The Downtown Streetcar: My Thoughts
December 6, 2011 13 Comments
Downtown LA seems poised to get a new streetcar line in the next few years – the first of what will hopefully be a new system re-introducing the streetcar to Los Angeles, which at one time boasted the largest streetcar system in the world. In the 60 or so years since the streetcar fell out of fashion, it’s purpose has changed, and we must take that into account in planning for the new one.
The red and yellow cars of yesteryear were a regional mass transit system. Yes, they took people through Downtown, but also took them out to the “suburbs” of Pasadena or Hollywood and beyond. They were the equivalent of today’s Metro system, which is made up of busses, subway, and light rail. Today’s streetcar is more of a local transit option. It is an urban circulator, a “last-mile connector.” The streetcar of today will help pedestrians make the connection within that 1-2 mile area that is too far to walk. They should be quick, but speed is not ultimately the most important aspect as they are usually only covering relatively short distances anyway. One of the main purposes of the Downtown Streetcar is to be a development tool, according to Bringing Back Broadway and LA Streetcar Inc. The hope is that a permanent route, as well as the attraction of streetcars, will spur development all along that route (particularly on Broadway).
Someone may take the subway into Downtown for an event, and then take the streetcar to get drinks afterwards in another part of Downtown. The streetcar was not their main method of transportation to or from Downtown, but expanded their options once here. With that in mind… I’ve been following the LA Streetcar project since its inception and now that it’s nearing the time to choose a route, I want to put my observations and suggestions forward.
First, a short note about the process. In the original round, planners split the route into three sections, the north, middle, and south section and evaluated the various options within each section individually. For the second round, they came out with 7 possible combinations. These combinations seem relatively random, in terms of why a certain options were paired with each other.
When I asked multiple representatives at the last community meeting why each section was paired, there were really no concrete answers. It’s as if they randomly picked combinations and decided they will be the final 7. For example, there are a few routes that reach north toward Union Station, and one that travels on 7th Street in the southern section. Why is there no option that does both? If there were benefits to reaching Union Station in the north, would they be wiped away by also traveling on 7th in the south? All this being said, it hasn’t quite affected my idea of the best route, but I do believe the options should be considered. If you’re going to introduce a route on 7th Street between the first and second rounds (as they did), introduce it in a way that it can be evaluated with all possible northern options, not just one.
For all the maps and information on each alternative (which I will reference often), see the latest Briefing Package (as of Nov. 3, 2011), here.
Even though Metro has mixed the sections into 7 final alternatives, I will still look at them in pieces because it provides a greater amount of clarity.
The Central Section
It is assumed that the southbound route will travel on Broadway. None of the options suggest anything else. This was really the original purpose of the streetcar, to spur development on Broadway, so we consider it decided that it will travel south on Broadway. The northbound option is either to run on Hill St. or on Grand Avenue, with the addition of an elevated structure to smooth out the steep slope of that street.
My opinion of these options is that the route must go north on Hill Street.
The route on Grand Ave. goes in the opposite direction of traffic for 5 blocks, something that is sure to cause confusion for motorists and pedestrians alike. As someone waiting for a streetcar, you expect it to go in the same direction as traffic. I foresee plenty of people who don’t exactly know the route waiting on Grand for a southbound streetcar, only to find that one never comes.
The elevated structure will span the area between 6th and 4th Streets. These two blocks are two of the most dense, big city blocks in Downtown. Putting any sort of massive elevated structure here will kill them. It would mean the streetcar passes by such Downtown establishments as Water Grill, The Millennium Biltmore Hotel, The Hilton Checkers Hotel, The Central Library, The US Bank Tower, the Gas Company Tower, and Pershing Square a block away while on an elevated structure. The slope of track would not allow stops between 6th and 3rd, so this whole area would effectively miss any benefits of the streetcar.
Not only that, but the structure itself would harm the area. Imagine a cement structure built in front of the Biltmore Hotel or the Pacific Center. Not a pretty sight. And certainly not a recipe for a warm, inviting, pedestrian sidewalk.
Also, the distance between the northbound and southbound routes will be three blocks. I think this is too far to be effective (not to mention that there won’t actually be any northbound stops for a huge section of that route thanks to the bridge).
Frankly, I don’t know how this idea made it into any of the final seven alternatives. Alternatives 1 and 2 must be discounted, and I will focus on the merits of Alternatives 3-7, all of which have the streetcar running north on Hill St.
Aside from the faults of the Grand Ave. alternatives, Hill St. has plenty of merits. The streetcar would pass bars, nightclubs, and undeveloped or underused buildings on the southern end of the route. Hill is also a retail heavy area – currently mostly jewelry – but with plenty of potential for increased use just like Broadway. Hill St. skirts the eastern edge of Pershing Square, and the streetcar could be just what is needed to spur some creative redesigns for the park/plaza/area. The route would connect to both sides of Grand Central Market, Angels Flight, two Red Line stations, and a future Regional Connector station.
Some have argued that any route which is “circular” in nature – that doesn’t go north and south on the same street – will be a failure. I disagree, however, and think that the one-block distance between Broadway and Hill will present little to no problem at all. Bus routes are often effective running on one-way streets one block apart, and there is no reason to believe the streetcar will be different, especially because the east-west blocks are short between Broadway and Hill.
The Southern Section
With the introduction of a route that travels on 7th Street in the southern section (Alternative 7), my heart jumped a little. After all, this photo hangs on my wall:
Streetcars running on 7th Street is a dream come true for nostalgic reasons. Unfortunately, if we based decisions off of nostalgia, we may end up with streetcars that sit in traffic more than anything else. Today, 7th Street is one of the more congested east-west streets through Downtown and I fear the streetcar would end up sitting in a row of cars more than it moves. The same problem exists on Figueroa where the streetcar would be running north. There is a bus-only lane for part of the way on Figueroa, and it would be necessary for the streetcar and busses to have their own right-of-way all the way from 11th to 7th. I don’t think the streetcar would be very effective on 7th if it didn’t have it’s own right-of-way here either. All in all, a route on 7th could be great if the streetcar existed in a vacuum. It won’t, however, and if a route on 7th is chosen, it must include major comprehensive changes to the way the street is used (by pedestrians, bikes, busses, cars, and the streetcar) rather than just putting rails in one of the lanes.
It should also be noted that a route on 7th creates a very large circle in the southern section and we run into issues where the opposite directions of the route are not close to each other. The other option, a route that travels on 9th street (as in Alternatives 3-6), closes the radius of that circle a bit and makes it more effective for travel in either/both directions because the route passes more closely by the same destinations on both sides of its southern loop.
The 9th Street route passes through some areas very similar to Broadway, with buildings that aren’t much used, as well as empty lots just waiting to be built on. This would be another key area that the streetcar can contribute to development. It will also pass Ralphs, which would be great for locals to shop by streetcar. 9th street has much less traffic on it than 7th (and is a one-way street, meaning vehicles can flow better and we could choose which side of the street to put the streetcar on). As I learned in Seattle, they made the good decision to put their first Streetcar on a less-trafficed, less-developed street. We should do the same.
Alternatives 3-6 differ in the southernmost part of the southern section. Alternatives 3 and 5 continue south to Pico Blvd, and then north on Hope and west on 11th to avoid crossing the Blue/Expo Line tracks. Alternatives 4 and 6 simply turn from Broadway directly onto 11th. I know part of the streetcar is to serve as a development tool, but I think pushing it south to Pico will stretch the route so far that it makes it less convenient, hurting ridership and ultimately not helping development anyway. 11th (Chick Hearn) and Figueroa directly serves Staples Center and L.A. LIVE and will be one block from the Convention Center and hopefully Farmers Field. The route would lose more than it gains trying to get down to Pico, especially because it wouldn’t even reach the Convention Center and instead turn to miss the Blue Line tracks.
I think it makes sense to further eliminate some routes here, so we are now down to Alternative 4 or 6, which travel west on 11th Street and east on 9th.
The Northern Section
The northern section has two very unique options. Alternative 4 goes west on 1st street and hooks south on Grand, before doubling back. It passes in front of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, near the Music Center, and potentially extends south a block to the currently-under-contruction Broad Museum and California Plaza. The Music Center/Walt Disney Concert Hall area has been the point of focus for the project since the beginning.
After the initial route screening, there were so many public comments saying the streetcar should reach Union Station, that another option was added. Alternative 6 goes east on 1st, to Main St., where it turns north to pass City Hall, cross the 101 and loop through el Pueblo, outside Union Station. It should be noted that this route does not technically “reach” Union Station — it would loop through the Plaza at el Pueblo, across busy Alameda St. and a less-than-ideal pedestrian connection between el Pueblo and Union Station.
I live near Union Station and spend a lot of time at el Pueblo and Olvera Street. The prospect of a streetcar looping through the plaza to help connect it to the rest of Downtown (because it has been cut off by the 101) seriously excites me. I have many grand dreams for this area, from outdoor dining at the Pico House, to a more grand pedestrian connection from the center entrance of Union Station across Los Angeles Street. This could really be a key location for the streetcar. If Park 101 (the cap park over the freeway, reconnecting the north side – el Pueblo – and south side – Civic Center) ever gets built, the streetcar would run right through it, which I think would be great as well.
All this being said, I think that the extended loop will be too much to bear and by forcing the route towards Union Station, we would lose the key arts and cultural attractions at the Music Center. Someday, I would love to see a streetcar stop in the plaza outside Olvera Street, where diners could finish dinner outside the Pico House and jump on for a short ride across Park 101, maybe continuing down Spring Street to a bar in the Historic Core as a second line that is complementary to this first. As for now, however, this will have to be a dream left for someday.
The most practical, economical, and best option for the current streetcar plan is to reach the Music Center at 1st and Grand. Stretching toward Union Station will cost more, bring in less boardings per mile, and miss key attractions that could contribute greatly to the success of the streetcar. More than anything, I hope the first route is successful (by whatever standards we use for that… increased development along the route, high ridership, sustainable operations), even if it doesn’t reach every key point, so that we can use it as an example by which to build more routes.
All things considered, I believe that Alternative 4 will be the best route for the Downtown Streetcar. It will bring increased development to Broadway, and I believe to Hill Street as well. It will help connect Pershing Square to the city and hopefully inspire a redesign of sorts. It will connect cultural and entertainment destinations with dining, bars, and residents within Downtown. In addition (and this was not a major factor in my analysis), it has the lowest capital cost and operations cost of all the routes being studied, meaning it will probably be the easiest to get up and running.
Please feel free to share your comments and ideas – I’ve looked at this very thoroughly and been involved in the process since its inception, but there could certainly be aspects and perspectives of the project I have missed.
To keep up on the planning process, make sure to visit Metro’s streetcar project website, here.