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Fewer cars in LA culture shift

Transit use rises; bike lanes, light rail are expanded

Angelenos have been among the most car-dependent US commuters, with 67 percent commuting solo in 2009.Reed Saxon/Associated Press/File 2010

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles embodied America’s love affair with the automobile in the last century. In this one, it is trying to kick the car to the curb.

The city that put drive-through restaurants on the map has doubled bike lanes to 292 miles and expanded light rail by 26 percent in eight years. Bus and train ridership is increasing while the number of passenger cars registered in Los Angeles County has declined.

The traditional combustion-engined, gasoline-powered car is under assault from those and other options: electric cars, hybrids, and car-sharing plans such as the one operated by Avis Budget’s Zipcar. Los Angeles, the largest market in the biggest US state for vehicle sales, could be the ultimate test of the conventional car’s future.


“The next 10 years will be as important to the auto industry and transportation literally as the invention of the Model T,” said Scott Griffith, former chief executive officer of and now an adviser to Zipcar.

“We’re now on the edge of all these new business models coming along and the intersection of information and the car and transportation,” Griffith said. “If you look out 10 years, I think we’re going to see a huge change, particularly in cities.”

Though the new-car market has rebounded from the recession, Los Angeles County had 28,000 fewer passenger cars registered in 2012 than five years earlier, according to California’s Department of Motor Vehicles. Boardings on the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s buses and trains increased 4.7 percent to 41.3 million in May 2013, compared with May 2011.

Authority officials plan to spend $14 billion to accelerate that shift.

Under outgoing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who accelerated funding for light-rail and subway systems, Los Angeles is working to reach almost 115 miles of track, from the current 88 miles, by 2036.


Angelenos have been among the most car-dependent US commuters, with 67 percent commuting solo in 2009, compared with 24 percent for New York and 51 percent for Chicago, according to the US Census Bureau. In Detroit, home of the US auto industry, the figure was 71 percent.

Los Angeles had the nation’s longest congestion-related delays in April, according to Inrix Inc.’s scorecard, with the average driver wasting 5.2 hours, up from 4.5 hours in April 2012.

Villaraigosa, 60, who was elected in 2005, championed a 2008 ballot measure that raised sales taxes in Los Angeles County by half a percentage point for 30 years, with the projected $40 billion in proceeds earmarked for rail lines, expanded rapid bus service, widening highways, and adding carpool lanes. Twenty percent of the revenue was devoted to highways, with the largest share, 35 percent, for rail and bus rapid-transit lines.

“Los Angeles in the eyes of people outside of LA has always been 72 suburbs in search of a city, very much an automobile-driven place,” said Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, associate dean of the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA. “I don’t think we can see Los Angeles as a solely auto-centric city.”

The city has added bike lanes and reminded drivers they must share the road. Los Angeles is making plans for a bike-share program similar to New York’s Citi Bike, the network inaugurated last month in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Privately held Bike Nation USA announced plans last year for bike sharing in Los Angeles, beginning downtown this year, with as many as 4,000 bicycles eventually.


The changes are making it easier for two-wheeled commuters like Madeline Brozen, 26, who studies urban mobility, and Mehmet Berker, 27, a graphic designer.

“I feel pretty spoiled by the transit system in LA,” said Brozen, who uses a bicycle and buses to make a 12-mile trek to her job as director of the Complete Streets Initiative at the University of California.

Berker, who sold his car after moving from Minneapolis, said he cycles, takes the subway and bus, asks for rides from friends, and uses Zipcar’s short-term car rentals.

“It’s sometimes a matter of bumming a ride,” he said, “and sometimes, it’s just impossible.”

Villaraigosa, whose two terms in office end June 30, leaves behind a city partially reshaped by his bus and bike initiatives, with the potential for a denser, more developed urban core.

The city also plans to extend a light-rail line to Los Angeles International Airport within the next decade.

As Los Angeles develops its public-transit lines, builders, business owners, and investors will be enticed to areas near transit stations for development opportunities, said Robert Cervero, a professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California, Berkeley.