years, beginning with the Blue Line and continuing to the (hopefully) soon opening of the Exposition Line. Measure R, a new sales tax, will continue this transit expansion for at least 20 more years. Like most transit systems in the United States, the center of LACMTA’s Metro Rail network is Downtown Los Angeles. The Red Line Subway has helped increase the density of Downtown Los Angeles, including many very tall office towers, but surface parking is still prevalent in the area, especially southwest of the financial district along Figueroa Street. Surface parking is the largest inhibitor to a walkable environment. It creates blight, public safety problems, and dangerous curb cuts along sidewalks.
Luckily there is a solution to the surface parking epidemic in Los Angeles: a long planned streetcar line. Although I argued in a previous article that streetcars in pedestrian unfriendly areas are a waste of funds, the Downtown Los Angeles streetcar is in a unique position in that it will replace and supplement a well used shuttle system operated by the Los Angeles City Department of Transportation, DASH, and the streetcar will have excellent connections to regional transit. In designing this streetcar line, Los Angeles must look to Portland, Oregon where an effective program of streetcar lines coupled with pedestrian improvements has sharply increased land values and spurred development. Downtown Los Angeles would be a much more walkable and pleasant place if much of its surface parking was eliminated or replaced with structured or underground parking and a streetcar is the perfect tool to fill in the gaps of DTLA’s urban fabric.
As you can see on my map above, most of the land used for parking lots is south of seventh street and the Metro Center station. This area has just recently started to see increased development including 7-10 story upscale housing, a Ralph’s grocery store and the gigantic LA Live entertainment complex. Further development could be encouraged with access to permanent guideway (rail) transit, showing a commitment to developers that transit is there to stay. The area southeast of the Pershing Square Station is largely industrial, with most building being used as garment factories. A streetcar could encourage higher value land uses and reduce automobile traffic and crime making the east side of Downtown LA a much more hospitable place.
LADOT has not yet chosen any definite alignments for the streetcar, so I’ve proposed a loop to begin with. This loop travels up Hope Street, including a tunnel between Wilshire and 4th Street, then turns onto Temple Street. Following a stint on Temple Street, the line turns onto Los Angeles Street and finally completes a loop turning right onto Olympic Boulevard. The two main advantages of such a starter alignment are providing local service in the Financial District where there are over 100,000 commuters a day, and also providing access to the southeast part of Downtown LA which is rife with development opportunities.
Sadly you may notice that a large amount of land adjacent to current and future rail stations is being used as surface parking. Evidently, the promise of fast, frequent rail transit was not enough to develop these lots into buildings, especially around the Pico Station. This suggests that future transit investment may not attract sufficient new building growth that funds will be wasted. This isn’t true, instead, a key piece to the puzzle is missing: favorable regulation and tax breaks from local government.
In order for a streetcar to be a good investment, the City of Los Angeles must improve its tax incentives and regulation regarding new development. By encouraging large amounts of private development around both rail stations and the future streetcar lines, LA can increase its tax revenue and reduce its transit subsidies by virtue of increased ridership. All in all, a potent combination of transit investment, pedestrian improvements and growth incentives could turn around Downtown LA and make it a brilliant place in which to work, live or play. If any of these aspects are ignored, the others will befall a terrible fate, facing low usage and a generally lukewarm rise in land values instead of the sharp spike possible with all three steps.
Downtown LA may be one of the most car oriented major central business districts in the United States, but a few million dollars for a streetcar, pedestrian improvements and tax breaks could change it into the most vibrant downtown on the west coast, not just the one with the tallest buildings and most surface parking.