Of all the misconceptions that get assigned to Los Angeles, one of the most untrue is that the city has no public transportation. In fact, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) runs the second-most extensive public transit system in the country, behind only that of New York City. Metro records 1.5 million average boardings per day on buses that traverse every major boulevard in the city and trains that parallel some of the region’s busiest streets and freeways.
Even so, only 11 percent of Angelenos commute via transit. For the rest, it’s still easy to miss Metro’s services for all the cars.
“L.A. has always been considered a city of the automobile, a city of the freeway, a city of sprawl,” says Diego Cardoso, a Metro executive.“[Transit ridership] depends on the cultural shift that needs to occur in the city of Los Angeles.”
This is the shift that Metro’s “First Last Mile Strategic Plan & Planning Guidelines” aims to effect. Adopted in early April, it won a 2015 National Planning Excellence Award for a Best Practice from the American Planning Association a few weeks later. Anything that gets Angelenos, famously fossilized by traffic, out of their cars surely is worthy of celebration. That goes double in a state that is aggressively trying to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
The so-called first mile/last mile problem plagues transit systems across the U.S. Naturally, lines have to follow major corridors and serve population centers. They can’t be everywhere. In a dense but geographically sprawling city like Los Angeles, that means that many workplaces, and even more residences, are not in easy walking distance to a station. According to some planners, this problem, more so than issues of routing or headway, prevents Angelenos from taking full advantage of public transportation. (The Los Angeles area is served by a dozen or so smaller transit systems sponsored by individual municipalities. Many of them coordinate with Metro.)
“First mile/last mile solutions are very good value for their dollar because they have an opportunity to encourage more users on your current system,” says Hilary Norton, executive director of Fixing Angelenos Stuck in Traffic, a business-backed advocacy group for transportation.
For the past decade, Metro has focused on the development of $40 billion worth of major infrastructure — light rail, busways, highway expansion and the like — that collectively constitutes the largest public works program in the country. The strategy, developed in collaboration with the Southern California Association of Governments, is the agency’s way of thinking small.
“The emphasis is going to be in investing transit dollars in such a way that it maximizes the connectivity of the system,” says Cardoso. “The system is not just the trains, the bus. It’s more than that. It’s bicycles, it’s walking. It’s understanding the better interaction between land use and transit.”
Metro’s strategy addresses this problem on multiple fronts, acknowledging ways that different modes of transportation complement each other. It includes everything from recommendations for novel new “mobility centers,” to better bike lanes and wheelchair accessibility, to partnerships with ride-hailing and bike-sharing services, to attitudinal changes that neighborhood groups can effect. It also includes informational shifts, like analysis of “access sheds” and “pathway” maps of high-volume transit stops that identify the ways that passengers can arrive at and depart from a given stop.
Because it can be replicated countless times across the region, the strategy takes a more expansive view of transit than has ever been conceived of in Los Angeles — or, possibly, anywhere else.
“Metro went from saying, ‘we run buses and we run trains’ to, we get people from their homes to the buses to the trains to their destinations,’” says Norton. “That’s a big change in their overall view of what a transit trip looks like.”
Among the most novel of the strategy’s ideas, “mobility centers” would be a cross between a convenience store and a bus stop. They would give transit riders safe, comfortable places to wait. They could come with secured bike racks, rain shelters, landscaping and information kiosks about the transit network.
“If you’re waiting for a bus or a train and it’s night and you’re female, you’d like to be in or near someplace that’s open for business that you can be inside drinking a cup of coffee or reading a newspaper,” says Norton.
Importantly, Metro envisions them as being privately funded — by the retailers themselves. Convenience store chain Famima, a Japanese import that has made inroads in Los Angeles, has already expressed interest in sponsoring pilot projects. The chance to increase ridership without spending a public dime has Metro officials nearly giddy.
“We welcome any strategy from the private sector that maximizes the reach of accessibility to our system,” says Cardoso.
More modest tactics include the installation of signs and other wayfinding devices, to help cyclists and pedestrians locate the nearest transit stop. Metro is also discussing partnerships with ride-hailing services like Lyft to arrange short-distance rides between home and the bus stop or train station.
Especially with the rise of app-based transportation, these strategies face few technological hurdles. The logistical hurdles, however, have been massive thus far. Because Metro is a countywide agency, its services run through the vast majority of the county’s 88 cities and its pockets of unincorporated areas. Metro has control over only its own services and rights of way. This means that the passengers whom Metro wants to attract have traditionally been beyond their grasp.
Metro’s strategy overcomes this challenge by taking a do-it-yourself, open-source approach to infrastructure development. The strategy is essentially a guidebook that cities, community groups and businesses can follow according to their own needs, timetables, capacities and — perhaps most importantly — budgets.
“The culture in L.A. was that Metro kind of stayed to its own right of way,” says Metro Transportation Planning Manager Steven Mateer, who worked on the guidelines. “A lot of cites were really excited about Metro being a partner in conducting the planning work for ‘First Mile Last Mile.‘”
Metro is currently pursuing pilot projects. Generally, there is no master plan or timetable, and Metro will accept implementation as it comes — hopefully sooner rather than later. Metro officials are promoting these strategies in the hopes that partners will see their wisdom and jump on board. In essence, anyone can now be a transit planner in Los Angeles. In fact, Metro’s strategies may apply to plenty of other cities around the region and around the country.
“Not everybody can go and build a rail system, but lots of people can address the first mile/last mile problem,” says Norton.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Josh Stephens is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Planning Magazine, Sierra Magazine, the Huffington Post and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is a contributing editor to the California Planning & Development Report and Planetizen. His website is joshrstephens.net.