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Los Angeles Metro Tackles First Mile, Last Mile Problem

As almost any transportation planner in Los Angeles County will attest, the car capital of the world is well on its way to becoming a transit capital as well. With tens of billions of dollars invested in recently opened and anticipated mass transit lines, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has transformed the county. Even so, Metro can't be everywhere. 

The challenge Metro now faces – on a scale arguably larger than that of any other major city – is of getting riders to and from its trains and buses. Its proposed a is its First Last Mile Strategic Plan & Planning Guidelines. 

Adopted in early April, the guidelines won a 2015 National Planning Excellence Award for a Best Practice from the American Planning Association at its national conference a few weeks later. Though roughly 1.5 million Angelenos use Metro every day, the theory behind the program is that many more will use transit – thus reducing congestion and pollution – if transit is easer to find and get to. The guidelines propose localized, inexpensive upgrades to local infrastructure to improve wayfinding and make trips to transit stops feel easier and safer. 

For the past decade, Metro has focused on the development of $40 billion worth of major infrastructure: light rail lines, busways, highway expansion, and the like, which collectively constitute 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.

"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," said Hilary Norton, executive director, Fixing Angelenos Stuck in Traffic contact, a business-backed advocacy group for transportation.

The guidelines are meant to achieve the goals of Metro's 2012 Countywide Sustainable Planning Policy and to achieve some of the greenhouse gas reductions that will be included in the forthcoming Regional Transportation Plan / Sustainable Communities Strategy being devised by the Southern California Association of Governments. The guidelines also are designed to support the state's Complete Streets Act. 

In a dense but geographically sprawling city like Los Angeles, many workplaces, and even more residences, lie outside of easy walking distance to a transit line. According to some planners, this problem, more so than issues of routing or headway, prevents Angelenos from taking full advantage of their transit network, of which Metro provides the backbone. The guidelines identify common barriers to access, including long blocks, freeways, poor sidewalks, safety, recognizabilty of transit stops, and street configurations that discourage active transportation, such as walking and biking. 

"The emphasis is going to be in investing transit dollars in such a way that it maximizes the connectivity of the system," said Diego Cardoso, executive officer for Transit Corridors, Active Transportation and Sustainability at Metro. "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 modest 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. 

Access sheds, for instance, identify the distances that transit users can conveniently travel to bus and train stops according to different modes of active transportation, from bikes to skateboards, to feet. A countywide analysis suggests that the vast majority of the county's population lives within a three-mile bike ride of a rail station or bus rapid transit stop. The First Mile Last Mile Guidelines hope to ensure that those three miles are safe and accessible for would-be cyclists. 

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,'" said 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 and the chance to sip a coffee or browse a newspaper. They could come with secured bike racks, rain shelters, landscaping, and information kiosks about the transit network. 

"If you're waiting for a bus for 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," said 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," said 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, and capacities. It includes methodology for analyzing transit stops, the pathways around them, and the barriers to those pathways so that every locality can customize its approach. And it includes a "toolbox" of improvements that localities can choose from. 

"The culture in L.A. was that Metro kind of stayed to its own right of way," said 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."

Excitement, however, will not build projects. Metro is offering no significant funding stream, so jurisdictions are on their essentially on their own to find funding. Some funds could come from statewide programs like the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities grants. The guidelines acknowledge that funding is limited but offer no recommendations for securing funds. 

Metro is currently pursuing pilot projects. Generally, there is no master plan or timetable, and Metro will accept implementation as it comes. 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," said Norton.

Contacts and Resources

Metro First Mile Last Mile Guidelines (pdf)

American Planning Association 2015 Awards

Diego Cardoso & Steven Mateer, L.A. Metro, (213) 922-6000

Hilary Norton, Fix Angelenos Stuck in Traffic (213) 233-2542

A version of this article originally appeared on Next City, with support from the Surdna Foundation