Long bemoaned as the capital of congestion, Los Angeles has emerged as one of the nation’s transit leaders, surprising as that may be. As a Coro Fellow in 1980, I studied the then-clunky, bus-dominant status of public transit in the region. Old transit hands I interviewed lamented the loss of the Red Line passenger rail that crisscrossed the county. I could only imagine at that time the throngs of Angelenos who took such mobility for granted. Now I have lived to ride the newest Metro line with my fellow citizens to within walking distance of the Pacific Ocean.
MoveLA, a project of Community Partners for almost nine years now, got the ball rolling toward the expansion of the Expo Line under the leadership of former Santa Monica Mayor Denny Zane, who addresses the history here. Denny and his team at MoveLA were thought leaders and proponents of the half-cent sales tax known as Measure R that finally brought the county enough financing to support a more robust transit build-out.
Today, MoveLA is joined and often supported by another five transit-focused projects sponsored here at Community Partners. Their leaders are working toward safer sidewalks and streets for pedestrians; expanding bicycle infrastructure (see this story about BikeSGV) and bicycle safety; and bringing the voices of those who most often rely on alternate forms of transportation to the back rooms and board rooms from which key decisions about infrastructure and mobility emerge. Together they represent a movement for an alternative transportation future defining Los Angeles in ways that will have vast and lasting consequences, some predictable, others unintended and unknowable today.
Here’s a rundown of the wheels we know best beneath this city-shifting movement:
MoveLA raised the stakes on transit with strong advocacy for the gigantic financial infusion the county would need to determine its own transit destiny. Enough funding to do the job was never in the federal or state funding cards, so – tapping into the region’s cultural character as a land of self-determined mavericks – MoveLA bent the arc of the Southern California zeitgeist toward a do-it-yourself future. They had ample faith that rail investments would provide the backbone for unparalleled mobility well beyond important, but inadequate bus dependency. Zane and his MoveLA partners knew how to animate and mobilize the political and economic interests needed to get the ballot measure passed, living up to their commanding insight into the possibilities of massive systems change.
Investing in Place is the mantra – and project moniker – devised by Jessica Meaney to spur and educate a range of community and civic leaders to understand and value transportation for access to jobs and education, improved health and environmental benefits and to become advocates for equity goals in all public transit investments. Previously, few people except for policy wonks, planners and powerful planning, transit, and construction interests knew anything about how massive public transit investments were decided in Los Angeles. Jessica and her allies have democratized understanding and made policy decisions more accountable to more people. They are hoping the results of a recent poll they commissioned will help convince Metro that a higher priority on funding alternatives to driving, and especially walking and biking, will earn more votes for a transportation sales tax in November. This is critical because many low-income families that depend on public transit need to walk or ride the “last mile” to get to their home, school or work place – and need to do so safely.
Leaders of Los Angeles Walks and Walk Long Beach saw too many traffic deaths in their respective cities. In their own ways, each spearheaded “Vision Zero” efforts to end the carnage and make streets safer for walking and cycling. Though neither started with a specific focus on safety for specific age groups, both LAW and WLB found common cause with the aims of AARP since seniors tend to rely disproportionately on walking or public transit to get where they want to go. Groups like LAW and WLB hold the potential for bridging diverse communities across generations.
Multicultural Communities for Mobility is helping Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti with outreach and rollout efforts critical to the success of Metro’s new BikeShare program launching this summer. The group’s ties to people in low-income communities gives them privileged insight into the utility and use of bikes as a vital, often singular means for getting to and from work, school and everyday life activities. MCM uses transportation as a means for civic engagement and movement building in low-income communities. With the demise of the Bus Riders Union, MCM holds the promise of mobilizing the region’s most disadvantaged and disenfranchised to make a difference in their daily lives through safe, efficient and effective walking, cycling and use of public transit.
For the most part, all of these groups operate with relatively modest budgets and small paid staffs, which clearly have compelled them toward extraordinary resourcefulness, creative partnerships and agility. Their tenacious commitment toward a new vision for the city reminds one of the observation anthropologist Margaret Mead once made: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Metropolitan Los Angeles tomorrow will take shape from the activism and urgency of these citizens today.