Ridley-Thomas Wants “Subjective” Analysis When Determining Grade Crossings

Farmdale Station appears to be a "go," but will Metro's grade crossing policy be a victim of the Battle of Farmdale?
Farmdale Station appears to be a "go," but will Metro's grade crossing policy be a victim of the Battle of Farmdale?

A proposal by County Supervisor and Metro Board Member Mark Ridley-Thomas could create major changes in how Metro decides which grade-crossings are designed at-grade and which will have grade separation.  Ridley-Thomas represents the communities fighting for a grade-separated Expo Line in South L.A. and much of the area that will be covered by a rail line for the Crenshaw Line.  The proposal would greatly increase the power of neighborhoods in deciding the design of grade-crossings in their community.  Some rail advocates worry that the motion would effectively derail the Measure R light rail projects.

The Supervisor has a dual reputation among rail expansion advocates.  On one hand, as a State Senator he was a champion of Measure R and helped steer the legislation through the Senate.  On the other, his constant criticism of Metro’s grade crossing policy has led many to believe he’ll endanger rail projects at the behest of the surrounding communities.

The resolution, which passed the Planning and Programming Committee this week and will head to the Metro Board next week, would make two major changes.  The first change allows for “subjective” information such as community concerns about redevelopment or safety to enter into the equation.  Second, the Metro Board will be tasked with examining all of the information and making a grade-crossing decision.  Under the current grade crossing policy, staff makes a decision which is then certified by the Board.

Both of these changes can be found in points four and five of the Ridley-Thomas resolution.

4. Analyses of grade crossing alternatives shall include thorough consideration of non-traffic and non-rail issues affecting each crossing. These analyses shall be in narrative form, with special attention to schools, parks and social service facilities, areas of high pedestrian activity and anticipated changes in land use or demographics. These analyses will allow for community input, and for the evaluation of subjective community considerations, such as safety and economic development, which do not lend themselves easily to quantitative analysis.

This clause is certainly a mixed bag.  On one hand, pedestrian activity and the distance between a crossing and parks or schools should absolutely be considered when deciding whether a light rail crossing should be built at-grade.  On the other hand, how in the world does an agency measure “analysis in the narrative form?”  Are grade-crossing debates going to be determined by how many public comments are submitted?

Another concern for rail advocates has to be what Ridley-Thomas would consider a “community concern about economic development.”  Early this year the Supervisor wrote that the Expo Line would Doom South L.A. to Second Class Status because of its impact on development

The other major change would be to give greater responsibility for deciding whether a crossing should be at-grade given to the Metro Board

5. Final determination of each grade crossing or grade separation decision shall be made by the Metro Board of Directors, based on a balanced evaluation of technical considerations, such as traffic flow and queuing, and community- based considerations, such as public safety and economic development.

So instead of decisions on crossings being made by professionals, subject to the approval of the Board; now the Board would be presented with hard data and “analyses in the narrative form” and “subjective community considerations” and asked to make a decision on each crossing.  On one hand, the thought of the occasionally-dysfunctional Metro Board being tasked with making these decisions makes me nervous.

On the other hand, the Board has disregarded concerns of communities and activist groups before when they deemed their arguments species, so I also wonder if this change will actually make any difference in how crossing decisions are made.  Even if this policy existed for the Expo Line, given the politics of Villaraigosa and Westside representatives on the Board, I doubt the outcome would have been any different.

24 thoughts on Ridley-Thomas Wants “Subjective” Analysis When Determining Grade Crossings

  1. In item 4 does Ridley-Thomas consider traffic to include pedestrians and bikes, or should it really read “…consideration of non-motorized-traffic and…”.

    Or perhaps the policy of future LA Metro construction authorities should be to build all light-rail lines on raised embankments and leave only the most vital arterials open to through traffic with overpasses for the trains, underpasses for motorized traffic.

  2. In essence, it makes tons of sense to include the consideration of non-automobile traffic (bikes and pedestrians) as part of the grade crossing crieteria. The current policy does not allow that. So, that’s the good part. I think the only changes you would have had to our current light rail lines would have been the at-grade segments of Pico station, Trousdale station, and the downtown long beach/santa monica stations; which truly should have been grade seperated with high pedestrian activity. Would have definitely sped up our trains in those areas…

  3. The main responsibility of the Metro Board is to set policy, not micro-manage. The current grade policy procedure is in line with that. The Ridley-Thomas motion would introduce uncertainty and opportunities for grandstanding and pandering to NIMBY concerns. The damn thing is squishy and illustrates why we do things now the way we do.

    My impression is Ridley-Thomas has been a bit too showboaty and arrogant since he got on the Board and likely the other Metro Board members would be inclined to not approve it. Sometimes personalities as much as anything determines what the Metro Board does…

  4. LOL to this. Prose protecting local interests is foolish. There are plenty of quantitative measures that can be established to protect local interest, the MTA just chooses not to use them.

    Noise levels, walk scores, social surveys (a la Donald Appleyard) of community strength and livabilty, analysis of retail sales tax returns, analysis of property values (hiring an appraiser for a project area), transportation mode counts, crash statistics – there is a lot that can be done to measure before and after affects of transit projects and transportation projects in general. This isn’t rocket science, and relying on these measures will not preclude input from the general public.

    Right now, we have a debased public debate about the situation – with rail fans willing to go to any length to get a project built and community members blindly opposing a project instead of trying to make it work out for their best interests.

    Guys like Ridley-Thomas bloviate about “subjective” analysis, all they’re really doing is making the decision about something called “character” or some other legally vague term that amounts to “angry people with political power”. Well, those people already control much of the conversation anyway. We need more information about our communities, not less, to enter the debate on transit and transportation projects.

  5. Yes, community conflicts/concerns do need to be addressed better. No, giving NIBMY’s more rope is not the way to do this.

  6. The problem with Ridley-Thomas’ concept when talking about Metrorail is that installations in each local community effect more than just that community, because we are discussing here a NETWORK of rail transit that is supposed to provide utility for transit users throughout the county, not just in specific neighborhoods.

    Case in point right now is the fearful uninformed but noisy group of Beverly Hills residents opposing the Century City Purple Line station at Constellation, with residents from outside the area but still along the line (West LA and Santa Monica residents) overwhelmingly in favor of the Constellation location.

    If these “subjective” factors purported by Ridley-Thomas are so important, then they should be heard from ALL the people who are going to use the line, not just the uninformed, afraid-of-change status quo lovers who tend to make more noise…a small but vocal segment. These people are not confined to a certain race or class. There are just as many rich home-owners in Beverly Hills making noise about the Constellation subway station as there were low-income renters in Leimert Park griping about the Farmdale crossing.

  7. There are legitimate concerns regarding rail in L.A. The blighted stations designed around the Blue and Green lines, the parking lot lagoons and mid-freeway placement of the Gold Line stations – all of this is grounds for serious changes in the way these stations are planned an designed.

    There are quantitative measures that can be applied to make our decisions about where to cite a station, how to design it’s access points, how to design it to integrate into the community and the economy. We choose not to use those measures, and stick to bare minimum standards like “Will the train kill more people at this crossing point”; “Will cars be delayed more than usual due to the train”, etc.

  8. There are no blighted stations around the Blue or Green Lines.

    This is merely your opinion. (And my opinion diverges from yours.)

    You want to see some blight, let’s go to New York or Chicago and look at their systems. They have some stations that are definitely falling apart.

    I agree the mid freeway placements are bad, but they weren’t planned. In the case of the Green Line, that line would not exist anywhere else. It was only built as a compromise to get the freeway constructed, so it can’t possibly have been placed anywhere else.

    The Gold Line was just use of an existing right-of-way. Not a great idea, but buying a new right-of-way would have been so outrageously expensive that it would have been a non-starter

    Fortunately, the Gold Line is only going to have three stations in the middle of the freeway. The new extension diverges from the freeway into Arcadia before it gets to the next station.

  9. The Green Line stations are blight because freeways are blight. Perhaps it’s unfair to the railroad, but the crushing noise of tires hitting the concrete makes these stations nearly unbearable.

    Blue Line stations are a reflection of the communities they serve. There’s a large empty lot near 103rd Street station in spite of easy access to light rail simply because the neighborhood is “troubled.” There’s not much you can do with Slauson Station, which rises above an area industrial in nature.

    A friend of mine used to take the bus to Slauson Station before he bought a car. I thought it was interesting that the closest thing to TOD are the industrial lots, and wondered why his apartment wasn’t right next to the station.

    To say that these stations are in need of redevelopment in an understatement, but who wants to invest? Who wants them to invest, lest we hear cries of gentrification?

  10. No, no, no it’s not about re-investment. It’s not about New York or Chicago, or whatever the hell else you want to throw into the discussion.

    The stations along the Blue Line and Green Line (and some of the Gold Line) were not designed using quantitative measures that will lead to better layouts, pedestrian access, livability, and business prospects.

    I’ve listed these measures above. This isn’t rocket science, it just requires that we hew to traditional human-scale ideas about building stuff. There are ways to measure the effects of rail stations built in this way.

    Above and beyond those measures, there are other questions to ask of a rail station: are there places to pee and poop? Are there pay phones and taxi standing areas? Where is the nearest commercial establishment for food and a place to sit?

    Casting off quantitative measures (Ridley-Thomas’s position), willfully ignoring human needs (the rail fans eternal angle), or caving to the stupidest demands of know-nothing neighbors (the quintessential NIBMY position in LA) will not lead us to better transit stations.

  11. “are there places to pee and poop?”

    Not going to happen. First there is the cost of cleaning the restrooms and the cost of fixing them when they are vandalized.

    “The stations along the Blue Line and Green Line (and some of the Gold Line) were not designed using quantitative measures that will lead to better layouts, pedestrian access, livability, and business prospects.”

    Sometimes you just need a parking lot and a platform. Sierra Madre could have been designed for greater pedestrian comfort, but that big hulking parking structure was a better investment.

  12. Oh but there are places to pee and poop, and they are used regularly. All you have to do is visit the station yourself to find them. The nose knows.

    So, here is the question: is it cheaper and healthier to have MTA staff scrape and spray piss and shit off the floors at stations or is it better to have toilets?

    I am going with the platinum potty theory on this one.

    Regarding the large parking lots around stations – do we really need them? Really? Because I’ll tell you one things I rarely see around stations built along the Gold Line in NELA – wide sidewalks and proper crossing points to commercial districts.

    When you get off a train, you’re a pedestrian – and yet the amenity to sit, eat, drink, go to the bathroom, etc. is not there. But we’ve got parking lots. Great. What a comfort. I guess I’ll just resort to storing a lunch in my car, taking a dump in it and driving off. I guess that problem solves itself then.

    You’ve admitted above that stations along the rail lines can really suck (of course there are some great stations too). I’m all for making them better, and not in favor of Ridley-Thomas’ dumbass proposal to let “subjective concerns” guide station design and location decisions.

    There are problems with the way many stations have been built. It is the truth, and there is no point in quibbling about it. So, let’s resolve to lobby to inject sane measurements and criteria into station design decisions instead of more “Fuck you shut up this is a great rail project” or “OH MY GOD POOR PEOPLE IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD” noise into the debate.

  13. “When you get off a train, you’re a pedestrian – and yet the amenity to sit, eat, drink, go to the bathroom, etc. is not there.”

    Because if you’re talking about a station like Sierra Madre, those amenities are not a necessity. The necessity is a place for the peak hour commuter to park their car.

    I know the pain of not having access to a restroom while on my feet. It’s just something you have to plan ahead for, buy something you don’t need or simply tough it out. But I also know that if free restrooms were available, a commons problem would erupt in which those facilities are trashed. We are not a society that does well with common resources.

    And yes, I imagine putting a bus or train our service and spraying it down is more cost effective than building and maintaining restrooms.

  14. Cool. We know where you stand on the bathroom issue. The open air pissoir and lavatory have a certain musky masculine romance – bare chested whores in 17th century France, dark pre-industrial London streets with Jack the Ripper on the prowl, and raging cholera outbreaks clearing out the slums. Now that I think about it, I don’t worry so much about people using the planters at Wilshire and Western as a coprolite production zone, since I’ll be on holidays in my country estate during the next big outbreak anyway.

    Ridley-Thomas and I will carry on a letter writing contest to see which one can best use our prose to subjectively pronounce the plein aire porta-potty policy a success.

    Two more things:

    South Pasadena’s got A LOT of commuters, but its parking lot is tucked underneath a three story development. Expensive? Only when you consider the waste of real estate those above ground parking lots represent. Take away two floors of parking at Sierra Madre and you could build a stadium size urinal, staff the bathrooms with man servants and ladies in waiting for a century, and hand out free t-shirts and hand towels for 20 years.

    Second, neener neener I knew I could get someone to comment on a Sunday night!

  15. LOL @Josef/ubrayj – the cost of the parking is insane. So many better things that money could be spent on…

    Seattle’s new rail was built with no parking (at least no new system-implemented car parking)

  16. @Joe…it’s possible that our Purple Line extension to Westwood will have no parking either like Seattle’s. The only station “up in the air” about parking is the VA. However, that’s not even confirmed!

  17. i think it’s interesting that Google can be taken seriously when they suggest driverless cars, but nobody is willing to suggest the same for driverless (at grade) trains.

    trains have a braking issue, which could account for the difference, but i feel like there’s something else to it. i know there are emergency braking systems these days — i don’t know how quick they are. and there are other coping mechanisms – like slowing down while at grade crossings — pretty simple stuff.

  18. Few people are going to suggest driver-less trains because you are potentially eliminating someone’s job.

    For cars, right now the focus is on eliminating private drivers from the equation so you can sit back and relax or something. They aren’t really talking about eliminating the cab driver, for example.

  19. The point of the parking structure at Sierra Madre Villa is to encourage people to park and ride. The station has a large catchment area because of that approach. It’s about making the best of a bad situation.

    That stretch of the Gold Line is on an existing right of way in the middle of the freeway. There wasn’t much you could do. I would bet that the cost of the parking structure was less than the extra cost of building the station in a more pedestrian friendly area.

    Without that parking structure you’d probably see a few thousand less boardings per day on the Gold Line.

  20. Spokker:

    Good point about the driverless trains. In fact, that’s why the Bus Riders’ Union exists: to protect the jobs of bus drivers.

    And that’s one of the major reasons why trains are a better value. Carry 800 people and you’re paying the salary of one train driver versus 20 bus drivers (okay, maybe 20 is a slight exaggeration, how about 15).

    Still, if a driver attended train versus a driverless train is going to increase ridership considering the confidence factor among some (low information) riders, then I think it is money well spent.

    You’re not always going to have Sheriffs on every train checking fares, but with a driver you are assured that at least one employee of MTA is always on the scene accompanying the train you are riding, just in case of any emergency. With no attendants at stations, the train drivers are a must to convey that impression of having somebody “in charge” in the area.

  21. For anyone who doesn’t know, the Red/Purple Lines are pretty much operating themselves. Go observe the operator sometime. They aren’t doing the “driving.”

    The light rail operators, however, have their hand on the throttle.

  22. Few people are going to suggest driver-less trains because you are potentially eliminating someone’s job.

    i don’t know — i just suggested it. i’ve seen other people suggest it — but one of the reasons it’s not suggested more often is technology. if a train is not at grade, it’s pretty simple to imagine driverless systems. if it’s at grade, currently, so far as i know, a driver is required. if that changes, the whole game changes — which is why there was so much excitement, apparently, about the google robot cars — no matter how insane.

    the main benefit to a driverless train system, as i see it, is the ability to run ridiculously short head times — or, ridiculously high frequencies — 10 minutes, 5 minutes, 3 minutes — per train in each direction. never look at a timetable again — just show up, and you’ll be on your way in 90 seconds — even at 3:30 am.

    and the number of transit worker jobs would be increased substantially/dramatically, because the system would be so much better that it would actually become useful to a lot more (middle class/upper class/rich) people — we’d need workers to run trains, and run the myriad operations positions — the system would be begging to be expanded in many ways, and it likely would be.

    and i’m not sure driverless trains anywhere is the right answer — at grade or otherwise — but i definitely think it’s interesting and worth looking at seriously.

  23. Another word for “subjective” is “political”.

    I have no problem with looking at the “objective” criteria and revising them if desirable.

    But I am wary of “subjective” criteria (unless it is of course in my favor). :)

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