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Metro Rail, Social Justice, and Urban Form

The recent Los Angeles uprising is not the inchoate and criminal cry of a statistically minor underclass that could not climb the ladder of the American dream. It is rather a defining moment in American history, an event which, for those who choose to see, breaks through our denial of the increasing disparity between the haves and the have-nots. "Fixing" the underclass by "rebuilding Los Angeles" misses the point completely. The foundation of any true "rebuilding" of Los Angeles is the economic, social and psychological empowerment of all its people.

Practically and morally, we can't be safe, free, guiltless, secure, or fully human until this happens. As part of this rebuilding effort, the regional urban form and transportation infrastructure of our increasingly polarized society must be addressed. As a $183 billion social investment, Metro Rail will be one of the key elements of the rebuilding. We must ask of it, and of the development it spawns, how that form and its interaction can heal the polarization and help the social and economic vitality of the region.

Metro Rail is purported to be a technical answer to socio-economic issues technically defined. It is claimed to be a necessary response to congestion, pollution, excessive use of energy and inadequate levels of public transit service. However, the system has more fundamental imperatives – increasing capital accumulation and socioeconomic segregation; reinforcing downtown investment values for the business elite; providing a public subsidy to private business to transport low income workers; creating even more "niche" enclaves which protect the upper classes from others in a crime-ridden city; and shifting Metro Rail construction and operating costs to the general public. Such inequities are financed by Metro Rail's socially regressive financing scheme which bespeaks frightening values: the voter support for a massive transit investment but refusal to approve financing for jobs, education, health care and affordable housing.

A critique of Metro Rail is at its core a critique of the urban form it serves – low density, multi-centered, and auto-reliant. But the dark side of our urban form is that it is also a spatial expression of racial and economic apartheid, L.A. being one of the most segregated cities in the United States, created by the federally-financed, post-World War II exodus from the center city. Our regional form is now groaning under functional inefficiencies: sprawl (excessive travel distances and times, excessive infrastructure costs, limited job access for the poor, and increasing pollution); an increasingly unacceptable view of the quality of our living and natural environment (severe lack of visual coherence, and the "despatialization" of the region and its natural setting into the abstraction of plotted parcels administered by planning bureaucracies); and a resulting calcification of a landscape of inequity and segregation. The illusion that this arrangement was at least sustainable was broken by the recent uprising.

Metro Rail's radial design was planned to serve this urban form. While efficiency is the criteria in an era of limits, Metro Rail facilitates even greater urban inefficiencies by facilitating increased home-to-job distances. Metro Rail poses no challenge to the status quo. The system will reinforce, not reshape, urban growth. Any attempt to circumvent this dead end is severely hampered. The Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) is assuming a land use planning role which it cannot adequately fill. LACTC is not a planning or policy-making agency -- it is a single-purpose organization mandated to plan and implement a transit system according to goals defined by others. As such, it is not an instrument of public policy to be used in shaping urban form. Two massive, unexamined presumptions have been made: that urban form can be guided by land development investments in the immediate vicinity of rail stations, and that corridor rail development is the best form of concentrating urban investment.

The lack of an active, system-wide planning effort is symptomized by the logical gaps and inconsistencies in the transit network, as well as some intense political obstruction by affected interests. Typical problems include: no direct connection from Downtown L.A. to the L.A. International Airport or Wilshire/Fairfax; the choice of a light rail technology on the Pasadena line which prohibits the transit from directly serving the urban centers; the stated need to build a "downtown light rail segment which duplicates the function of the Red Line subway"; and the high possibility that Metro Rail's focus on bringing workers and customers  downtown may instead funnel people and development away from the central city for the cheaper land and labor in other parts.

No people, and no city, can survive the widening gap in wealth and life opportunities which exist in this country. The $183 billion for Metro Rail and the Metro System is a seduction in which we can no longer afford to indulge, a social investment which does not build people or society in proportion to its cost. Schools, social welfare, health and similar social measures, the essential urban infrastructure, are severely underfunded. The entire budget of the system must be reexamined in terms of its value vis a vis other urgent social needs. Without such a major social investment, the L.A. region will have excellent transportation access to jobs which don't exist, and to housing which people can't afford. Continued construction of the Metro System in its present isolation from some of the most divisive issues and urgent needs of our society is a fundamental mistake.

We do have choice in the way our region grows. One of the first urban form alternatives to examine should be a "compacted city" with higher-density housing, manufacturing, and commercial uses clustered around the central city. A closely-spaced matrix or grid of rail and bus lines would serve this city, as distinguished from the current Metro Rail radial scheme with transit spokes radiating from downtown and thinly covering the region. The intent of a compact city is to create districts rather than corridors of intensified development, with a rich variety of jobs and housing in close proximity. The geographic extent of rail lines would be deliberately limited in order to focus development and create real and perceptible urban boundaries. In a compacted city, the far flung Metrolink commuter rail system would be completely inappropriate. Today, it only encourages the migration of labor in across far distances.

It is possible that some Metro Rail development should be curtailed, and legal mechanisms found for reallocating portions of the sales tax to other social purposes. The need for this work to begin is urgent if L.A. County and its citizens are to regain conscious and deliberate control of their environment and not let the Metro Rail program define our regional form by default. Planning will and should be done on a community-by-community, "bottom up" approach as well as the more prevalent "top down" approach. The LACK could partially finance and organize the planning effort, inverting the "suburban crust" of our postindustrial era back into the center of the city. In "rebuilding L.A.," we must not simply replace what was burned, but rather take a comprehensive look at the communities as locuses for new economic development in central L.A.

Future activities of the LACTC must be based on a number of key principles: Invest in people, not in things. Metro Rail should be an instrument of reducing class warfare and binding together the people of this remarkable region. It should maximize the potential of the lower-income people and the dispossessed; and it should realize the potential of transportation in reshaping the region's urban form to avoid the wasted social investment, obstructions to social justice and barriers to equal opportunity which result from sprawl. Transit and land use at all scales must result from an integrated planning process. The Metro System, as an instrument of a deliberate socioeconomic policy, has the potential to increase job opportunities, reverse segregation, restructure our land uses and improve the quality of life.

Governance of Metro Rail planning and implementation must be more representative within the LACTC. At least a portion of LACTC board members should be directly elected. The City of Los Angeles may need charter reform to provide greater district level, community-based planning. A democratic planning apparatus needs to be established. Architects and urban designers will have a crucial role in this replanning process in visualizing alternative futures and solving key design problems. These include: integrating manufacturing uses in densely developed areas; designing livable multi-use developments; developing livable housing at higher densities; graciously retrofitting a multimodal transit system into the cities; and creating a democratic planning process in which the political and economic warfare which passes for planning can become a win-win proposition. The professionals who plan our regional form/transportation system cannot be fruitful without having a vision based on a deep respect for all people, as shown through a commitment to social justice, full employment, adequate housing and other basics of human dignity.

IMF Riot and Urban Problems       ?õ¬?       Vol. 3 No. 4/Vol. 4 No. 1      ?õ¬?       Winter/Spring 1993

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