Transit, Jobs and Equitable Development in Los Angeles

11.25.11 | In Los Angeles County, the transportation authority has come under fire from the L.A. Bus Riders Union and a coalition of community advocacy groups for fare increases and deep cuts to bus service that the union says has had a disproportionate impact on low-income people of color who ride the buses in L.A.

It has been five years since the civil rights lawsuit and resulting federal consent decree forced the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA) to deal with discriminatory practices. And now the Federal Transit Administration is again reviewing complaints of possible civil rights violations made by the union as part of a compliance review that began this summer.

The coalition’s latest report “Transit Civil Rights and Economic Survival in Los Angeles” calls on the LACMTA to create bus-only lanes, expand their fleet of clean-fuel buses, and reduce fares that have been increased twice since 2006. Doing so, they say, will help create jobs and protect the environment.

With the current economic downturn, the union says the service cuts and fare hikes are hitting riders very hard. Los Angles is suffering from a 13.3% unemployment rate, and many residents depend on L.A.’s buses to get to and keep jobs – not to mention to go to school, grocery shop, or to receive medical care.

Eight out of 10 Metro bus riders are Black or Latino. Seven out of 10 come from households with an annual income less than $26,000. For transit-dependent people in LA — unemployed and underemployed, home-care workers, hotel workers, security officers, janitors, formerly incarcerated people, student workers, and many more — transit service often can make the difference between economic survival and financial collapse. They live at the bottom rungs of a bleak economic ladder, with unemployment and under-employment well above national averages that continue to climb even after the end of the official recession.

Authors argue for reallocating federal dollars from highway spending to public transit that they say will help create green jobs and spur economic growth and recovery.

The report cites research by BRR Network Member Todd Swanstrom and colleagues Will Winter and Laura Wiedlocher who examine the effect of increased public transit spending on job growth. In “More Transit = More Jobs,” (pdf) a report prepared for the Transportation Equity Network, researchers find that metropolitan areas that spend a higher proportion of their transportation dollars on public transit generate more jobs per dollar. Based on data from Transportation Improvement Programs in 20 metropolitan areas, they find that if these metro areas shifted 50% of their highway funds to public transit projects they would generate 1,123,674 new jobs, with a net gain of 180,150 jobs over five years, controlling for the loss of jobs from reduced spending on highways. The numbers vary by metro region (note the analysis does not include L.A. because of data limitations) but the trend is clear –shifting resources to public transit helps create jobs without new funding.

Additionally, in their conclusions authors point to several other ways public transit helps create jobs. Reduced expenses on car travel leaves more money to circulate in the local economy; In congested metro areas employers pay a wage premium to attract qualified employees; And public transit allows for business clusters which can increase productivity and create jobs.

Much of the focus on transit in recent years has been on these clusters and transit oriented development usually around light rail projects. Yet experience has shown that these developments do take resources away from needed public bus systems and result in inequitable development patterns that spur gentrification and hurt low-income communities.  New businesses development that comes with TOD projects often results in higher rents and  gentrification patterns that make it hard for long-term neighborhood residents to afford to continue to live there.

In Los Angeles, the Bus Riders Union argues that bus service cuts were made as a result of the new gold, green and blue rail lines even though bus lines are used more and are more cost efficient.

The East Los Angeles Community Corporation (ELACC) is one of the organizations helping to press the transit authority to protect the community near the new gold rail line in the Boyle Heights neighborhood. ELACC is working to stop evictions near the station, to protect small businesses in the neighborhood and to “ensure that the properties it acquired for the construction of the line would provide a long-term public benefit,” including affordable housing and community services, according to this blog post at L.A.Streets.

Last summer I wrote about transit oriented development and how planners, policy makers and community members can work together to ensure that the economic benefits of transit projects are distributed evenly among all residents.

BRR research shows that if transit oriented development projects have a real focus on equity they can help maximize the benefits of developments like L.A.’s gold line for low-income people and actually create opportunity for sustainable development for the whole region.

But as the experience of riders in L.A. shows, that remains a very difficult task.  Read the full report from the Bus Riders Union here, (pdf). And for more case study examples on how policy, civic efforts and private interventions have helped shape transit development in Denver, Charlotte, Miami and Boston read our coverage of BRR Network Member Rolf Pendall and colleagues’ forthcoming chapter, “Bringing Equity to Transit-Oriented Development:  Strategies, Systems, and Regional Resilience.”

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