Suburban. Comma. Transit.


I explored the Orange Line Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system that runs for eighteen miles across the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. The Valley is a profoundly suburban city-within-a-city and home to 1.8 million people spread out over 260 square miles. Attempts to upgrade public transit by the central authorities in LA proper have been fought tooth and nail by folks in the Valley and illustrate why transit just doesn’t work when the local culture doesn’t want it. I’m not sure why LA keeps pushing on this particular string.

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Transit works best when one compact highly productive walkable neighborhood is connected to another compact highly productive walkable neighborhood. Manhattan or Hong Kong isn’t required. A plain vanilla Main Street with two and three story buildings works just fine.

Suburbia is the exact opposite. Everything is spread out and oriented around private space, leisure, and consumption. Public space is an afterthought and any hint of density is anathema. Transit is believed to attract “the wrong element.” If this is the kind of world these folks want to inhabit… I say walk away and let them all enjoy the Jiffy Lubes and drive-thru burger joints without transit.

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This is the standard suburban environment with its sad begrudging crumbs of half assed bus service. It’s a monumental waste of scarce public funds to attempt to operate public transit here. The land use pattern and culture are in direct conflict with efficient cost-effective transit. And it’s punishing for the people who have no choice but to walk or take the bus: the young, the elderly, the infirm, and the poor.

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Here’s how suburban communities typically deal with transit. To the extent that it’s tolerated at all the transit station is hidden away behind a row of self storage facilities and plumbing supply warehouses. The entrance is treated as if it were an office park. There’s an enormous amount of surface parking. The assumption is that people will drive to the bus or train station since transit is a bridge between the comforts of the private automobile and the necessary evil of commuting to a more congested urban destination.

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The Park and Ride model of transit like this Metro stop in Chatsworth (the terminus of the Orange Line) is moderately acceptable to middle class suburbanites so long as the station is properly landscaped. Absolutely nothing can be built anywhere near the station. Loitering must be prevented at all costs. Theoretically it’s possible to walk to and from the station, but the location and design of the place ensure it isn’t a common practice.

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I followed the entire route of the Orange Line and found the stations themselves are well designed, convenient, and efficient. The fully segregated busway disguised in a tunnel of greenery mean buses are never stuck in the same traffic that afflicts cars and trucks. The buses come frequently and predictably and travel is comfortable and fast. BRT simulates the benefits of a light rail system, but at a tenth the cost.

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But each station was built in a spot that makes it unlikely that transit will live up to its full potential. This is the De Soto stop. The buses do a great job of getting passengers from one isolated station to another. This isn’t an accident. It’s the only set of arrangements the locals would tolerate – and the locals have a lot of lawyers. Transit is associated with the lower class and home owners here want no part of it. So they litigated for years until the proposed rail line was beaten back to a bus route and some decorative shrubbery that didn’t go anywhere too offensive.

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Here’s the Balboa station. Abundant surface parking, plenty of landscaped strips, and a location that doesn’t infringe on nearby private property lets people drive to the bus. Unfortunately the effectiveness of good transit is negated by the barren surroundings. If you had access to a car and could drive to the bus… you wouldn’t really need the bus.

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Here’s the Sepulveda station. Notice how the pattern repeats. In the Valley it’s now possible to take a highly effective bus trip from the Costco parking lot in Van Nuys to a strip mall a dozen miles away in Canoga Park. That’s progress of a sort since the BRT is so much better than traditional suburban bus service. But the public investment in infrastructure isn’t being complimented by the required private investment near any of the stations. That’s because the culture rejects the kind of infill development that would make the stations economically meaningful.

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Bicycle and pedestrian paths parallel the BRT busway along many miles of the system. This allows people to get from Point A to Point B in a way that doesn’t rile up the locals quite as much as the proposed light rail did. Fenced in landscaped bike paths follow the suburban “Sunday in the park” model of leisure that’s at least borderline socially acceptable in the Valley. The fact that low income people also use the paths to peddle to work is an unfortunate and much lamented side effect. I noticed more than a few Spandexed guys on $4,000 bikes yelling at slow moving folks to get out of the way.


The eighteen miles of Bus Rapid Transit in the Valley cost $324 million dollars to construct. That’s $18 million per mile. Compare that to the recent $1.1 billion road improvement project on a ten mile stretch of freeway in the Valley. The freeway was already ten lanes wide so adding slightly better on and off ramps and tweaking the car pool lanes did exactly nothing to relieve traffic congestion. That’s $110 million dollars per mile. The same people who lament the waste of taxpayer money on transit think the city should be spending more to upgrade the roads.

Over the years community groups and their elected representatives in the Valley have created legislation that forbids the construction of light rail or the use of sales tax revenue to fund a subway. Other local groups created rules that mandated a fully underground subway system because they objected to surface or elevated rail lines in their neighborhoods. And the ubiquitous anti-infill and anti-density brigades continue as always.

Personally, I don’t see the point of fighting locals who don’t value transit. I say give this part of the city no transit at all. But also require the locals to fund their own road projects from their own immediate tax base as well. Actually, I would love to see things taken a step farther. Cut the Valley loose from the City of Los Angeles altogether as so many folks in the Valley have attempted to do for decades. Let the Valley keep its own tax revenue and pay for its own services and infrastructure as an independent city. And let Los Angeles be free to focus on projects that actually make sense in the coastal communities that actively want transit and more intensive development. If that means the region is less integrated as a result… I don’t see how things could be worse.

John Sanphillippo lives in San Francisco and blogs about urbanism, adaptation, and resilience at He's a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, films videos for, and is a regular contributor to He earns his living by buying, renovating, and renting undervalued properties in places that have good long term prospects. He is a graduate of Rutgers University.

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"If you had access to a car

"If you had access to a car and could drive to the bus… you wouldn’t really need the bus."

That's patent nonsense, especially with the sort of ultra-long-distance commutes common in the L.A. area. A five-minute drive to the bus station can make a lot more sense than a one-hour drive on insane freeways to a final destination where the parking is scarce and expensive. The urban model of blanketing the area with a close network of transit stops that everyone can walk to is of course not applicable to areas below a certain density--except at the cost of subsidies even greater than those normally allowed to mass transit.

Of course, things look different if you're a speculator whose actual or potential investment properties won't appreciate unless density rises, and who wants a return on his investment as soon as possible. A homeowner who bought a house to live in doesn't want it to decrease in value, but maximizing its resale value within the shortest possible time isn't the primary concern. Thus his policy preferences differ from John Sanphillipo's.

Where I live, in the Twin Cities area in Minnesota, some suburban municipalities do indeed plan transit hubs as centers for development, quite successfully. So your carefully chosen pictures of an unusually ugly metro area may not give the whole story. Many suburban municipalities here are also quite happy to run their own bus transit services, for local use and for commuters into Minneapolis-St. Paul. They're also willing to fight the regional authority to keep doing so, even though they already pay more into the regional authority's coffers than they get back.

Suburban muncipalites here wouldn't at all mind being disconnected from the regional authority and left to their own devices. They're very good at providing jobs for their residents within their own borders, and that's their main development strategy. The regional authority doesn't like that at all, since the purpose of the regional authority is to engineer the region for the benefit of the core cities, which have been bleeding jobs and taxpayers for generations, thanks to their own corrupt policies and politics.