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  • 10.31.14

Why A Subway-Building Binge Could Transform L.A.’s Tech Culture

It’s hard to tear Los Angeles residents from their cars. But a massive subway-building binge is changing the equation.

Why A Subway-Building Binge Could Transform L.A.’s Tech Culture

Driving around Santa Monica, the epicenter of Los Angeles’ booming “Silicon Beach” tech neighborhood, you’ll encounter the most Los Angeles of events–a traffic jam. In this case, it’s heavy construction equipment blocking a street where they’re putting the final touches on a new subway line. LA Metro, the biggest transit agency in Southern California, is on a subway-building binge and adding five new subway extensions–several of which will be open to the public before New York’s decades-awaited Second Avenue Subway begins operations (even if much of the construction has been over budget and delayed).

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In the heart of American car culture, L.A.’s urban planners are trying to convince commuters to ditch their cars and take public transit. For tech and creative workers, it will be a particular challenge. Unlike in New York or the San Francisco Bay Area, techies generally don’t take public transit to work. Even the Google bus phenomenon–the private transport system for Silicon Valley tech companies–is non-existent in Southern California.

And this has had big impacts on the nascent industry’s culture.

New Commutes

Los Angeles’s high-tech companies are scattered over a wide metropolitan area with multiple hubs. Some companies congregate in Santa Monica’s “Silicon Beach” while others cluster in Downtown Los Angeles, the office parks of Playa del Rey, or in suburbs like Pasadena or El Segundo. And there’s no financial incentive to running shuttles for employees: There simply aren’t any neighborhoods full of Mission District or Noe Valley-like commuter densities.

I moved to Los Angeles from New York in March 2014 and, although I own a car, I regularly commute by subway–my home in the formerly battered by the flight of commercial tenants but currently rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles is at the hub of the region’s rail system. But many fellow white collar professionals (Los Angeles, sadly, self-segregates across economic classes more than almost any other American city) are bemused when I tell them I regularly ride the Los Angeles subway. It’s almost like you’ve announced you work as an alpaca farmer; in other words, no social stigma but unusual enough to be a point of interest at parties. The fact is that poor and working class Angelenos and middle and upper class Angelenos inhabit different worlds, and public transit doesn’t cut across classes the way San Francisco’s Muni or New York’s subway system does.

According to estimates by the American Community Survey, the median earnings of Los Angeles public transit riders are only 54.7% that of the public as large. But in Cambridge, Massachusetts, public transit commuters earn 110.5% more than the public at large; in New York, MTA commuters come in at a respectable 96%. As subways prepare to weave their way underneath the office towers of Wilshire Boulevard and a mass transit terminal is built blocks from Santa Monica’s iconic amusement pier, urban planners are trying to learn how to teach Angelenos how to love mass transit.

The construction of these new subway lines is subtly changing Los Angeles commute patterns. Jerome Chang, the founder of coworking space chain Blankspaces, is one of these new public transit commuters. From his home in Redondo Beach, Chang regularly takes an existing subway line to an express bus when working at his downtown Los Angeles office. According to Chang, the 60-75 minute commute (versus a 45 minute drive) is better because it allows him to catch up on work emails and news along the way. It’s also significantly cheaper, at $7 for a round trip versus $25 once he pays for downtown parking and tolls to use high-speed lanes on the highway.

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He says many of his friends and colleagues are surprised by the idea of people taking public transit to work. By email, Chang added that “they don’t even think the Metro stretched to outside the city, or basically anywhere they might want to go to.” But when he commutes to Blankspaces’ other two locations, in currently subway-less Santa Monica and the mid-Wilshire neighborhood, he drives because it is much faster and cheaper. Both neighborhoods are on the list for Los Angeles subway expansion; Santa Monica is expected to see stations open in early 2016 while mid-Wilshire is set for 2023.

Another commuter, Kara Barlow of startup NationBuilder who lives in the suburb of Valley Village and works in downtown Los Angeles, takes the existing Red Line subway to work. The 40-minute trip consists of driving five minutes from her house to the parking lot at the subway terminus at North Hollywood (which costs $60 for a monthly permit), and then riding the Red Line for approximately 24 minutes. She prefers the subway to the alternative, the crowded 101 freeway, because it gives her time to read books. “There’s a perception in Los Angeles that public transit isn’t as good as it actually is,” Barlow told Fast Company. But similarly to Chang, commuting from her part of town also has logistical challenges: The Los Angeles MTA told the L.A. Times that the North Hollywood metro stop loses almost 1,500 passengers daily because there isn’t enough parking to meet demand.

LA Metro’s Red LinePhoto: Flickr user Atomic Taco

A Construction Binge

Los Angeles currently has a large, but limited, subway network. Key neighborhoods, cities, and institutions such as downtown Los Angeles (which is recovering from decades of flight from commercial tenants to more auto-centric neighborhoods and is currently in the midst of aggressive gentrification), Hollywood, the University of Southern California, Koreatown, Pasadena, and Culver City are linked to the city’s subway system. But many more neighborhoods that are home to high-tech and creative businesses like Santa Monica, Venice Beach, El Segundo, West Hollywood, Westwood, mid-Wilshire, and Century City aren’t.

Urban planning aficionados will understand Los Angeles’ quandary. The city lacks a single, centralized business district akin to New York or San Francisco, with businesses instead located around a series of medium-sized nodes scattered across a metropolitan area. While Los Angeles already has a robust subway and light rail system consisting of seven different lines… everything’s just too scattered.

These projects also require substantial engineering ninjitsu–even more than a conventional subway-building product would require. Earthquake-proofing subway tunnels and elevated railways aren’t the only challenges Los Angeles engineers face. Just to give one example, the expansion of the Purple Line from Koreatown to a new terminal nine miles away near UCLA required digging under the La Brea tar pits (which unearthed a treasure trove of fossils) and contending with both wealthy anti-subway activists in Beverly Hills and avoiding the still functioning oil well located on the Beverly Hills High School campus.

Changing The Tech Community

When Re/Code ran an extensive article on Los Angeles’ tech community, they noted something important: Despite being one of the nation’s largest high-tech clusters, Los Angeles lacks neighborhoods or even individual coffee shops or restaurants that serve as industry meeting places similar to Sand Hill Road in Silicon Valley or San Francisco’s 21st Amendment Brewery. The notoriously decentralized high-tech world in Los Angeles means a lack of common spaces where coders from small startups, rocket scientists from the Jet Propulsion Lab, DIY YouTube video makers, Oculus Rift-centric virtual reality geeks, imagineers from Disney, and ex-Myspace venture capitalists can intersect.

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The expansion of Los Angeles’ subway system means more than just the dubious opportunity for engineers to review code while riding to work or busy advertising executives to catch up on their inbox. It also offers a chance for the region’s high tech-centric firms to attain what they’ve previously lacked: cross-fertilization between companies and across industries. By expanding the subway system, Los Angeles urban planners are facilitating the easy travel between business meetings that’s commonplace in New York, London, and San Francisco.

While venues such as 41 Ocean, the West Hollywood branch of Soho House and the various branches of The Standard hotel have been buttressing up high-end industry events, and organizations like General Assembly have done much to spur cross-fertilization among tech companies, the region still lacks those common places. A startup executive working in Santa Monica would have to spend at least 45 minutes driving to a demo happy hour in an Arts District warehouse space–and that’s before looking for parking. Among other things, the Los Angeles subway expansion will connect most of the area’s major tech nodes with each other.

In the end, the challenge is teaching Angelenos to enjoy and use public transit. For Los Angeles Metro, they might have to resort to a novel solution: telling commuters that, for once in a car city, they can use their iPhones and Kindles on the way to work.