How Do Angelenos Travel?

10_26_09_chart.jpgMode share by city. Image: Think Progress/Yglessias

The passage of Metro’s Long Range Transportation Plan last week has helped heat up a national conversation about Los Angeles, how it grows, how it moves and the future of our Metropolis.  Of course, Diane Meyer’s "World Without a Car" exhibit has people locally thinking outside the auto; but others are picking up the conversation such as the Transport Politic and Think Progress’ Matt Yglessias. However, that debate shows us one critical missing link in our transportation planning.

We still don’t know how Angelenos move from place to place.  For the most part, we’re still reliant on census figures that only ask about commuting trends, traditionally under-count people of lesser means and definately under-count immigrants.  Recently, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, in their most
recent report on how the city is going to spend its Measure R funds
, reported that combined, 3.6% of Angelenos commute by bicycle or by walking in Los Angeles based on figures provided by the Southern California Association of Governments.  Outside of major projects or reports that require them, the city does not do bicycle or pedestrian counts leaving planners reliant on bad statistics or guesswork based on personal observations and biases.

When commenting to the Council on the report, I wondered how 96.4% of people commute without walking at all; but of course I realize that they are referring to the dominant mode in the commute.  However, that number shouldn’t be used as an excuse to under-fund pedestrian improvements.  After all, the city worker that drives from the Valley to the large parking lot to the West of City Hall is reliant on safe crossings to get from his car to the office, just as the dedicated pedestrian is reliant on a series of safe crossings to get from place to place.

But if the city is reliant on census figures that over-count the number of car-reliant transportation trips, then advocates for car alternatives are always going to be behind the game.  For example, my wife is a car commuter when she’s not on maternity leave, but I would estimate that less than half of her total trips involve getting in her car.  Trips to the store, park, Farmer’s Market, gym, and around the neighborhood are done on foot or on bike.  The census, the data source relied on by the city, completely discounts those trips because it only measures commuter trips.

10_26_09_critical_mass.jpgWhat do you see? A city transportation study would see one van. Photo: aisipos/Flickr

The situation has become so dire that the Los Angeles County Bike Coalition has begun measuring its own bike counts, and news organizations have begun running their own polls to try and get a picture of what’s actually happening on the street.  While a recent poll by the LA Downtown News‘ results were similar to those completed by City Planning, the unscientific method of asking one’s readers how they commute, will certainly lead to those results being dismissed.

Speaking of City Planning, the process that created the new Downtown Street Standards included bicycle and pedestrian counts and those standards are amongst the most progressive ones in the county.  The standards promote bike lanes, sidewalk widenings and open space.  When an agency bothers to actually check what’s happening, the results are planning documents that favor "non-motorized transportation."  For more on the street standards, listen to Streetsblog interview the Urban Design Studio’s Emily Gabel-Luddy.

As the city moves forward with it’s Bike Plan and other community plans, it’s past time that it begins gathering data on it’s own about the effected areas.  Relying on the census and the guesswork of engineers who have looked at their job as finding the best way to move cars is only going to lead to wider roads, unhealthy communities and a rising Car Culture, even as that way of planning wanes in the major cities around the United States.

  • DJB

    Good write up. I wish the Census asked about more than just the trip to work. The advantage of the Census is that it covers the whole country with one more or less consistent method over time (since 1790 in fact).

    Ignoring people without jobs, people afraid to talk to the census takers, the hard-to-count homeless, etc. and all non-work trips is not an adequate way to make transportation policy.

    I say lobby the Census bureau to ask about how people go to the grocery store, and how kids go to school. Also, don’t forget to avoid solo driving to work the week before April 1st 2010. That’s what the Census will pick up.

  • Matt

    I am surprised to see Seattle on the list with such a high percentage of public transit as they just opened their first rail line, especially when compared to the poster child of good planning, Portland. I am guessing that the nature of the layout of the city with ferries often being useful has a lot to do with this unless they have an unbelievable bus system.

    Tough to see LA so far behind many cities. Lets see what we can do to improve these figures in the next decade.

  • Erik G.

    Seattle’s topography forces travel on ferries and on one of two floating bridges for much of the East-West travel. They also have a commute-trip-reduction law with teeth and have taken a serious look at the parking situation in downtown Seattle and thus have done all the work on cashing out parking and offering bus passes that L.A. is only beginning to realize it mighr need to look at.

    Portland is a poster-child, except it has Vancouver, WA across the Willamette that serves as both a pressure valve and a trip generator.

  • Wad

    Matt, if this had been a Seattle blog, you would be a meme.

    Surprised? Here are two explanations for the data:

    1. Seattle has a lot of buses.
    2. People use them.

  • I love any post that further illustrates the Portland hype.

  • Matt

    I’d agree on the Portland overhype, although I have no real knowledge never having been there. I still find Seattle an interesting case and will be spending some time up there in the summer so this is good to know.

  • Also, Downtown Portland is very transit-friendly, but many of your white collar jobs are in Washington County in the 217 corridor, which has the poorly-accessible WES and a couple of buses that run every half hour. Your blue collar jobs are in the Port area and the Northwest Industrial area, again not well served by transit. Also, Portland’s rail system, as I’ve complained here numerous times, is SLOW.

    Seattle has not just a robust bus system, but a model express bus system (I think the BRU would have articulated this system, if they had any sense.. not just buses on carpool lanes, but actual bus stations on or near the freeway, HOV-only ramps, park and ride lots with SECURITY which are actually well used even on the weekends… I saw a park and ride lot in Lakewood half full on a SUNDAY, which shows you how amazing the usage is). Sound Transit Express buses are one of the most comprehensive express bus networks in the region. It makes up for their piddling level of commuter rail.


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