Here are a few things you probably think you know about Los Angeles: It is a freeway-riddled, car-dependent traffic jam where nobody walks past their driveway. This is the cartoon version of L.A., a cheap shorthand of stereotypes and decades-old perceptions that the city has struggled to shake.
Yet the image isn’t totally inaccurate. Los Angeles has the worst traffic congestion in the country, according to the INRIX Traffic Scorecard the worst travel times, according to the Urban Mobility Report from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute; and the busiest urban interstate in the country, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The average travel time to work in Los Angeles County is 29.1 minutes, according to a five-year estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau, and 76 percent of commuters drive alone. A scant 7 percent take transit. Three percent walk. One percent bike. Among the county’s nearly 10 million residents, there were more than 6 million drivers’ licenses and 7 million cars and trucks registered by the end of 2012, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles. The city itself covers 469 square miles and contains about 6,500 miles of public streets and 181 miles of freeways. It’s a city in a region so wide, populous and economically interconnected that traffic is inevitable.
But there’s a relatively new and rapidly evolving counterpoint to the idea that Los Angeles is simply overrun with the car and its attendant infrastructure. L.A. is gradually becoming a multimodal city, with a growing armature of transit buoyed by a public more willing than ever to get around without getting behind the wheel.
It’s a shift occurring in many U.S. cities, but in Los Angeles the pace and impact is likely the greatest. Over the past 25 years, L.A. County’s mass transit system, Metro, has grown from only running buses into a robust system with a six-line, 80-station rail network, more than 180 bus lines covering 1,400 square miles, and an average weekday ridership of more than 1.5 million. A countywide bicycle master plan was approved in 2010, and the city has added 125 miles of bikeways over the past fiscal year. And in 2008, Los Angeles County voters approved a half-cent sales tax that will, over 30 years, generate a projected $40 billion specifically for transportation projects — an investment many cite as one of the most important drivers of transportation development in L.A. history.
Much of the city’s transformation became especially tangible in the waning years of the administration of former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who termed out in June. The passage of the sales tax, known as Measure R, as well as the opening of a new rail line connecting downtown with the city’s Westside, helped bolster Villaraigosa’s reputation as the transportation mayor. This had him shortlisted to step in as the new Transportation Secretary during President Obama’s second term. (The position eventually went to Anthony Foxx, former mayor of Charlotte, N.C.) But Villaraigosa is out of office now, and it will fall to his successor, Eric Garcetti, to try to keep up the momentum.