Rail~Volution 2012: Taking the Long View in Los Angeles

By Dave Van Hattum, Senior Policy Advocate

In the transportation and land use realm, Los Angeles has earned an infamous reputation as a car-dependent metropolitan region with major air quality problems. Today, however, a historic shift is underway and politicians, planners, and citizens are rallying around a long-term vision of greatly expanded transportation options and reinvigorated communities.

In mid-October I attended Rail~Volution 2012 in Hollywood and saw firsthand the Los Angeles area’s extensive subway, surface rail, and bus system that, thanks to Los Angeles County voters, will grow tremendously in the decades ahead, transcending L.A.’s image as a land of ubiquitous freeways. As Christopher Leinberger, a developer turned researcher/advocate, noted during the conference, “the drivable suburban fringe collapsed over the past half-decade” and it would be wise to plan for new forms of land use and development going forward. It seems we can increasingly look to the Los Angeles metropolitan area for this type of thinking put to action.


Growing options for
getting around the Los Angeles area.
(Photos courtesy of Barb Thoman)

DVH-Good-Ideas-pull-quoteThroughout my visit, I was struck both by the exciting transformation taking place in the region and by the long arc of transit advocacy. Rail~Volution began in 1995 in Portland and has since become a national, annual event where public transit advocates and implementers share their homegrown experience and evolving visions and philosophies. At a reception this year, I serendipitously chatted with a Sacramento transit planner and former Minneapolis resident who lobbied in the 1970s for creation of the Hiawatha LRT line that eventually opened in 2004.  It reinforced my sense that while good ideas often take time, they prevail through the committed efforts of visionary leaders and engaged citizens. Transportation is both access to opportunity and a major shaper of the places we call home. Consequently, we all have a stake and we should all be advocates for “building livable communities with transit,” the theme of Rail~Volution 2012.

The latest news on long-term trends in the national transportation landscape informed many Rail-Volution sessions. As presenters emphasized, transit, biking, and walking rates continue to rise steadily and greater investment in transit is increasingly on the ballot and supported by local voters across the country. The market continues to grow for housing and offices near good transit and walkable streets. And new technology regularly opens up exciting new possibilities from tracking bike and pedestrian trips (and comfort level) to the potential for the 3D Express Coach, a radical new hybrid of transit and highways.

Ample pedestrian lanes encourage foot traffic through a shopping area in Pasadena.
(Photo courtesy of Kathie Doty)

Appropriately, most of the Rail~Volution sessions also included a multi-dimensional approach—i.e. transit and housing, and community development, and school access—that simply wasn’t taught to or practiced by transportation planners and engineers who designed most of the roads, parking structures, and transit systems in place today. This new, integrated approach is leading to significant institutional changes. L.A. Metro, for example, has a new definition for the “highest and best use” of land it owns near transit stations. The new definition considers the long-term importance of affordable housing (which translates into more future transit customers), not just the highest short-term monetary return. And across the country, realtors, housing developers, and home buyers can easily assess the combined cost of housing and transportation at any precise location.

While an arc of successful transportation advocacy can already be seen in the inspiring Rail~Volution workshops, the L.A. tours of abundant LRT, BRT, heavy rail, and lots of new bike lanes, and the large contingent of attendees from the Twin Cities (over 80), the impetus for Rail~Volution is far from over. Success has brought new challenges including an anti-tax movement that is anti-transit, efforts to block local planning initiatives, and a lack of federal leadership evident in MAP 21 (the recent federal transportation law) that could negatively affect funding for transportation options in Minnesota. .

Since 1996, Transit for Livable Communities has strived to bring long-range and holistic perspectives (and action) to the design of the Twin Cities transportation system.  Designing a fair and effective transportation system has always been, and will continue to be, a challenging endeavor. Getting it right depends on clear values, innovative policy, and thoughtful definition of obstacles, as well as smart technology and educated community members. Most importantly, it depends on involving all stakeholders in a meaningful manner. We will continue to build a strong coalition of partners advocating for the world-class transit/bike/walk systems our region deserves. We will learn from other forward-thinking metro areas like Los Angeles along the way, and expand this dynamic conversation about livable communities when Rail~Volution comes to the Twin Cities in 2014.