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Solimar Research

The Transit Crisis Is Really A Housing Crisis

Josh Stephens on
Feb 25, 2018

The low point in my occasional career as a rider of public transit came a few months ago when I looked down the center aisle of an Expo Line car to discover that the (apparently) homeless guy at the front of the car was not merely homeless but also drinking gin straight from a plastic bottle. 

Rest assured, this incident has not scared me away from public transit. According to a recent report by the UCLA institute for Transportation Studies, incidents like it haven’t dissuaded other riders either – they’re dissuaded for other reasons. Across the Southern California Association of Governments region, annual transit trips per capita have fallen from a high of 42 in 2007 to 34 in 2016. The biggest enemy of transit these days, as it has been for the past 100 or so years, is the automobile. 

I’ve never bought the idea that Angelenos have a “love affair with cars.” They just have the misfortune of living in a city where driving a car makes it a lot easier to do other things — like, say, hold down a job. Under the right circumstances, Angelenos would be just as happy to walk, bike, or take transit as they are to drive. Unfortunately, the circumstances are far from right.

UCLA reports that, between 2000 and 2015, private vehicle ownership increased, from 1.7 to 2.4 vehicles per household. This dramatic increase stems largely from increased car ownership among newcomers to the region, who tend, by and large, to be low-income immigrants. The share of foreign-born households without a car dropped by 42 percent between 2000 and 2015.

These tend to be the very same people who comprise the vast majority of transit riders in the region: the often-pitied class known as “transit-dependent riders.” The average resident of the SCAG-region made about 35 transit trips in 2016, but the median resident made none. That’s because less than 3 percent of the region’s commuters ride “frequently,” meaning that a small number of individuals take hundreds of rides per year, compared to none for most residents. When one of those high-frequency riders gets a car, ridership drops accordingly. 

That’s a virtuous cycle, of a sort. What’s not so virtuous is the region’s housing crisis. Low-income residents essentially cannot choose where to live – meaning they can’t choose housing close to work, and they can’t choose housing that makes transit convenient.

Really, the transit crisis results from the housing crisis.

Los Angeles’ shortage of housing and shortage of high-density transit-friendly neighborhoods has run headlong into the obscene, bacchanalian overabundance of automobiles. They might not be making any more land, but we produce cars as if in an Ayn Rand fantasy (only to drive them in a drab, Gosling-less version of La La Land). And for each new Tesla that rolls off the assembly line, that’s one more used Ford, Chevy, or Toyota to hit the market for cheap. 

Meanwhile, the apartment equivalent of a 2001 Corolla is impossible to find. The housing shortage means that every time a unit is vacated – especially if it’s rent-controlled – rents keep going up. That’s because we don’t produce enough units – be they market-rate or subsidized – to keep up with demand.

In other words, people with a little more change in their pocket can buy cars. But it takes a lot more than pocket change to find an optimal place to live.

In fairness, the UCLA report cites the effects of ridesharing, gas prices, and, yes, the occasional wino who makes transit unpleasant. And some new rail lines are doing well, often beating ridership projections. But none of these factors compares with the increase in driving, and, I reckon, no factor fuels the increase in driving more so than the shortage of well-located, fairly-priced housing. 

Transit-heavy areas were those that are either dense enough to support transit or poor enough to require transit. The UCLA report notes that 60 percent of the region’s commuters live in neighborhoods covering 0.9 percent of the region’s land area. Increasing that number will require development of new transit-oriented neighborhoods. It requires fancy new apartments for the would-be Tesla drivers. And it requires the equivalents of those 2001 Corollas – older apartments that trickle down to new tenants without somehow becoming more expensive with each passing year.

The report also holds out hope for the elusive but tantalizing discretionary rider. Whether enough do-gooders and milennial urbanists can jump on board to compensate for the loss of the transit-dependents is anyone’s guess. Indeed, that too depends on having enough transit-oriented housing that the hipsters and the transit-dependent can live, and ride, side-by-side.

That’s why, regardless of what this means for Metro’s farebox, the bigger issue here concerns the physical and social fabric of California’s cities and, indeed, of the California dream. For decades, the California dream and the American dream were one in the same: suburban-style homeownership (at least for folks of the correct skin color). Today, that dream is either inaccessible or unappealing to many Californians, and other dreams are in short supply. And so, the Automobile Dream — which used to be a complement to, rather than a replacement for, the American Dream — persists. 

I don’t know exactly where this dream is driving everyone. I know, though, that it’s almost enough to drive me to drink. Just not while I’m riding a train.