The UC Berkeley Faculty Club meeting room was packed on Tuesday evening with people who came to hear Ethan Elkind talk about his book, Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City.
Elkind, who holds a joint appointment as Climate Policy Associate at the UCLA and UC Berkeley law schools, entertained the crowd with a wry, rapid-fire summary of some of the complex political forces that quite literally shaped the current and future Metro system.
Like many contemporary cities, L.A. originally grew along streetcar lines. Then, as cars became more ubiquitous, it spread out into interstitial areas and beyond, becoming an “endless expanse of subdivisions.” A map of the oversized extent of Los Angeles County (“the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined….Why does Delaware get to be a state?”) gave an idea of the vast areas overseen by only five county supervisors, with huge and varied constituencies. The mottled shape of the city of LA showed the relatively minor power base of its mayor.
Federal money for transit helped start the conversation. “If the city could put up 20% of the cost of building an urban rail system,” said Elkind, “then the federal government would pay 80%–this was a very enticing deal.” Terrible air quality and bad congestion added to a general frustration with the existing transportation in LA, helping set the stage for rail.
He showed a slide with an overhead photo of the city (“That photo cost me some money,” he said—which is why Streetsblog didn’t post it here). It showed an endless cityscape, and jutting up were tall buildings clearly outlining the Wilshire Boulevard corridor.
“If you’re going to build rail,” said Elkind, “This is where you should do it, along the most densely populated corridor in the western U.S.”