Comparing LA's transit system to London and New York

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Los Angeles is working towards securing the 2028 Summer Olympics. One selling point is a newly-expanded regional mass transit system that’s already under construction.

Olympics planners argue that the Olympics will provide an incentive to hurry up and build a mass transit network that’s already in the pipeline: a 40-year, $40 billion revamp by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that will expand subway and light rail to Westwood in the west, Torrance in the south, Norwalk and South El Monte in the east, and add an airport connector through the city and a downtown regional connector.

But is a decade enough time to build a system that can get athletes and visitors across the city, quickly and efficiently?

Frances Anderton hosts KCRW’s Design and Architecture. She just got back from her summer vacation, where she took public transit in London, host of the 2012 games, and New York which has never hosted a summer games.

She spent a lot of time on and off trains and found differences between the two cities and lessons for Los Angeles.

London Underground

When I lived in London 25 years ago I used to ride a bike, partly to avoid depending on the unreliable subway.

But now it seems vastly improved and you have to assume that the 2012 Olympics had a positive effect on London’s public transport.

Some key developments included the construction of more rails to East London and some of the more congested stations have had a makeover, like Tottenham Court Road, which opened this summer and features plenty of light, space and lots of decorative tile work.

The city is also building Crossrail, London’s $20 billion high-capacity, high-frequency train line, to be launched next year.

It is touted as Europe’s biggest infrastructure project and will be so fast that travel times across the city are expected to be cut by more than half while it will carry twice the number of passengers as regular London subway.

Crossrail was meant to cement London’s position as a global, networked city and Brexit has dampened those ambitions.

But generally the system worked great. Yes, the stations and carriages are very, very, crowded but they are clean enough and clear enough to navigate. There are elevators and escalators that work, signage that’s pretty self-explanatory, trains run on time and quickly.

And the same can be said for buses above ground.

The New York City Subway

London is a far cry from New York, which the New York Times reports "has barely managed to construct four subway stops in nearly three decades and its aged, rapidly collapsing subway system now threatens to bring the city to a halt."

The newspaper also reports that "delays have skyrocketed on the century-old subway system, and several recent accidents have raised safety concerns. At the same time, the authority has been raising fares every two years, with the latest increase taking effect in March, when the cost of a monthly MetroCard rose by $4.50 to $121."

The experience on New York’s subway was simply awful.

Let’s start with how complicated the system is to figure out, with multiple lines symbolized by the same color, a minimum of decent maps and signage. Then there’s the lack of people to ask for help (when we were trying to figure out how to get bags through the narrow turnstile the only people available to ask were two police officers with belts bulging with artillery and carrying huge automatic weapons; once you got past the weaponry they were very friendly). Once on the subway the trains were like a furnace, with people wilting in the wet summer heat.

And then the stations were incredibly ill-equipped to serve people who might be disabled or carrying heavy bags.

We went out to Brooklyn, loaded with suitcases on our way to JFK. We stopped off at a couple stations en route, and simply could not find any escalators or elevators. As we struggled up several flights of stairs, I had to wonder what on earth you would do if you were in a wheelchair. I guess the expectation is you pay for a cab.

Add to all that the challenge of making connections from the airports to the hinterland. We had to get from JFK to my in-laws in Tarrytown, up river from the city. A cab or Uber takes at minimum 45 minutes. But it costs around $150.

To get there by cheaper public transit, you have to plan on taking two and a half hours, involving a train into Grand Central then another one out again.

As Bim Adewunmi, a reporter for the Guardian, who was "raised across the metropolises of London and Lagos," wrote in a vivid takedown of the New York subway, "It’s almost as if the city is unaware it attracts in excess of 50 million tourists per annum."

What's the takeaway for Los Angeles?

Los Angeles, being so far behind, may now have a chance to learn from older systems and get it right.

What I learned from getting on and off transit in New York and London is you need multiple lines, frequent trains and buses, you need human beings present to help you figure out where to go, how to buy tickets, and so on. You need easy access for the disabled and folks carrying heavy bags or children. You need clear connections.

It is possible that prepping for the Olympics just might help us get on the right track.

Photo: A crowded New York City subway car. (Daniel Schwen)