Santa Monica High School

Commentary: Does the Expo line ease westside traffic?

Road diets are all the rage lately, particularly on the westside of Los Angeles. That’s the slimming of roads by eliminating lanes.

Recently the L.A. City Council took lanes away from commuters along Vista del Mar. The response of the upset commuters and residents was very powerful, including a threat to recall Councilman Mike Bonin, whose district was put on a “road diet.”

This week lanes were restored, pleasing commuters and residents, alike. But traffic remains a major issue for the westside of Los Angeles.

Phase 2 of the Expo line was promoted as a way to reduce this traffic. However, it is unlikely that there has or will be any significant reduction of traffic due to the train. In fact, it may even get worse, as the city becomes friendlier to bikers and pedestrians.

One of the easiest ways to market public transportation for politicians and planners is to say that it will decrease the number of cars on the road, therefore alleviating congestion. Councilman Paul Koretz is one of the politicians who made that promise.

Councilman Koretz represents L.A.’s fifth city council district, which includes two stops that were constructed as part of Phase 2 of the Expo line: Westwood/Rancho Park and Expo/Sepulveda.

Addressing a crowd at the grand opening of Phase 2 of the Expo line, Koretz said that building more transit is very important, “in order to mitigate… the severe traffic congestion Los Angeles is facing.” However, most probably know that this is not going to happen.

A study done by researchers at USC shows that the first phase of Expo line did practically nothing to reduce traffic congestion. The researchers placed sensors along the Santa Monica Freeway and major surface streets near the original Expo line stops.

The study, released in November of 2015, did find that there was an increase in bus ridership and light rail ridership near the study area of about 6%. However, there was neither a significant nor a consistent impact on traffic speeds both on the freeway and the surface streets. The study states that the reduced number of cars on the road is “unlikely to be large enough to influence transportation system performance across the highly congested corridor served by the Expo Line.”

The study applauded the Expo line for attracting riders, as it is a sensible and lower-cost way for low-wage earners to commute. However, the study contends that politicians need to advertise public transportation differently.

There are numerous benefits of public transportation, including its low-cost and convenience for many riders, especially those with lower incomes. But when officials tell their constituents that creating more public transportation will alleviate congestion, they are only misleading them.

Planners may have intended for fewer cars to be on the road, but that is not what has occurred. In Santa Monica, which has three Expo line stops, traffic is getting worse. With the removal of lanes and more pedestrians, drivers are seeking alternative routes, using apps such as Waze. This is moving some of the traffic from downtown into the residential streets of Santa Monica. This makes residents unhappy, as their relatively quiet streets are being filled with more cars.

The increase in pedestrians, mostly brought into Santa Monica by the train, combined with the increase in vehicular traffic is a dangerous combination. There has been a growing number of accidents involving pedestrians and automobiles. Thus far in 2017, six pedestrians have been killed by cars in Santa Monica. In 2016 and 2015 combined, only one pedestrian died at the hands of a vehicle.

Santa Monica may be focused on pedestrians and cyclists, but many residents are concerned that the city is not focused on their needs as drivers. One neighborhood group sent the Santa Monica City Council a letter imploring them to focus attention and funds on motor vehicles.

“Santa Monica’s reality means that we have hundreds of thousands of car trips each day that need to move in and out of our city, so the City’s plan to slow all car traffic is unrealistic,” the group wrote. “When traffic on all thoroughfares is purposely slowed, it is only human nature that drivers would seek relief by diverting into neighborhood residential streets in an effort to find a path of lesser resistance.”

Unfortunately, unlike the L.A. City Council who responded to residents’ concerns, the Santa Monica city officials were not persuaded. They indicated that there would be no funding for a motor vehicle plan. Traffic continues to be a headache.

The Expo line expansion not only fails to deliver on the promise of a significantly reduced number of cars on the road, it also creates more potential traffic hazards and unhappy residents. While city officials in L.A. and Santa Monica have some noble goals, they are trying to achieve these goals at the expense of their constituents.