Monday, August 1, 2016

How LA County’s Transportation Agency Became a Leader on Improving Access to Transit for All

You wouldn’t know it from walking around Metro’s trains stations and bus stops today, but Los Angeles County is well on its way to becoming one of the easiest places to walk, roll and bike to transit in the country.

If Measure M passes this November, voters will invest close to $1 billion (2015 dollars) toward Metro’s strategy of planning access improvements as an integral part of new transit projects. Neighborhoods around transit stations are about to get a lot friendlier to people walking and biking, and these improvements will benefit everyone living near transit.

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Percent of Metro bus and train riders who walk or bike to a bus stop or train station. Source: Metro (2016), Quality of Life report.

Over the past years, Metro has incrementally embraced planning for the first and last mile of its passengers’ trips, recognizing that investing in making it safer and more convenient to get to transit is key to increasing ridership in a region where planning for too long has been focused on how many cars can quickly travel as a key goal for transportation priorities. Ridership surveys have long shown that the vast majority of  riders walk and bike to catch the bus or train.

But, at the same time, the cities that maintain sidewalks and bike lanes haven’t had the funding to make sure their infrastructure served people riding buses and trains. Passengers were stuck in the middle, and it doesn’t take too many times waiting in the blazing Southern California sun at a bus stop with no shade before riders look for better options.

With Measure M and Metro’s Active Transportation Strategic Plan, that’s all about to change.

Growing Support for First and Last Mile Improvements

Metro hasn’t always been a leader in creating safe and walkable communities. A slow shift in attitudes began almost a decade ago when $30 million of Measure R was set aside for the Eastside Access project, at the request of then First District Supervisor Gloria Molina, who represented some of Los Angeles’ neighborhoods where transit was a key part of people’s daily mobility options. This project was one of the first times when Metro planners worked with their city and county counterparts with the sole purpose of making it safe and more convenient to walk, roll and bike to a new transit project, in this case the Eastside Gold Line extension.

What emerged was the beginning of a sense of partnership and shared responsibility for neighborhoods around transit.

Fast forward to 2012’s Countywide Sustainability Planning Policy (a policy that emerged from SCAG’s 2012 Regional Transportation Plan), which continued Metro’s evolution of its mission from building projects and running buses and trains to understanding how those investments affect other outcomes like quality of life. This policy included the explicit goal to extend the reach of transit for the purpose of growing ridership, and directed the creation of the First Last Mile Strategic Plan to accomplish this goal. Adopted in March 2014, the First Last Mile Strategic Plan set the conceptual framework for how Metro could work in partnership with local jurisdictions to coordinate improvements within walking and biking distance from transit.

While the plan came without any funding for implementation, it drew unanimous praise from the Metro board, including from members that haven’t always supported walking and biking investments.

Metro Steps Up To Fund Projects that benefits those traveling on foot or bicycle

Building on the First Last Mile Strategic Plan’s broad support, advocates made the case for funding. In July 2014, we launched the #MetroFundWalkBike campaign with testimony at Metro’s Planning and Programming Committee.

At the time, Metro was considering a Short Range Transportation Plan that continued to devote only one percent of Metro’s funding to projects that serve people walking and bicycling. In response, Metro Director Mike Bonin introduced a simple motion directing staff to answer a basic question: how much money would it take to make Los Angeles County walkable and bikeable? Metro staff got to work to figure it out as part of an Active Transportation Finance Strategy.

Meanwhile, in October 2014, the Metro board adopted the award-winning Complete Streets Policy, which called for all projects — including transit and highways — to incorporate the needs of all ages and abilities of people walking and bicycling. This was a watershed moment for the agency: walking and biking became a core mission for every project, every plan, and every policy decision.

Moreover, cities would be required to adopt their own complete streets policies to be eligible for future Metro grants, using the power of the purse to encourage good planning at the local level. While most complete streets policies seek to ensure basic accommodations for walking and biking, Metro’s requirement went farther by clearly articulating the agency’s responsibility for planning and funding access improvements as part of new transit lines so that future passengers could reach them.

While, again, no new funding was attached to the mandate, this elevated first and last mile planning from just a good idea to a core responsibility.

Metro’s Active Transportation Strategic Plan Moves the Needle on First and Last Mile Planning

These incremental policy wins set the stage for the groundbreaking Active Transportation Strategic Plan, adopted in May 2016. This plan included a cost estimate for improvements around 661 rail, bus rapid transit, and high-ridership bus stops throughout the county, part of an overall plan that also included regional greenways, safe routes to school, safety education, and other walking and biking needs.

At the time of adoption, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti introduced a motion calling for a funding commitment for first and last mile access as part of new transit projects. His motion proposed a partnership with local jurisdictions, harkening back to the spirit of partnership forged during the Eastside Access project.

During discussion of the Garcetti motion, Inglewood Mayor James Butts spoke up and proposed going a step further by approximately doubling the funding called for by Mayor Garcetti, which was accepted as a friendly amendment. This new first and last mile policy proposed by the two mayors with key support from Director Bonin and others was incorporated directly into the ballot measure expenditure plan adopted in June. What began as a good idea became a funded policy.

Measure M Will Better Connect Our Neighborhoods

If the ballot measure passes, here’s how the policy would work: cities that are home to a new transit station would be required to contribute three percent of the capital cost of the transit project. This was an informal requirement for Measure R projects that would be codified by Measure M. The Garcetti policy, as amended by Butts, would allow all of this local contribution to be directed toward first and last mile improvements in the station area that are jointly agreed upon by both the city and Metro.

This approach makes planning improvements to local streets and sidewalks a shared responsibility between city, unincorporated parts of LA County and Metro staff, and provides a funding mechanism to pay for them. While this policy doesn’t guarantee that local jurisdictions will choose to direct their entire three percent local contribution toward first and last mile access, they have every incentive to since the alternative is to write a check to Metro for the transit project without ensuring their residents will be able to safely and enjoyably access and use Metro’s buses and trains – as well as ensure the investments are benefiting their local streets and sidewalks. 

All told, this policy, if applied to every transit project listed in the ballot measure, could yield $934 million for more walkable and bikeable streets near transit, on top of the $3.9 billion dedicated for other active transportation projects and programs. That’s real money. That’s real transportation options.  That’s our voices and the user experience of transit being heard.  

It’s the result of years of persistent advocacy by our partners, speaking at board meetings, meeting with and writing to elected officials, coming to countless workshops, and celebrating incremental victories while knowing there’s more work to be done. This investment in first and last mile access will expand the reach of Metro’s ambitious new transit system into even more neighborhoods and provide safe and dignified access for the people who live there.

Last thoughts

At Investing in Place, we talk about the need to make transit a safe and dignified experience. This isn’t a quest to attract the elusive “choice rider”; it’s an acknowledgement that focusing on the core elements of good transit —accessibility, frequency, and reliability — will grow ridership of all types. Our poll of LA County voters reinforced the need and appetite for safe, walkable communities.

The experience of taking transit starts when someone leaves their front door and ends at their destination. If walking to the bus stop involves tripping on broken sidewalks and darting across unsafe crosswalks, or if biking to the train station means a stressful ride on a high-speed street with no bike lane, then people will seek better options. It is therefore no surprise that walkable neighborhoods are more likely to support better transit ridership.

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