railtownRailtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City
Ethan N. Elkind
University of California Press
155 Grand Avenue, Suite 400, Oakland, CA 94612; www.ucpress.edu.
2014. 320 pages. Paperback, $29.95.

Railtown chronicles the latest chapter in the Los Angeles saga—the city’s transition from a smoggy, car-loving, freeway-dominated megacity to an emerging cluster of walkable urban centers linked by public transit, including light and heavy rail as well as buses. This saga resembles a Greek tragedy. The central figure’s fatal flaw—the political geography of metropolitan Los Angeles and the inability to agree on a plan—drives the narrative while optimistic local leaders who view rail as the solution to the region’s traffic and environmental problems struggle to convince politicians, 88 self-centered cities, and the county electorate to accept yet another reinvention.

Ethan Elkind is well qualified to untangle the complex history of Los Angeles Metro Rail. The associate director of the climate change and business program at the University of California and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) law schools, he has interviewed all the major players. His book provides a blow-by-blow description, often from the viewpoint of the antagonists, of the 40 years of bruising battles in which rational transit planning was repeatedly set back by hardball politics.

In retrospect, it is amazing the city’s Metro Rail was built. Buoyed by successes in San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; and Atlanta, rail supporters underestimated the difficulties of turning around Los Angeles. Trying to convince voters to pay for a rail system, they made wildly incorrect cost and ridership estimates and underestimated the impacts of new technologies and regulations.

Petty regional competition for scarce rail funds led to crippling concessions on rail routes as lines were diverted to serve or avoid centers of political power. Prominent urban planning scholars and transportation economists from the University of Southern California and UCLA tore apart rail proposals. Los Angeles Times reporters headlined the missteps of the transit bureaucracy and potential environmental disasters. To block lines that their constituents found objectionable, politicians seized on the fear of methane explosions from subway tunneling.

The result today is an impressive but limited rail transit system—a work in progress. As of 2013, Metro Rail consisted of an 18.6-mile (30 km) heavy-rail subway system powered by an electrified third rail and a 69-mile (111 km) light-rail network powered by overhead lines, serving more than 350,000 riders daily.

This is certainly a success for a metropolitan area that had been dominated by cars, but it could have been much better. By comparison, San Francisco’s heavy-rail Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system averaged 400,000 weekday riders in 2013 and Washington, D.C.’s Metro had 745,000 riders daily in 2012. Metro Rail’s fare-box recovery ratio (the percentage of operating costs covered by fares) of 40 percent lags that of BART and Washington, which both exceed 60 percent.

As built, the piecemeal Metro Rail system map is full of strange kinks and gaps, reflecting the sometimes racist intent of some neighborhoods to keep the trains out—a far cry from the 1974 Center Plan proposed by visionary planning director Calvin Hamilton.

Under that plan, the Greater Los Angeles region would consist of a system of 48 high-density centers connected by heavy rail. Future growth would be concentrated in compact urban communities containing jobs, housing, and retail businesses. Beyond the centers, low-density Los Angeles neighborhoods of single-family homes would be connected to the centers by buses. The decentralized Los Angeles lifestyle would be balanced with increased mobility and compact, car-free urban neighborhoods. But pressure from politicians and developers immediately started to redraw the map, setting the scene for conflicts that would continue for the next four decades.

Railtown is a compelling, but dense, read. Though Elkind tries to spice it up with catchy chapter titles and telling quotes, his lawyerly concern for telling the whole complicated story leaves the reader struggling to put it all together. Every quote is scrupulously documented, resulting in 47 pages of notes. Condensation of the narrative would make it more accessible, but for those wanting to understand the details of Metro Rail’s checkered history, this is the book to read.

In the end, the contribution of Railtown is to show that against all odds, determined champions can create a rail transit system that will change the character of a major metropolis apparently unconditionally committed to sprawl.