Mobility As Equality: Building Towards the Olympic/ Post-Olympic LA Transit

Award of Excellence

Analysis and Planning

Los Angeles, CA, USA
Amanda Ton, Associate ASLA; WeiHsiang Chao; Xin Qian
Faculty Advisor: Andres Sevtsuk
Harvard University Graduate School of Design

"Comprehensive and beautifully presented, this plan taps into the transformative potential of the 2028 Olympics to address widespread inequities in access to transportation and affordable housing in Los Angeles. The proposal skillfully ties together the need for access to public transit for marginalized communities at multiple scales, the need for affordable housing, and the value of treating streetscapes as public amenities. This thoughtful, layered, and strategically developed plan is made stronger by its sophisticated understanding of the nature of decision-making in the complex political and social environments of Los Angeles."

- 2019 Awards Jury

Project Statement

Despite unprecedented public transit investment and transit-oriented development over the last two decades in Los Angeles, transit ridership remains low. More than in any other US city, the vast majority of transit riders in LA come from very-low and extremely low-income households. Yet LA Metro's transit plans have failed to adequately cater to their needs. TOD densities around stations often produce luxury condos, whose inhabitants avoid public transit. In an attempt to reverse this demographic mismatch between transit and development, this project investigates a better coordination between bus service, new public housing provision, and street design around the Vermont Station on LA's Expo Line. The project sees the 2028 LA Olympics as a major opportunity to demonstrate such coordinated planning by delivering a new-generation bus system for the city, converting Olympic housing to public housing, and delivering amenity-rich streets that not only cater to the Games, but also deliver a much needed legacy of amenities to the surrounding marginalized communities.

Project Narrative

Context and Challenges

The City of Los Angeles is home to an ethnically diverse population of four million. Known for Hollywood and its love affair with the car, the city is equally famous for its current housing crisis, homelessness issues and stark transit inequalities. According to LA DOT, one can reach 29X more jobs in an hour using an individual car than public transit. Yet, LA was once the most transit-rich city in the World. Architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne has called the LA of mixed-use multifamily housing that emerged around streetcars and a compact, walkable downtown in the pre-war era the "First LA". The "Second LA", which began roughly after WWII and lasted until the early 1990s, was fueled by a massive adoption of private automobiles, publicly subsidized freeways and detached single-family housing. Now the metropolis is reinventing itself, morphing towards a "Third LA" that is making unprecedented investments into public transit, higher densities and quality public spaces again. In 2016, Angelinos approved Measure M, a sales tax measure that will funnel $120 billion to new transit improvements during the next four decades.

Despite major investments into new rail lines in the city, the vast majority of transit riders in LA come from low and very-income households, which Metro's transit plans have failed to adequately address. Transit ridership is declining in part due to divestment from buses and proliferation of high-density luxury condos in newly allowed TOD zones around stations. Gentrification has priced out many previous riders, forcing them to move to cheaper, car-dependent suburbs.

Even with policies that encourage affordable Transit-oriented Developments, required affordable housing provisions remain very low (5-10% or lacking all together). Voucher-based affordable housing also expires over time, worsening the city's housing crisis and lowering Metro's transit ridership. The present housing and transit mismatch has further marginalized historically disadvantaged communities, obstructing access to education, employment, and amenities.

Our project argues that inefficient coordination between transit service, truly affordable housing around stations, and the unpleasant pedestrian experience on car-oriented streets jointly constitute some of the key factors that are hindering ridership returns on current transit investments and holding back the city's transition towards a more transit-friendly future.

Opportunity and Proposal

During the 1984 Olympics in LA, the city borrowed over 500 buses through an extraordinary regional cooperation effort to create a temporary system of shuttles and express buses that could service the Games without requiring visitors to use private cars. The system was a huge success during the Games but left no transit legacy behind after the Games.

How could the city rise to the occasion and deliver a much-needed transit legacy during the 2028 Olympics? Our project sees the Olympics as a huge opportunity to deliver a next-generation bus system for the city, which will work both for the Olympics as well as the everyday user after the Games. The mega event is also an opportunity to demonstrate how (1) housing, (2) transit and (3) street design could be coordinated, so as to place likely transit riders close to bus lines, and invest into streets so as to make neighborhood-scale trips not only conceivable, but desirable on foot, bike and scooter.

The project uses the area of the Expo/Vermont station as an experimental site to illustrate how such coordination could work. Located next to the USC campus and Exposition Park, which will serve as the epicenter of 2028 Olympic Games, the area is also surrounded by a large amount of single-family homes, which largely house lower-income Latino and Black households.

Adjacent to transit stops, newly built Olympic housing is built and later converted into public housing (managed by the city's Housing Authority), which will directly address the current mismatch between TOD demographics and transit ridership. Human-centric and generously landscaped street design aims to further incentives both Olympic visitors as well as the area's residents to choose to walk to transit stations along amenity-rich, safe and comfortable sidewalks. The project thus offers a critique towards the current model of "minimum spend" Olympics that relies on and benefits private institutions like USC. Our scheme explores how the city could instead use the Games to demonstrate the success of its transit efforts, while delivering concrete and felt benefits to the surrounding communities well beyond the Olympics.

Specifically, the project proposes:

1. A World-Class Bus Transportation System that is robust enough to serve most Olympic travel needs, while leaving behind a long term legacy by:

  • Expanding the Transit Backbone: Metro and express bus serves as the backbone of the city's transportation system. Busy bus routes can be upgraded into rapid lines with traffic signal priority.
  • Offering flexible shuttle services to fill in the gaps: Transit demand might spread across neighborhoods. Fixed transit routes can be complemented by on-demand micro-transit AVs that run on flexible routes.
  • Delivering non-motorized last-mile solutions: Micro-transit hubs provide additional shared bike and scooters options for first/last mile rides using unified metro tickets.
  • Discouraging single occupancy vehicles: The use of private automobile is discouraged through congestion pricing and high occupancy incentives on HOV lanes on city streets.

2. Quality Public Housing that addresses LA's affordability crisis and transit ridership mismatch by:

  • Converting Olympic housing to legacy public housing: Located next to major transit corridors, we propose to build new housing to accommodate visitors during the event, and communities after the event in subsidized public housing.
  • Improving the image of public housing: Turning a high standard Olympic Village into future public housing redefines the image and reputation of public housing in LA.
  • Matching Transit Ridership: Public housing not only addresses the housing crisis in the city, it also creates demand for public transit through matching residential demographics and transit rider profiles.
  • Encouraging conversion of parking lots: With the upcoming decline of parking needs due to upgraded public transit and shared Autonomous Vehicles, the project imagines how valuable land around transit corridors could be repurposed for public use.

3. Street Design that re-envision the public right-of-way for pedestrians by:

  • Treating streets as public spaces: Streets can be closed temporarily or permanently as event spaces. Lanes adjacent to the USC campus can be closed as food markets during Olympics and continued thereafter. Bus and rail stations could work as community hubs with installations such as kiosks, stores, furniture, etc. provide a more useful and dignified waiting experience. By replacing the fence of the USC campus with vegetation and an eco-creek, the sidewalk is turned into a linear park.
  • Improving conditions that matter to pedestrians: Protected street crossings and sidewalks provide a safe environment for the pedestrian. Along with the removal of street parking to discourage private vehicles, station beautification and enhanced signal priority improve street efficiency and user experience. Exclusive lanes for multi-passenger vehicles along with carefully designed pickup- and drop-off stations prioritize shared rides. Activity-generating ground floor uses along sidewalks attract people to walk to local destinations.

The project also proposes a new public-private development model that enables LA Metro to act as a master-developer who will capture value from the increased land prices around new metro stations. These revenues could be used to cover service upgrades as well as to subsidize new public housing developments around stations. Metro should cooperate with the LA Housing Authority to manage and upkeep the new public housing developments around stations.

At its core, the project calls for a coordinated planning and design approach that integrates transportation, housing, and street design, which should form an essential building blocks that a "Third LA" can emerge from.