Why the West Coast Is Suddenly Beating the East Coast on Transportation

By Emma G. Fitzsimmons

Los Angeles’s Metro plans to build 100 new miles of rail — essentially doubling the system, which first opened in 1990.CreditCreditMonica Almeida/The New York Times

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When New York City’s transportation commissioner returned from a recent trip to California, she seemed downright jealous. There were electric scooters in Oakland. New train lines in Los Angeles. Self-driving cars in the Bay Area. She tried them all.

“It is an incredibly exciting time to be in urban transportation,” the commissioner, Polly Trottenberg, told a breakfast gathering of powerful New Yorkers, pointing to California’s progress.

Her glee signaled a noteworthy and sobering shift. Wasn’t it her city that was once the envy of the nation when it came to transportation?

Not anymore. The subways on the East Coast that allowed New York, Washington and Boston to thrive are showing their age and suffering from years of neglect, while cities on the West Coast are moving quickly to expand and improve their networks.

The Los Angeles area, the ultimate car-centric region with its sprawling freeways, approved a sweeping $120 billion plan to build new train routes and upgrade its buses. Seattle has won accolades for its transit system, where 93 percent of riders report being happy with service — a feat that seems unimaginable in New York, where subway riders regularly simmer with rage on stalled trains.

“It’s a tale of two systems,” said Robert Puentes, the president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan research center in Washington. “These new ones are growing and haven’t started to experience the pains of rehabilitation.”

In New York, Ms. Trottenberg returned to a laundry list of messes: a subway crisis, buses that move at a snail’s pace, the looming shutdown of the L train between Manhattan and Brooklyn, and the rebuilding of the dilapidated Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

New York has been struggling to maintain and upgrade its aging subway system, which is riddled with delays.CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times

“There is a political will to invest in expansion” on the West Coast, Ms. Trottenberg said in an interview, though she noted that New York’s system was still the country’s largest by far. Its daily subway and bus ridership of nearly 8 million dwarfs Los Angeles’s 1.2 million riders.

Still, transit systems on the East Coast are losing ridership. New York’s subway has not expanded in decades, besides a handful of new stations in Manhattan — one on the Far West Side and three on the Upper East Side.

City officials have been reluctant to embrace electric scooters or self-driving cars, even as scooters have become a popular way to get around a growing roster of cities — including Austin, Tex., and Detroit — and provide an alternative to sitting in clogged traffic. A proposal by Mayor Bill de Blasio for a streetcar in Brooklyn and Queens appears to be stalled.

There is at least one bright spot: Citi Bike has become an essential part of the city’s fabric. The bike-share system has 12,000 bikes across Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn and Queens and recently announced plans to expand under new ownership by the ride-hail company Lyft, which will triple the number of bikes.

Only a decade ago, the New York region was flying high. More than 90 percent of subway trains were on time, compared to about 70 percent today. In the 1990s, New Jersey Transit won a coveted award three times from the American Public Transportation Association.

But in recent years, the East Coast has been notably absent from the awards ceremony, the Oscars of public transportation. Cities including Seattle, Salt Lake City and Houston have captured the title of outstanding transit system.

“In some of these growing communities like L.A. and Seattle, they haven’t been blessed with great infrastructure, and they’re trying to play catch up, frankly,” Paul Skoutelas, the association’s president, said.

Electric scooter programs have become popular in crowded cities like San Francisco.CreditJason Henry for The New York Times

When Seattle’s King County Metro won the award in September, it was praised as “a system that is expanding and innovating to meet rising demand” — not to mention a program that offers lower fares for poor riders that has served as a model for New York and other cities. Transit ridership in Seattle is growing, and car use is down.

One key difference is the West Coast has the ballot measure, while New York State does not allow voters to directly approve measures like transit funding. In 2016, both Los Angeles County and the Seattle region approved measures to boost transportation funding. The Los Angeles proposal, known as Measure M, won nearly 70 percent of the vote, greenlighting $120 billion in spending by raising the sales tax.

“The ballot initiative allows them to proceed without the political angst you’d have in Albany,” said Jon Orcutt, a director at TransitCenter, a research group in New York. “It takes some pressure off politicians. The voters go out and do it, and that creates political cover.”

Los Angeles plans to build 100 new miles of rail — essentially doubling the Metro system, whose first rail line opened in 1990. There are now six lines and 93 stations. Huge machines recently began digging new tunnels for a Purple Line extension to the county’s Westside — part of a plan to attract younger people who are more likely to favor transit and worry about the environmental impact of cars.

“We had a political miracle,” Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, said in an interview. “A permanent 1-cent sales tax.”

Mr. Garcetti, a Democrat, hopes the new rail lines will boost transit ridership. The number of train and bus trips in Los Angeles has dropped in recent years, though he blamed that on low gas prices and national trends in declining transit ridership.

Mr. Garcetti makes a point of using the subway. He took the Red Line recently, from City Hall to MacArthur Park, to visit Langer’s for the city’s “best pastrami sandwich.” He is also deciding how best to regulate the electric scooters that have flooded Los Angeles.

A light rail train in Seattle, where voters approved a ballot measure two years ago that will help extend the system to 116 miles.CreditEllen M. Banner/Seattle Times, via Associated Press

“I want to make them work,” he said. “I’m excited by them. They’re generally taking car trips off the road.”

New York has unique challenges when it comes to funding and governance, Ms. Trottenberg said. In Los Angeles, the transit system is controlled by Mr. Garcetti, while New York’s subway is controlled by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state lawmakers, many of whom rarely use the system and have shown little interest in making it a priority.

If New Yorkers had been asked to approve new transit funding in a ballot measure during the midterm election, Ms. Trottenberg believes it would have won.

“It would have to be a mixture so that we’re fixing the old, and you have to put in some new things in, too,” she said.

Instead, the subway’s leader, Andy Byford, is pleading with state leaders to approve new revenue sources when they return to Albany in January. Mr. Byford says it will cost more than $40 billion to fix the system — a figure that does not include any expansion or new lines.

In Seattle, a $54 billion ballot measure approved two years ago will help extend the region’s light rail system to 116 miles from about 20 miles.

Dow Constantine, the executive of King County, which is home to Seattle, said the city’s culture was changing, too.

“Folks are tired of sitting in traffic,” Mr. Constantine, a Democrat, said. “They’re mindful of the environmental implications of driving.”

Seattle also wants to learn from the East Coast’s mistakes, Mr. Constantine said.

“I made sure we included funding for long-term maintenance,” he said, “so you don’t get the situation we’re seeing in New York and Washington where the systems have been neglected and it’s expensive and inconvenient to rebuild.”