Experts from the Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS) at UCLA Luskin are weighing in on the financial burden that the COVID-19 health crisis is placing on public transit agencies. “The virtues of public transit are precisely at odds with coping with the pandemic. … We now have essentially a mandate to not move, to not have a lot of people together anywhere,” ITS Director Brian Taylor told the Hill. The article also quoted Emeritus Professor Martin Wachs, who leads research into transportation finance at ITS. Both ridership and sales tax revenues are down, Wachs said, but transit is “a public service that we must keep operating during the crisis because people who have no option other than transit need to shop for food and get to doctors’ offices and hospitals.” On Curbed LA, ITS Deputy Director Juan Matute said Los Angeles’ Metro system may be forced to cut service dramatically or delay work on key projects. He also noted that, once the health crisis has lifted, “if there’s a severe recession, people who are out of work but still need to get around will become reliant on Metro.”
All five former directors join current Lewis Center Director Evelyn Blumenberg, second from left, to help commemorate the Lewis Center's 30th anniversary. Photos by Veronica Monjaras and Adria Marin / Las Fotos Project
By Lauren Hiller
During a gathering March 5 at its first home on the UCLA campus, the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies commemorated 30 years of scholarship, public advocacy and leadership on campus and in the community.
All five former Lewis Center directors — a who’s who of distinguished scholars — joined the current director, Urban Planning Professor Evelyn Blumenberg, at DeCafe Perloff Hall to discuss the milestones and issues facing the region during each person’s tenure. As each director spoke, it was evident that the center’s longevity is rooted in interdisciplinary scholarship and fostering the next generation of scholars.
In 1989, Ralph and Goldy Lewis donated $5 million to endow a research program at UCLA that studied regional policy issues. The following year, the Lewis Center opened its doors in Perloff Hall, the location of what was then known as the School of Architecture and Urban Planning, with founding director Allen J. Scott, distinguished research professor of geography and public policy. Scott was succeeded by Roger Waldinger, distinguished professor of sociology; followed in chronological order by Paul Ong, research professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs; J.R. DeShazo, professor of public policy, urban planning and civil and environmental engineering; and Brian D. Taylor, professor of urban planning and public policy.
“My parents both went to UCLA and they believed in the power of public education and need to support the public system,” said Randall Lewis, whose parents were homebuilders and interested in issues of growth, transportation, housing and air quality. “They felt as they were building houses, building communities, that they didn’t want to create problems. They wanted to find solutions.”
Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, who joined the UCLA community the same year that Lewis Center was established and received one of its first grants, kicked off the event.
“The Lewis Center best exemplifies the role that we’re asking our research centers to play: push research forward, support the educational mission of the school and its students, and serve as a public forum that disseminates important research-based information and data to a larger public,” said Loukaitou-Sideris, professor of urban planning and associate provost for academic planning.
Launched Amid Regional Turmoil
The early 1990s were a tumultuous time in Los Angeles. The aerospace industry, which was a backbone of the region’s economy, was collapsing. The 1994 Northridge earthquake killed 61 people and caused $6.7 million in damage, crippling major infrastructure like freeways. And civil disturbances fueled by racial injustices, police brutality, and poverty and social marginalization rocked the city.
“Los Angeles looked like, from some points of view, a basket case and getting worse,” Scott recalled. “And so we were, at a very early stage, involved in attempting to build responses to these problems and others.”
Scott and the Lewis Center published a series of working papers focusing on new industry (such as electric vehicles) to replace aerospace and an examination of the nature and causes of the crises in South Los Angeles.
By the time Waldinger took over in 1996, the immigrant population in the Los Angeles region had quadrupled within two decades. Yet, research on the impact of immigration on the Los Angeles region lagged behind frequently studied cities like Chicago and New York. The Lewis Center played an integral role in bringing Los Angeles to the forefront of regional studies with efforts such as Waldinger’s book “Ethnic Los Angeles.” Today, it’s hard to imagine a discussion of immigration and foreign-born individuals without considering L.A.
Waldinger said the center’s early research has transformed California policy. Although immigration policy is a federal issue, immigrant policy can be local, he noted, pointing to state measures that have aided California’s immigrant population.
Ong, the center’s third director, continued the multidisciplinary tradition of the Lewis Center and collaborated with scholars in UCLA Luskin Social Welfare and the natural sciences. As director, he published a seminal report on the undercounting of low-income people and communities of color in the 2000 Census.
Ong’s work also highlighted a core strength of the Lewis Center — its focus on addressing social justice issues for marginalized communities. He said the center also partnered with the County of Los Angeles and L.A. Metro to understand the transit needs of underserved communities.
DeShazo oversaw the Lewis Center during a time when its focus turned to environmental issues. In 2006, California passed the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), promoting ambitious climate solutions that even some legislators doubted could be achieved.
“Those were the days we didn’t even know where greenhouse gases were coming from,” DeShazo remembered. The first step was to identify sources and then to identify solutions to reduce emissions, including electric vehicles, rooftop solar energy and energy-efficient technology.
“Everything that we have today is what people thought was impossible to accomplish. The groundwork for that was laid in the 2006-2012 period,” DeShazo said.
The Lewis Center has also contributed to environmental justice scholarship, especially the designations of disadvantaged communities as a result of identifying where emissions were coming from and where populations vulnerable to those emissions are living.
Taylor next put the focus on housing affordability and transportation in light of large investments in public transit like Measure R, a sales tax that is expected to raise $40 billion over 30 years.
He said the center’s regional lens has a built-in advantage when it comes to studying housing affordability, transportation and access, which play out across a diverse geography.
Taylor’s tenure also overlapped with his role as chair of UCLA Luskin Urban Planning. It was a position that helped him to advocate for the addition of faculty members and scholars who could tackle these regional priorities.
“Housing affordability was not my area of research,” Taylor said. “All I did was try to support and catalyze the intellectual leaders that are helping shape the important debates on this.”
A Legacy of Leadership
Acting as a consistent bridge to marginalized voices, the Lewis Center’s former directors see scholarship and professional development as their enduring legacy. Many onetime students have gone on to become academic leaders in their own right.
“I’m honored to follow in those footsteps,” said Blumenberg MA UP ’90, Ph.D. ’95. She became director in 2018 and has focused on how Angelenos live, move and work in L.A., with a particular interest in pathways out of poverty. The center recently launched the Randall Lewis Housing Initiative.
Has Los Angeles made progress over the last 30 years?
The answer is mixed, Ong said. A commitment to climate change initiatives and equity are highlights, but income inequality and social justice remain daunting issues.
“I’m proud of the fact that the Lewis Center continues to look at issues of inequality,” Ong said. “We’re dedicated to doing the research to find solutions, but it’s like swimming upstream.”
Still, Ong remains hopeful: “I know enough about [Blumenberg’s] history that there will continue to be a commitment from the Lewis Center to accomplish things that will bend us towards justice.”
Brian Taylor, professor of urban planning and public policy, spoke to Public Source about the prospect of universal free public transportation. In December, Kansas City, Missouri, became the first major U.S. city to eliminate all public transit fares. Proponents of the move argue that doing so increases ridership, simplifies the experience of riding and benefits low-income riders. However, experts worry that eliminating transit fares is not a universal solution, especially for cities like Pittsburgh, which dwarfs Kansas City in ridership and fare revenue. “By offering free transit service for all trips, you run the risk of actually incurring a very high marginal cost to accommodate where your peak demand is,” Taylor said. He argued that there are better ways to increase ridership and serve the needs of those dependent on transit. Instead of eliminating fares, Taylor recommended spending fare revenue on services and programs that make transit more reliable and accessible.
UCLA Luskin faculty and students were well represented at January’s Transportation Research Board annual meeting in Washington, D.C., and much of their research was highlighted on Streetsblog USA’s Talking Headways podcast. Brian Taylor, professor of urban planning and director of the Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS), and MURP student Yu Hong Hwang presented an updated analysis of the standard for setting speed limits, which has been in place for decades. MURP student Cassie Halls spoke about her research on the impact of a bus-only lane on Los Angeles’ Flower Street; Halls’ work won “Best Master’s Student Poster Presentation” at the annual meeting. ITS postdoctoral fellow Andrew Schouten discussed his research showing a decrease in public transit use among immigrant communities, possibly due to settlement patterns and an increase in car ownership. In the first Talking Headways episode, Taylor and Hwang’s comments begin at the 1:45 minute mark and Hall’s at the 18:16 minute mark. In the second episode, Schouten’s comments begin at the 23:28 minute mark.
In a CalMatters article, Brian Taylor, professor of urban planning and public policy and director of the Institute of Transportation Studies, weighed in on the prospect of offering free public transportation to youth to boost ridership across the state. Student ridership and overall ridership have increased dramatically in Sacramento following the implementation of a transit program that allows students in pre-kindergarten to high school to ride the region’s buses and light rail for free year-round. In an effort to emulate the Sacramento program at the state level, Assembly Bill 1350 would require all California transit agencies to offer free passes to anyone 18 and under in order to get state funding. Taylor said AB 1350 is a “small step in the right direction that could have positive effects,” although he believes “it would be best as part of a broader package to improve transit.”
Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin, spoke to the Wall Street Journal about a decline in driving across the United States. The average number of miles driven per person has declined since its peak in 2004, the report said, citing migration to dense urban areas; young adults’ preference to use alternate modes of transportation; more online working, shopping and streaming; and a growing population of retirees who no longer commute to jobs. The trend is a break from the past, when the country’s driving pattern moved in sync with the economy, with people driving more when times were good. “In the midst of a fairly substantial economic recovery between 2009 and 2017, we’re seeing a decline in person trip-making, which suggests that something pretty fundamental is going on here,” Taylor said.
Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin, spoke to Curbed LA about a proposal to eliminate fares for public transportation in Los Angeles County. Offering free rides on buses and trains would get cars off the road, build ridership and reduce carbon emissions, proponents say. Taylor noted that it would be difficult to predict how the program would impact the whole system — particularly its capacity to handle increased rush-hour ridership — without trying it out. Curbed LA also cited research on free fares conducted by urban planning doctoral student Teo Wickland, who worked on the California Statewide Transit Strategic Plan. Wickland noted that eliminating fares would speed up bus service, where the boarding process is slowed every time riders struggle to find their fare card or come up with exact change.
Brian D. Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin, spoke to KCRW’s Greater L.A. about shelved plans to expand the 710 Freeway through the San Gabriel Valley. Taylor, a professor of urban planning, said the project was one of many freeway expansion proposals to face opposition. The major difference, he said, was that much of the 710 project was completed. “The dilemma we have is, as we built fewer and fewer of the projects that were to be the planned network, we ended up making the freeways that were built larger and larger,” disrupting surrounding communities, Taylor said. Now that the freeway will not be extended on land that had been procured, officials have an opportunity to develop an already built-up area, he added. “The larger nut to crack, which is how not to have chronic congestion, probably doesn’t lie in building more of these kinds of highways,” Taylor concluded.
Urban Planning Professor Brian Taylor spoke with the Mercury News about a proposed “mega-measure” to turn the Bay Area’s extensive network of rail, buses and ferries into a coordinated transportation network. A $100-billion-plus transportation sales tax that could go before voters in nine counties as early as 2020 would fund the plan. The reforms under consideration include coordinating timetables, standardizing ticket prices and adopting the same maps. Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin, said the individual agencies were created to serve local, rather than regional, customers, adding that smaller bureaucracies tend to be more accessible and cost-effective. However, he said, “right now we have a system, and a tradition, where each transit agency has its own map, its own color scheme, its own way to organize fares, its own way to describe its services.”
Among the featured speakers was John Zimmer, Lyft co-founder and president. Photos by Will Livesley-O'Neill
By Will Livesley-O’Neill
Getting around Southern California has never been easy. But the infamously congested region has grown even more complicated with the arrival of new private services — including ridehail companies such as Lyft and Uber and electric scooter operators such as Bird and Lime — looking to disrupt how people travel.
As in any field impacted by technology-fueled disruption, transportation policymakers want to find ways to adapt. And that requires taking stock of what the transportation system is meant to do and, more importantly, whom it is meant to serve.
This was the focus of the 28th annual UCLA Lake Arrowhead Symposium, hosted by the Institute of Transportation Studies (UCLA ITS) and Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, in October. At the university’s retreat center in the San Bernardino Mountains, dozens of the nation’s leading experts on transportation and land use policy pondered the symposium’s theme, “From Public Transit to Public Mobility.”
The changing nature of travel means different things for elected officials, planners, academics, advocates and tech leaders. But everyone fundamentally agrees that, as LA Metro chief planning officer and symposium panelist Therese McMillan put it, “there’s a public interest in how private activity happens in a public space.” The modes may change, but the mission of a safe, effective, accessible transportation system remains the same.
John Zimmer, co-founder and president of Lyft, set the tone for a discussion of balance between tradition and innovation. Lyft has been actively expanding beyond ridehailing into other forms of mobility, including e-scooters and automated vehicles. The company’s stated goal of providing more options for consumers and reducing the number of people driving
alone benefits the environment — as well as those profiting from the service.
But the way that some tech companies roll out new products — a “move fast and break things” model — often leads to public backlash.
Southern California has been ground zero for arguments about the traffic tie-ups and sidewalk clutter allegedly caused by ridehailing and scooters. Public officials are being forced to make policy on the fly — although some such as Francie Stefan, chief mobility officer in Santa Monica, describe that as an opportunity. Santa Monica recently partnered with Lyft, Uber, Bird and Lime to introduce new regulations on the number of e-vehicles in the city while funding infrastructure improvements.
“[We] made a conscious choice to embrace new technology and work through some of the kinks that are inherent in change,” Stefan says.
Technology also gives cities the chance to innovate and to fulfill some hard-to-implement planning goals. Willa Ng, an associate director at Google’s Sidewalk Labs, presented an example at her panel on “coding the curb.”
“If we need to do more stuff at the curb, and we need to have those spaces constantly turning over, we can’t have it managed by a static aluminum sign,” Ng explains, outlining how creating a flexible digital management system could allow the same section of curb to be used for parking, ridehail drop-offs, delivery unloading, or as a bike and scooter lane depending on the time of day. New transportation technology can crowd and complicate the use of public space, but it can also help make sure the space is better used to benefit the most people.
For example, Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, a professor of urban planning at UCLA Luskin, recently spoke to the University of California for a story and accompanying video about e-scooters titled, “What the battle over scooters gets wrong.”
Urban planners recently adopted a model known as “complete streets” that involves rethinking how shared space is divided between a street and a sidewalk, Loukaitou-Sideris says. This model abandons the assumption that streets are for cars and sidewalks are for pedestrians.
“The complete street perceives the street as a space where different transportation modes can coexist: not only cars, but also buses, and lanes for trams, bicycles and scooters,” according to Loukaitou-Sideris. “Nobody wants to compromise the safety of anyone by mixing these modes. So that’s where planning and design needs to come in.”
People-centered design — of services, systems and infrastructure — is at center stage in these policy discussions. Technology needs to be a tool to help improve transportation for people, not an end goal in itself.
“A lot of people are really annoyed with private capital coming into the mobility space without understanding people’s travel needs,” says Clarrissa Cabansagan of the Bay Area climate change nonprofit TransForm. But tech disruption will be worthwhile if it provides people with more options to get around besides driving their own car, she says.
Urban Planning Professor Brian D. Taylor, director of UCLA ITS, co-authored a groundbreaking 2018 study that found that Southern Californians are buying more cars than ever and turning away from public transit. That’s the exact opposite outcome of what policymakers had sought and shows the need to set new priorities for shared public spaces.
“We have to manage the automobile more intelligently. We can’t just allow people to drive anywhere they want, anytime they want,” Taylor says. “We need to create environments that are more conducive to travel by foot, by bike, by scooter or by public transit.”
New and old mobility services could work hand-in-hand to reduce private car travel. Ideally, technology should improve, not replace or eliminate, traditional transit, according to transportation experts.
“We should really focus on making the core strength of transit something we do incredibly well,” says Houston-based planner and author Christof Spieler, who spoke at the conference. With transit ridership falling across most of the country, new policies need to make riding the bus as easy as hailing a Lyft, he says, noting that public transit can move many more people much more effectively than any ridehail vehicle or scooter.
Bay Area transportation advocate Ratna Amin argues that focusing on riders as people, not cogs in a machine, is key.
“When we think about public transit as a utility, we focus on the bare minimum: We got the service out, it’s clean enough, the doors opened, the bus stop is there and it’s labeled,” Amin says. “We need to actually talk to people and find out what their experience is, and try different possibilities out to see if they improve the experience.”
Seattle is one of just a few American cities to see an increase in transit ridership in recent years. Terry White, the deputy general manager of Seattle’s transit operator, believes one factor has been key to success: an emphasis on making sure service is equitable.
“Transportation is a human right for everyone,” White says. “We’re trying to make sure everyone gets an opportunity to
That’s ultimately what a better transportation system will mean — mobility for all, regardless of whether they take a bus or ride a scooter. Efficient use of public space lessens the need for gridlocked, polluting private vehicles.
The disruption of old transit methods is still in its early stages, with plenty of blind spots to be navigated. But as Juan Matute, deputy director of UCLA ITS, recently told LA Weekly, it’s important to remember that the disruption from new technology is likely to lessen over time.
“The safety hazards are comparable to those for automobile use,” Matute said of the new innovations, particularly e-scooters. “We’ve had over 100 years to figure out a lot of things.”