L.A. Mayoral Candidates on Transportation

Cyclists at CicLAvia in front of L.A. City Hall. Photo by Joe Linton/Streetsblog
Cyclists at CicLAvia in front of L.A. City Hall. Photo by Joe Linton/Streetsblog

During the lightning round of the last televised mayoral debate, candidates were given just 30 seconds to offer up their thoughts on transit riding and Metro. The results were underwhelming. The main takeaways were that the candidates did not regularly ride transit and that billionaire Rick Caruso was deeply unfamiliar with Metro and yet also convinced that bad things happen underground.

More information was clearly needed.

Thankfully, the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC), in collaboration with L.A. Walks, MoveLA, the Alliance for Community Transit (ACT-LA), Climate Resolve, CicLAvia, IKAR, API Forward Movement, Pacoima Beautiful, Ground Game L.A., People Organized for Westside Renewal, and Streets For All, assembled a transportation-focused questionnaire for the mayoral candidates that fills in some of those gaps. Or helps underscore the lack of attention some of the candidates have given questions of mobility, depending on one’s perspective.

The coalition received responses from eight candidates, including the ones that are currently expected to make it past the June 7 primary. L.A. City voters have already received their ballots in the mail, and are currently voting by mail. (Joe Buscaino did drop out of the race yesterday, but his answers have been included and linked here, as he remains on the ballot.) The candidate responses are available in English, Spanish, Chinese, and Korean; the full set of responses can be found compiled in PDF documents here.

One note: these nonprofit organizations are not endorsing any candidate; the purpose of the questionnaire was to inform and educate voters. As a nonprofit, Streetsblog also does not endorse any candidate; the context added here is only to help readers compare the candidates’ lengthy responses and their grasp of the issues at hand.

In the questionnaire, the candidates were asked about:

  • how they get around L.A. now (besides driving) and their views on the condition and importance of each of those other modes of transportation
  • how they would incorporate community-based support and safety strategies prioritizing the needs of vulnerable Angelenos on Metro
  • how they view current progress on Vision Zero and the role of the mayor in pushing the program forward
  • how they would address the current bus operator shortage and increase bus frequency and reliability, and where they stand on free fares
  • how they would encourage greater and more diverse participation in Metro’s budget planning and also ensure funds were equitably distributed
  • steps they would take to reduce traffic congestion and uplift other modes, and how they might coordinate with the greater L.A. region to enhance the feasibility of alternative modes across the county

Given that bus service tends to grab the fewest headlines while being vital to helping lower-income Angelenos access opportunity, the candidates’ responses to the questions about bus service and where they stand on free fares are posted in full below. Some context regarding their other responses has also been included.

Karen Bass – [see full response]

As she had done in previous forums, frontrunner Karen Bass described herself as a bicyclist while also explaining she preferred beach paths over city streets “because we have not created the infrastructure to make biking convenient and safe.” She pledged to transform all major corridors to be “walkable, bikeable, green, and safe,” including expanding dedicated bus lanes, protected bike lanes, and first- and last-mile access to transit. Bass stressed the importance of prioritizing “accessibility for the most vulnerable members of our community” and ensuring that their voices – often not heard during traditional community engagement efforts – were part of the conversation.

With regard to safety on Metro, she reiterated her support for balancing the presence of law enforcement with a “Safety Corps” that included safety ambassadors, healthcare workers, mental health specialists, and providers that could help move the unhoused into housing and access services. And she spoke to the importance of building coalitions to create more dedicated spaces for buses, bicyclists, and pedestrians while also weighing the impacts on local neighbors and businesses – a position that some will read as potentially giving in to NIMBY sentiments but which is likely meant to speak to the way in which wealthier newcomers’ demands for amenities in gentrifying communities, like in her home base in South L.A., often steamroll the long-standing demands, aspirations, needs, and concerns of the stakeholders of color.

Bass regarding better buses and free transit:

When you take transit, you solve traffic – and you shouldn’t be stuck in it. That’s my foundational belief, which is why I will be committed to making our transit system safe, reliable and free.

I support the move towards fareless transit, which will give people the freedom of mobility with no barriers to entry. Free transit can boost safety by getting more eyes on buses and trains, and for those who rely most on transit, it can save families thousands of dollars per year.

Increased safety and affordability will bring riders back but the third leg of that stool is reliability. We are experiencing worker shortages across key industries across the nation and that includes bus operators. As a leader on the Metro board, I would explore higher pay, better COVID-19 protections, and other measures to recruit and retain more bus operators, who are essential to the effective operation of our system. I will work to restore and increase bus service, ensure that bus routes take people where they need to go, improve bus stops, and promote strategies like dedicated bus lanes, all-door boarding and advanced signal priority. Our basic goal should be to take people where they want to go and get them there on time.

Joe Buscaino – [see full response]

In the recent televised debate, Joe Buscaino had said he hadn’t taken transit in a long time because it took “too damn long” to get from San Pedro to downtown L.A. and that “public transportation [was] worthless when it’s not safe.” He has since dropped out of the race. But his responses to the questionnaire show he remained committed to solving most problems with police to the bitter end, stressing the importance of a “clean and safe” city and saying that, “When people feel safe in Los Angeles, they will want to walk more, use public transportation often, and invite their friends and family for a day out.”

Buscaino regarding better buses and free transit:

We need to change the safety culture of public transportation for residents, visitors and the bus drivers. People do not feel safe nor their lives valued in this line of work and we can change that by incentivizing careers at LA Metro, and guaranteeing employee safety at all costs. If we make rider experiences safe and fun, we will successfully get people out of their cars and into public transportation. With an increase in ridership, we can increase marketing opportunities with the private sector, thus reaching an opportunity for FREE public transportation which I FULLY SUPPORT!

Rick Caruso – [see full response]

Like Buscaino, former police commissioner (and largely self-funded frontrunner) Rick Caruso has also tended to argue that more police will solve many of the city’s most pressing problems. So much so that, regardless of the subject, he often pivots to talk about police, crime, safety, and the inefficient way he feels money is thrown at problems mid-answer, suggesting either a lack of understanding of the topic at hand or a total disinterest in it.

In his responses to this questionnaire, Caruso repeatedly stressed safety and declared “restoring public safety” to be “the focus of my administration,” including on Metro. But when asked about safety on Metro, instead of referencing Metro’s existing policing contract or the process currently underway to introduce alternative approaches to enhancing safety on the system, he pivoted to his plans for the city. Namely, his goal of adding 1,500 more police officers across L.A., a shift to Bill Bratton-inspired “community-based policing,” the building of “30,000 shelter beds in 300 days,” and the hiring of 500 caseworkers “to help get our unhoused off our streets.” His other priorities for Metro included better wifi and cell coverage, so people could use their phones and laptops on transit, better inter-agency coordination, and getting unspecified “costs under control.” He also broadly called for Los Angeles to create more of the “sense of community and walkability” that he had “built [in] all my developments.” But with regard to free fares he only committed to “doing more to have that conversation and ultimately an end result.”

Caruso regarding better buses and free transit:

Bus operators have one of the toughest jobs in LA. Not only do they have to operate a massive machine safely and efficiently, they must also play police officer, mental health expert, and oftentimes a punching bag. We must do better than this and ensure that operating our transit fleets is a safe and rewarding experience with a bright future. Once we have more operators we can realistically discuss more routes and more reliable service, but until then, it’s unlikely. As for a fare-free system, that is a question that needs more conversation and input from more Angelenos and as Mayor I will commit to doing more to have that conversation and ultimately an end result.

Kevin de León – [see full response]

City Councilmember Kevin de León, currently polling at a very distant third behind Bass and Caruso, touted his transportation plan in his responses. It includes bus electrification, more light rail, more protected bike lanes, better Metro connections between the Valley and Central Los Angeles, free transit for seniors and people under 25, and, confusingly, “increasing the frequency of Metro stops.” He also called for partnerships with community-based organizations, and emphasized following Metro’s Equity Framework to distribute funding in ways that reverse inequities between neighborhoods.

He had managed to fit much of that list into the 30 seconds he was given during the last televised debate. But he opted not to elaborate on what his plans might look like in practice or discuss what he had learned from having to juggle competing interests. He certainly had experience to draw from. Just last year, he had found himself at odds with transportation advocates after he heeded the loud and often nasty voices of Eagle Rock residents and slowed down the planning process for the NoHo-Pasadena Bus Rapid Transit project. Though he ultimately gave his support to the Beautiful Boulevard proposal, it is not clear what he would change to improve such processes going forward. In his statement on buses (below), he only says he worked to implement dedicated bus lanes.

De León regarding better buses and free transit:

The staff shortage Metro is facing is something that we are seeing in many sectors. As Mayor I would ensure we have a robust Local Hire Program for bus drivers and work closely with the community colleges and LAUSD to create pipelines so that students have careers lined up at Metro when they are graduating.

If we are going to have behavior changes and have people use transit, then it needs to be safe and reliable. That’s why I have advocated for dedicated bus lanes as they increase speed and improve reliability. I’ve worked to implement dedicated bus lanes on Olive and Grand in Downtown and on Colorado in Eagle Rock.

I do support Metro’s advocacy for a fare-free transit system, specifically for those under 25 and for seniors. Based on ridership numbers from the past two-years, when fare was free, it is clear that a fare-free system encourages increased ridership. I believe that a fare-free system will enhance the number and frequency with which Angelinos [sic] utilize public transport.

Mike Feuer – [see full response]

Just as he did during the televised debate, City Attorney Mike Feuer referenced having written the state law that allowed Measure R to be put on the local ballot as proof that he supported getting Angelenos out of their cars. He further pledged to invest in “real alternatives to driving.” And he was able to point to lots and lots and lots of very specific solutions in the way some of his opponents could not: bus electrification, bus lanes, more buses, protected bikeways, sidewalk repair, slow streets, coordinated land use and transportation policy, demand-based parking, congestion pricing, telecommuting incentives, and more. But being able to list solutions is not always enough. When asked about how to make the Metro budget process more transparent and accessible to those who have often been left out of the process, for example, he effectively pledged to make it more transparent and accessible, without offering any indication that he understood what the barriers in question were.

Feuer building on his prior answers where he listed bus improvements to answer the questions about better buses and free fares:

I will lead the effort to expand the number of buses on our most-used lines. I will expand rapid busways, enabling bus riders to get to their destinations sooner. I support a fare-free transit system, especially students, low-income individuals, and seniors to name a few. I look at the LA Metro LIFE program and the great benefit it offers and as Mayor I will continue supporting those most in need.

Craig Greiwe – [see full response]

Businessman and self-declared outsider Craig Griewe kicked off his set of responses by declaring he had been unable to use transit during his campaign because transit routes were “often incoherent,” but said that he had experienced transit before. Rather than reference issues specific to Metro, however, he pointed to the recent subway attack in New York as evidence there was a need to balance “big picture” security and day-to-day security issues. He also referenced the “2015 DOJ Community-Oriented Policing Plan” (but may have meant The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing report?) as a potential guide for how to think about policing on Metro.

Vision Zero, he said, has been a disaster. And because transit will never be able to replace all trips, “We will build enough housing so that people can afford to live near where they work, which is the secret to a livable city operating towards Vision Zero.” As such, he would push for “increased density where it makes sense” and the leveraging of the market forces and economic incentives, increased by-right building, the conversion of all latent industrial zones into mixed-use development, and the tying of affordability covenants to market conditions to help move that plan forward.

Greiwe regarding better buses and free fares:

We have got to get the basics right in this city, which we don’t do. More buses, and more buses that operate on time, are essential. We need to create greater short-term incentives towards driver recruitment, and look to long-term solutions, such as third-party partnerships and outsourcing, that provide advantages from private sector utilization. However, financial incentives , such as sign-on bonuses, must be temporary to avoid long-term unintended budgetary impact, including on pensions.

Simply put, economic forces dictate that private enterprise “gets it right” more than government (because they have more financial accountability), and we either need to build that financial accountability into government, or utilize a blended model to drive results. I believe in moving towards a fare-free future transit system, but we must address the sustainability of that model before leaping to it. While we’re diverting billions of dollars every year into serving 60,000 homelessness without making progress, we are causing the remaining 3.9 million Angelenos to suffer in every resource area, including public transit. My plan — the only plan to end homelessness based on proven results across America — will allow us to put that money to use in areas like reducing and eliminating fares, improving our streets, and more. Every dollar spent on a lack of progress around homelessness is a dollar not spent making this city and its infrastructure better.

Gina Viola – [see full response]

Unlike Greiwe, Community advocate Gina Viola has been a regular transit user and would like for transit to be as convenient for everyone – and especially students – as it has been for her. Properly investing in transit – accessibility improvements, public restrooms, elevators, escalators, ramps, seating, free service, etc., she said, would make both the system and the city safer. She repeatedly touted her pledge to Streets For All’s 25×25 campaign to reallocate 25 percent of car space to other modes, saying it would “reduce the need to drive” while building out “efficient and comfortable alternatives to driving, including safer active transportation.” She also called for better transit access to schools and picking up the pace on Vision Zero. She unfortunately appeared to have conflated Metro’s budget with the city’s budget, however, saying she would adopt the Peoples Budget L.A. and model her process on that participatory approach.

Viola regarding better buses and free fares:

A full re-evaluation of bus operators’ wages and benefits package to determine if the city’s current employment package is sufficient. A shortage of staff usually means one thing, the rate of pay is not commiserate [sic] with the job one is being asked to do. Metro is an exciting opportunity to partner with the County of Los Angeles on budget priorities, something as Mayor I plan to do often! With the advent of making all Metro transportation free and the implementation of the LA 25×25, ridership will naturally increase.

Mel Wilson – [see full response]

Former two-time Metro Boardmember Mel Wilson has a long history with Metro, including having helped secure a Leimert Park station for the planned Crenshaw Line. He said it was important for mayors to ride transit and use other modes the way he and his children always had. But he was also critical of current approaches to creating urban environments that supported more modes. While endorsing “much of the Vision Zero policy” including safe routes to schools, safety improvements, education, etc., for example, he said he did “not agree with a blanket policy of slowing traffic” and that he had “serious concerns about removing travel lanes in a city of 4 million people that live in an area that’s spread over 500 square miles.” Congestion and slow rates of speed hurt productivity, he said. But he also prioritized transportation demand services, congestion pricing, work staggering, autonomous vehicles, and using artificial intelligence for traffic flow, parking availability, building housing near transit, and balancing jobs and housing.

Wilson regarding better buses and free fares:

We increase hiring bus operators by implementing an aggressive marketing plan describing the public service role that bus and rail operators have. We highlight benefits and compensation operators get for working with Metro. We work with high schools and occupational centers to train new operators. We recruit high school students to enroll in Metro’s Academy.

Metro has a pending operational expense problem. Fares contribute 10% or less of the revenue required to cover the operating expenses. Voters approved billions in Metro funding. Within the next decade Metro will not be able to operate at the service levels for the new bus and rail lines.

Angelenos will increase their use of Metro’s bus and rail system when they feel that Metro is safe to ride. Increased ridership will also increase operating revenue.

I support fare-free transit for students, but not a systemwide fare-free policy. Our homeless population is scaring existing and would-be Metro riders from using the system. Requiring fares is a deterrence for homeless people perpetually riding the Metro system which is causing Metro riders to abandon the use of public transit.

Find the full mayoral candidates survey responses online.

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