With many tens of billions of dollars in the bank, LA’s city planners are hard at work laying out an ambitious array of transit improvements for the county’s ten million citizens. More than a dozen projects, each of which would be a show-stopper in another major city, are planned over the next fifteen years, essentially a doubling of the region’s transit millage.

More recently, however, the conversation has shifted to the type of infrastructure that is most appropriate for specific corridors and neighborhoods. Opportunities to transform a city only come so often, and thus planners and the citizenry alike want to ensure that infrastructure projects are built to adequately serve the needs of a growing metropolis. Nowhere is this debate drawing more attention than on Vermont Avenue.

Vermont Avenue is one of those iconic Los Angeles streets. Running from north to south, for a total length of 23 miles, the corridor passes through some of city’s most iconic neighborhoods, including Koreatown, South LA and Los Feliz. The thoroughfare intersects with both Sunset and Wilshire Boulevards and borders the University of Southern California.

Vermont sees a tremendous amount of transportation utilization, with a peak of 105,000 bus boardings in 2009 and 89,000 boardings today.

Given these facts, many transportation advocates and civic leaders were befuddled at Metro’s stated preference for Bus Rapid Transit for the corridor, as part of the larger Measure M buildout, with busy Wilshire set to receive its own subway, Vermont was a natural fit.

Those advocates rejoiced in March, when Metro’s board announced that it would consider a rail alternative stretching from 125th Street to Vermont and Wilshire.

As a former (brief) resident of the Vermont corridor, I find it hard not to be excited by this announcement. Living in LA with no car (another story) meant that I had to rely on the Vermont’s 204/754 busses to get to work in West Hollywood. It was a life of need and want. My entire commute took more than an hour and a half, each way. Much of it spent idling in the region’s notorious traffic.

There are at least five good reasons to support a subway along this corridor.

Demographics & Density

Subways are most appropriate for high density corridors, especially ones that are poised to see significant growth. Vermont Avenue fits this description perfectly.

The avenue passes through or is adjacent to five of the densest neighborhoods in LA, including Koreatown, East Hollywood, University Park, Pico-Union and South Central LA. Educational destinations along the corridor which include University of Southern California and City College. A subway line would also serve the LA Memorial Coliseum, which can attract many thousands of patrons to events.

Moreover, some of these neighborhoods and destinations serve working class demographics that are considerably underserved by today’s transit landscape. In fact, south of USC, Vermont Avenue transcends some of the most impoverished communities in the region.

If there are corridors that justify heavy rail in Los Angeles, Vermont is certainly among them.

Already, between 89,000 and 105,000 boardings occur on busses along the Avenue, with two of the busiest bus lines, the local 204 and “Rapid” 754 already serving the stretch.

A Vermont Subway would be an extension of the existing “Red Line,” 

Existing Connectivity Options

If built, a Vermont Avenue Subway would connect with an existing subway on the northern end of the corridor, providing riders with connections in Downtown, Hollywood and the Valley via existing infrastructure and along Wilshire, towards Beverly Hills and Westwood on the planned Purple Line Extension.

Light-rail services would provide additional connectivity options: a Vermont subway line would allow riders to connect with the Expo Line, which runs along Exposition, and the Green Line which connects to LAX and other points in South LA.

In short, not only will hundreds of thousands of riders per day be able to quickly move along one of Los Angeles’s busiest streets, but they’ll be able to seamlessly connect with LA’s growing transportation network.

Inadequacy of Bus and Light Rail

Today, a bus trip along the corridor can take up to an excruciating 70 minutes and there is little reason to believe that either a surface Light Rail or Bus Rapid Transit will substantially improve the status quo.

To be fully effective, both these options would require a dedicated “right of way” and either the reduction or elimination of crossings along the route. The first requirement is far easier than the second. A dedicated right of way could be established within the median or edge lanes of the avenue and could be protected from existing traffic via a concrete traffic island.

Reducing obstructions, however, is a much harder proposition.

Vermont is crossed by many major streets and thoroughfares, thus making transit vehicles subject to frequent red-light stops. Signal prioritization has been floated as a way of minimizing red-light dwell times, but this technology has limits; with dozens of transit vehicles moving along the Avenue at different times, making stops along the way, a computer can only give so much priority to a transit vehicle before it’s stuck waiting like everyone else.

The Exposition Line, a light rail that runs from Downtown to Santa Monica, is notoriously slow along portions of the line that are forced to contend with traffic. Despite the addition of signal prioritization technology, the light rails trains are still forced to stop and start, preventing them from reaching significant speed.

In stark contrast, a journey along the entire length of the Metro’s Red Line Subway takes only 29 minutes, less than half that of a bus journey along Vermont. Subways can reach much higher speeds than surface vehicles in dense neighborhoods because they’re unaffected by traffic.

Subways also have a much higher capacity than busses and light rail, with the typical subway train able to  people, while a bus/tram can hold up to 150, meaning that the new infrastructure will be able to hold up well to future development and growth patterns a densifying urban area.

Cost Effective

Subways are traditionally thought of as an expensive alternative to other transit infrastructure, but South of Exposition Boulevard, Vermont’s extra wide real estate could allow for an above ground option, which would be much cheaper and faster to construct.

For comparison, look no further than the entirely underground Purple Line Extension, which is being built for a little more than $700 million per mile. The Silver Line in Washington DC is budgeted at almost $200 million per mile. Though these would be different projects, in very different cities, there is little reason to believe that similar savings could not be achieved by converting to above ground construction.

In older cities, above ground subways are often dismissed as loud overbearing, but modern construction techniques can almost eliminate these noises.

The Big Picture

The future of LA’s transit infrastructure is largely being planned now. Building high-speed busses and less costly light rail may seem like the more expeditious solutions, but planners should not shy away from heavy-rail in areas that are most deserving of its construction.

It’s true that other options can be built with less cost and more haste but, in the case of Vermont, they’ll likely be inadequate and far less impactful than a deeper, more substantial investment.

In the lifetime of a city, the opportunity to build major public works are exceedingly rare. The opportunity to correct the mistakes of the past are even rarer; once we build infrastructure we’re often stuck with it, successful or inadequate.

That’s why it’s important for LA’s planners to make the right decision today.

Featured photo provided via Cameron Khan on Flickr 

Red Line photo provided via Port of Authority on Wikimedia Commons

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