Over the last few decades, there has been a lot of effort and expenditure to build some kind of a rail (or at least busline -- not bus, busline) transit network in Los Angeles. For example, you can now get from downtown LA to LAX merely by taking three different forms of rail and a shuttle bus (not a bus, a shuttle bus).
By this point, rail transit in LA can be a fun adventure, especially for tourists with a day to kill. For example, if you are staying at a hotel in Pasadena, you can get to downtown LA on the light rail Gold line and then up to Universal Studios by the heavy rail subway Red line, followed by a steep walk up the hill. The only problem is that you are then at Universal Studios. (If I had all the money in the world, I would sponsor a free outdoor showing of Idiocracy at Universal Citywalk to see if anybody gets the joke.)
Mass transit is also good for people going out drinking. Last winter I overheard an Armenian retail clerk explaining to a Mexican retail clerk that a DUI now will cost you about $10,000 all told. Listen to your Armenian pal, I wanted to exclaim They understand about money.
The question I have had is whether middle class Angelenos are using rail to commute.
As you can see from the map, you can now go anywhere ... except for the huge chunk of the left side of the map that represents the Westside, which is where most of the money and good jobs are. In theory, Westside liberals are all in favor of rail transit, except in practice they don't seem to either use it or want others using it near them.
Rail lines now go to Pasadena and Hancock Park, the traditional old money WASP capitals of Southern California, but not to Beverly Hills or Santa Monica. Back in 1986, the feds were offering to help build a subway down Wilshire Blvd., but Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) blocked it, so the Purple Line peters out in Koreatown, next to Hancock Park.
Now, there is much talk about building the Subway to the Sea (or at least to Veterans Hospital in Westwood, which is merely 4.5 miles from the beach, but let's not be picky). It seems to be held up at present by parents at Beverly Hills High School who have been making videos warning of vast fireballs erupting from the subway.
And there are no plausible plans yet for a north-south Westside rail route paralleling the 405 (San Diego) Freeway (when you read about various Carmageddons, that's the 405: in other words, this route is extremely busy and full of Important People). A north-south line running from the San Fernando Valley south past LAX would finally make it an actual network rather than a variety of gestures, but I wouldn't bet more than even odds on that crucial line being begun and finished in my lifetime.
The question with mass transit in Los Angeles is one of class transit. The poor have always ridden mass transit, and the poor we shall always have with us. But higher classes have always taken their cues from the top. In Los Angeles, the top people have always attempted to live as inaccessibly as possible. Last May, for instance, I looked up as President Obama's Marine Corps One helicopter droned overhead on one stage of his labyrinthine passage to a fundraiser at George Clooney's house in Fryman Canyon. Even if you are President, you can't get to Clooney's house easily.
If your fondest career hope is that Steven Spielberg's personal assistant calls you up and invites you over to Steve's house in Pacific Palisades to talk about that idea you have, you'd better have a car because you can't get to his house any other way. And it better be a nice car to park in his curving driveway because you don't want to look like some kind of a loser. And similar thinking goes for all the people hoping to get invited to the house of somebody who is hoping to get invited to Spielberg's house, and on down the line.
Los Angeles's car culture is much derided, but as James Q. Wilson pointed out, it made Los Angeles far more ethnically laid back than East Coast cities. Growing up in L.A., he was used to people being blissfully isolated from each other in their cars, meeting up with friends at chosen spots. When he got to Harvard, he couldn't believe the territorialism and street-level ethnic friction of the Boston area. Why do the Irish always want to fight? wondered the Irish Catholic Wilson.
For the last 15 years, the pride of the LA rail system has been the Red Line, which runs from Union Station downtown through Hollywood to North Hollywood in the east San Fernando Valley. This is "heavy rail" -- it has its own right-of-way and doesn't stop for cross-traffic. At North Hollywood, the Red Line connects to the Orange Line, a bus system across the middle of the San Fernando Valley that has its own right of way down a disused railroad spur (but still gets held up by intersections). There has been a lot of construction of medium rise apartments of fairly expensive nature around the terminus in North Hollywood, combined with an attempt to turn the Lankershim and Magnolia area into an Arts District with comedy clubs and the like. By L.A. standards of city planning, it seems to be pretty reasonable.
The subway endpoint is in a vast area of middle class single family homes in the $400,000 range (along with a huge number of lower class apartments). There is a large parking lot at the subway station for Valleyites to park their cars while working over the hill.
So, who takes the Red Line to work? Do middle class Angelenos take the subway?
Last Friday evening I decided to count subway passengers by class. I watched a large crowd get off the Red Line at 5:45 pm in North Hollywood. I scanned the commuters looking for people dressed as if they were coming home from a white collar office job. I looked only at what men were wearing because their class fashion statements are easier for me to understand. I counted each male commuter wearing Business Casual or more formal attire: in other words, trousers (e.g., khaki Dockers) rather than jeans or shorts; a buttonfront or polo shirt rather than a t-shirt; and some kind of non-gym shoe (soft leather shoes were fine as long as they made some attempt to look non-athletic).
I estimate about 1,000 to 2,000 people got off the train and streamed past me, probably half were male and the vast majority were adults. Out of those 500 to 1,000 men, I counted one man in a suit, one other in a necktie, and four guys wearing khaki pants or other business casual, for a grand total of six men dressed as if they were coming from the office. That's somewhere around 1%.
I also noticed two middle aged Jewish guys dressed in shorts who walked by holding what looked to be an intelligent conversation. Maybe there were some other guys with great jobs where dressing like a slob is de riguer, but frankly, everybody else struck my eye as prole.
It could well be that two or even three times that percentage of men getting off the subway were non-prole. But what does that put us at? Approaching 5%?
So, a couple of unsurprising conclusions:
- Yup, L.A. has a lot of proles.
- Nope, non-prole Angelenos above about 25 aren't in any hurry to associate with the proles on the subway. It's still going to be a car culture for a long, long time.