Matt Yglesias on the Transformation of Los Angeles

by Reihan Salam

Matt Yglesias has a Moneybox column on Los Angeles’s embrace of mass transit. The Los Angeles metropolitan area is already very dense, as Matt explains. Yet it is a low-rise, polycentric region that mushroomed in the age of the automobile, which poses a challenge for traditional modes of mass transit.

My own view is that Los Angeles would for that reason be a perfect proving ground for new experiments in personal urban mobility that build on the rise of autonomous vehicles and car-sharing platforms. Southern California has seen a number of experiments with congestion pricing and HOT lanes, and it is home to Donald Shoup, the economist and urban planning scholar at UCLA who has championed performance parking among other traffic-fighting measures. One of Shoup’s more intriguing ideas is that the revenues generated by performance parking should be given to “parking benefit districts,” i.e., that the revenues raised in a given neighborhood should be used to fund services that benefit residents of the neighborhood in question, thus building a political constituency for a measure that would otherwise be unpopular. In a related vein, he has called for giving the revenues generated by freeway congestion tolls to the municipalities the freeways cut through. 

While congestion is one of the chief barriers to Los Angeles’s further growth and development, the effort to grow and densify the city and region would be greatly served by the “getting the basics right” agenda Shikha Dalmia recently referenced. Los Angeles is the paradigmatic post-Fordist city, with relatively few large corporate employers, a fair bit of light manufacturing, a large number of “no-collar” independent contractors, and a very large and inefficient public sector. The city is seen less as an engine of upward mobility and more as a city that offers high-quality private amenities to the affluent, who can insulate themselves from low-quality public services, and the childless, who don’t depend quite as much on local public services. These are challenges that won’t be solved through better transit alone, as Matt would happily acknowledge.

But this is not to say that Los Angeles should not continue to build out its bus rapid transit and subway networks. The case for the “subway-to-the-sea” is far stronger, in my view, than the case for California’s planned high-speed railroad. Moreover, one of the biggest benefits of better transit is that it can facilitate upward mobility by giving poor residents better transportation options. This can reduce the time-cost of serving affluent customers, thus creating more employment opportunities.