Los Angeles is an incredibly challenging city to navigate. The endless rows of city blocks extend to the horizon, while a winding knot of countless freeways serves as a desperate attempt to bring some continuity and connectedness to the city.
LA is notorious for its oppressively long commutes and its vast sprawl. Yet despite its size, the city suffers from a significant lack of public transportation, a benefit enjoyed by residents of many other large cities in the United States and around the world. While the Metrolink train system and various Metro lines do exist, they are far from sufficient, considering the size of LA.
The lack of public transportation in LA brings more than just inconvenience. It limits the mobility and access to opportunity for the city’s low-income population, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and segregation that has existed in the city for decades.
The majority of public transportation does not reach the areas that need it most. The historical fragmentation of the city, most often along racial and socioeconomic lines, has led to a city that is incredibly spread out and, therefore, incredibly divided.
In light of all of this, the most effective way to combat poverty and inequality in LA is to improve the city’s public transportation system.
While it may feel almost impossible to believe, there was a time when LA had an impressive public transportation system. In 1910, LA had the largest electric transit system in the world. As the city experienced explosive growth in the following years, this public transit system allowed the city to remain connected as it grew upward and outward. But by 1950, ridership had dropped sharply, and in a few years, the system was largely dismantled.
The rapid decline of the LA streetcar has a fascinating and complex history, but the simplified version is that increased car ownership and some questionable actions by National City Lines (a holding company linked to General Motors, the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company and Standard Oil of California) led to the implosion of what was once one of the most impressive systems of public transportation in the world.
Ever since then, the state of public transportation in the city has been far from encouraging, and the current situation doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the potential for future growth. In fact, the fight in recent years has been focused on keeping the current system alive, leaving little space to advocate for its expansion.
Public transportation in LA currently consists of six rail lines and two busways, as well as the two regional lines run by Amtrak and Metrolink. These lines primarily service the more touristed parts of the city.
Many of the city’s poorer neighborhoods have been notably omitted, leaving them with limited options when it comes to public transport. A short arm of the Gold Line makes a feeble attempt at entering East LA, and the Blue Line grazes the western edge of South LA — hardly what could be called a sufficiently extensive system capable of serving the city’s nearly 4 million residents.
The portion of LA residents who cannot afford to purchase and maintain a vehicle have severely limited options. They are immediately at a distinct disadvantage, and as a result of the city’s history of racial fragmentation, this disadvantage almost entirely falls onto the city’s low-income, minority population. These individuals are left with far fewer opportunities for education or employment outside of the small portion of the city they are easily able to access. A study conducted between 2011 and 2015 in the LA area showed that Latinx people are more than twice as likely, and African Americans three times as likely, to not own a car, compared to white Angelenos. Without a car, the wealth of opportunities that a city like LA has to offer are largely unattainable.
In addressing this significant source of inequality within our city, one must first acknowledge the reality that freedom of mobility is a privilege and that people have varying degrees of access to it. Despite the reality of traffic congestion, car ownership opens up a host of opportunities that many lower-income, minority residents are not able to access. Once we recognize this and the detrimental effects that it has on such a large portion of Angelenos, we can begin to earnestly work toward long-term solutions.
Massive urban sprawl, a limited public transportation system and historical divisions within the city have defined LA’s past, but they do not have to define its future.
By expanding public transportation, we can begin to repair the divisions that exist within our city.
As students, this means using public transit whenever possible to support the system that provides this vital form of transportation. Additionally, we can fight for increased public transportation in LA by supporting legislation that aims to build upon the system we currently have and opposes attempts at dismantling it.
In the lead up to the 2028 Summer Olympics, the LA Metro Board has proposed the “Twenty-Eight by ‘28” initiative, which hopes to make key expansions to the city’s current metro system. This large-scale endeavor, if accomplished, could prove to be a game changer in the fight for more equal freedom of mobility. Many of the proposed expansions target key areas, like East and South LA, that are most negatively affected by the lack of alternative forms of transportation. Support for this initiative can help to ensure that it remains on schedule and continues to be properly funded.
Completely reconstructing the infrastructure of an entire city, especially one as massive as LA, seems near-impossible. However, increasing the freedom of mobility for all Angelenos is a huge step in the right direction. By supporting the expansion of public transportation in LA, we can begin to work toward a day when all Angelenos equally share the many opportunities the city provides.
Ryan Lillestrand PZ ’23 lives in Orlando, Florida but grew up in Florence, Italy. He is an avid reader and intends on majoring in international political economy and cognitive science.