I just put up an article on Urbanize complaining about Los Angeles’s uniquely high operating costs on the subway and light rail. In the article, I offered a few explanations, but also said that none of them seems satisfying: high wages (wages are as high in Chicago), low frequency (frequency is as low in Atlanta), low train operator efficiency (the gap with London is too small), few lines with two different technologies (Atlanta has just two lines and Miami one).
Long-time readers may be used to my sneering at American transit operations for being primitive compared with European ones, but here, the best American system (Chicago) outperforms the four Western European systems for which I have data, and one more (Philadelphia) is within those four European systems’ range. Per car-km, Chicago spends $5 in operating costs, London/Paris/Berlin $6, Philadelphia and Madrid $7, New York $9-10, and Los Angeles $12.
So Los Angeles is special. Lisa Schweitzer suggests my discounting the frequency and system size explanations is in error, and when I brought up Atlanta on social media, she noted that Atlanta’s labor costs are lower than Los Angeles’s. Assuming this is correct (Southern California uniquely combines high nominal wages with a tiny subway network), Los Angeles should expect subway operating costs to come down as it builds its urban rail network. Some lines, like the Regional Connector, the Wilshire subway, and the Crenshaw light rail line, are already under construction. But as the system grows (especially the subway system, which is technologically incompatible with the light rail lines, even the fully grade-separated Green Line), average operating costs will fall, which suggests that marginal operating costs are low. If Los Angeles has not figured this into its calculation, this means that the finances of future subway lines are better than projected.
I drew this map of what rapid transit Los Angeles should build. The map isn’t new, but I want to use it to explain how I think cities should be building subways.
1. Every line is rapid transit, even lines built out of light rail lines today, like the Blue Line and the Expo Line. Unprotected grade crossings and street running, even in dedicated tracks, limit capacity and reliability elsewhere down the line, even though they do not reduce speed on other segments of the line. The Orange Line is replaced by a subway, not light rail.
2. Branching is rare. Only three subway lines branch. Two tunnel through Sepulveda Pass (where Let’s Go LA suggests four branches on each side of the tunnel), with each line branching into two in the north, in the Valley, where demand on each corridor is lower. The third is on Vermont, with a branch west to Torrance.
3. Many lines run elevated, in less dense areas with very wide streets. South Vermont is this south of Gage. This also includes the four north-south lines in the San Fernando Valley heading from the Sepulveda tunnel.
4. There are three distinct regional rail lines, all electrified, with two through-running; the branch to the airport is elevated. One branches, the others don’t. Local and express trains could happen, but the acceleration and reliability boosts from electrification are so great that speeds in the 70-80 km/h range are possible even with all the infill stops. The line to LAX could also host some intercity trains, provided it has four tracks. The dark blue line, labeled the I-5 line, should have four tracks at the very least on the shared segment, and likely longer, for planned high-speed rail; some of the work is already being done, but there is still going to be track sharing with freight trains.
5. The system is really a hybrid of a typical radial rail system and a grid, like the Mexico City Metro. There are fifteen lines, including commuter rail; eight, including the commuter lines, serve the CBD. Some (the Pink, Orange, and Atlantic Lines, and the southern half of the Green Line) are fully circumferential, the others (Harbor/Azure, Red, Crenshaw/Brown) serve secondary CBDs and try to avoid being too much like bad combinations of radial and circumferential transit. The reason for this structure is that Los Angeles has very strong secondary centers, including Century City, Burbank, El Segundo, Santa Monica, and Koreatown.
6. Much of the system assumes reasonable upzoning, for example the northern extension of the West Santa Ana/Lime Line to La Crescenta and Sun Valley. This includes replacing single-family zoning with multifamily zoning everywhere, and building up CBDs at major connection points such as Vermont/Wilshire and El Segundo.
7. There is a lot of service in LA County, but not much in the other counties except lines to the CBD. It’s possible to build up a fuller system in Orange County, extending the Purple Line east and also adding some grid routes, assuming extensive residential upzoning everywhere and commercial upzoning in Santa Ana, Anaheim, and the beach cities.
8. At LA construction costs (about $400-500 million per km underground), the entire map should be doable for maybe $90 billion; at reasonable costs, make it $40 billion. LA is spending comparable amounts of money on transportation out of the recent ballot measures, it just spends a lot of it on operational waste, on BRT (the current plans for Vermont are BRT, even though the corridor is busy enough to deserve a subway), or on roads.