By ERIC J. HEIKKILA
My wife and I recently returned from a one-year stay at a local university in Hong Kong. We resumed the lifestyle we previously led in Los Angeles, with one car between the two of us.
For the past nine years we have lived adjacent to the USC campus, so I am able to dispose of my commute to the university with a six-minute bicycle ride. If I need to use the car on a given day, I can usually work out some suitable arrangement with my wife, but for the most part my bicycle suffices for local errands, including the 20-minute ride to downtown. We seldom use public transit here.
Our lives in Hong Kong were starkly different, although there we also lived on campus. Most notably, we did not own a car there, nor did we miss having one. Instead, we used public transit routinely each day. Within steps of our apartment building was a shuttle-bus stop that ran like clockwork an average of three times per hour daily. I could take that directly to my office or, if I stayed on board for one more stop, I could get off at the Mass Transit Railway train station, arriving there within 10 minutes.
The university MTR station that we used was roughly equidistant from Central in downtown and Shenzhen, the dynamic “instant city” in nearby Guangdong province. Both locations were accessible within one hour of leaving our residence, and in between these two extremes were countless stops with high-density developments supporting a plethora of residences, retail shops, restaurants, offices and other land uses that one finds in any major modern metropolis. The MTR system in Hong Kong is extensive, but we would sometimes switch to buses or affordable taxis that queue up at all transit stations.
Conveniently, passengers can pay for any ride on public transit with special (so-called Octopus) debit cards that are quickly read by machines installed on all buses and trains as well as in most convenience stores.
This sudden transition from a Hong Kong lifestyle, where public transit had been the centerpiece of our daily mobility, to Los Angeles, where we perceive public transit to be one of our least attractive options, gives one pause to reflect: How can two cities be so different in this way? There is no single, simple answer. Instead, our experience suggests a multiplicity of inter-related explanations:
– High-density land use Hong Kong, with its 8 million people squeezed into a relatively small, mountainous land space, has no choice but to build to very high Manhattan-like densities. Although many Americans would balk at living in such close quarters, it does make it more economical to bring public transit to virtually everyone’s doorstep.
– Level of service There are several dimensions to this. Often, I would arrive at a transit station as one train was pulling out, but before it was lost from view the next one would be approaching. Buses and trains are kept very clean, and I saw no graffiti or other signs of neglect. Safety is another critical factor. Not once during the year was I made to feel in the least bit intimidated by any other passengers. MTR staff frequently boarded and disembarked from trains at random intervals.
– Public and private finance These factors promoted high passenger volumes, which in turn helped minimize the cost per passenger of maintaining enviable levels of service. Moreover, much of the system costs are supported through development-related fees proximate to transit stations. There is a direct linkage between the source of funds and the beneficiaries of the public transportation system.
– Schools and neighborhoods I often reflect on why more of my fellow Angelenos don’t live closer to their places of work, so that they also might conveniently walk or bicycle to work as I do. As any parent knows, quality schools and safe neighborhoods are a first priority in deciding where to live. Thus, ironically, a good K-12 education policy may be one of the most effective means of improving public transportation in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles is not Hong Kong, nor should we want it to be. Each city has a distinctive magic all its own. That doesn’t mean that we cannot learn from each other, and in the case of public transit, we still have much to learn.
Eric J. Heikkila is professor of Urban Development and director of International Initiatives at USC’s School of Policy, Planning and Development. He is also co-founder and executive secretary of the Pacific Rim Council on Urban Development.