Is Rail Worth It?

Editor's Introduction

Much has been made recently of Los Angeles’s transformation to a transit- friendly city. A speaker at this spring’s Transit & Cities conference at UC Berkeley, hosted by the Institute of Urban and Regional Development, lamented the increasingly prohibitive housing prices in Downtown LA, even as there is demand for commuters to live closer to work and spend less time in their cars. Yet the traditional view of transit riders of “necessity” versus “choice” pits low-income bus riders against more affluent rail riders and raises questions about the much higher cost per rider of rail. What can planning scholars and practitioners do to inform and enlighten the political process around rail and bus development? What are the metrics by which we should evaluate investment in different forms of transit infrastructure before and after it is built? What should be the relationship between equity, cost, and political feasibility? The BPJ editors posed these questions to Professor Martin Wachs of UCLA and Professor Ethan Elkind of UC Berkeley after their recent IURD Transit & Cities lecture on Elkind’s 2014 book, Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City (UC Press). The talk focused on the history of rail politics in LA and served as a useful springboard for further discussion in this journal on the role of planners today in promoting equitable mobility in cities.

About the Authors

Martin Wachs is professor emeritus of city and regional planning and civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley, where he also directed the Institute of Transportation Studies. He teaches at UCLA and works on transportation policy at the RAND Corporation.

Ethan N. Elkind researches and writes on environmental law with a joint appointment at the UC Berkeley and UCLA Schools of Law and is the author of the new book Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City (University of California Press 2014).