Public Transit in L.A.: an older-but-wiser look back

     What follow are some thoughts on public transit that I haven’t read elsewhere and think I should share.  This is a “wrapping up” essay for me.  I don’t live in L.A. anymore, and doubt I’ll move back.  The few Angelenos who knew of my TransitPeople labors probably thought of me more as a field trip guy than a public transit guy, which was fine.  But we did do all our traveling by transit, and I did live without a car in Los Angeles, and I’m sure I must have put my public foot in my mouth at least once with a remark on transit in general, even if I did generally try to stay on the field trip side of the fence in interviews.

     So, I thought I should write this.  I know I’ll feel better if I do.

     My formal qualifications for sharing my observations about transit are unique: I don’t have any.  Robert Cervero of U.C. Berkeley is a qualified academic.  I’m not.  Tom Rubin was chief financial officer of the RTD, MTA’s predecessor, and can talk learnedly of budgets and local shares of federal allocations and so forth.  I can’t.  I’m a retired school teacher.  I’ll bet I can line up a class of second graders faster than either of these guys, but that’s not going to help me much in this essay.

     Still: 

Much writing about Los Angeles public transit is the work of professionals who are paid to champion a point of view, and who don’t regularly ride Los Angeles buses.

     By ‘professionals’ I mean full or part time lobbyists, or occasional or full time employees of MTA, or paid staff of organizations that promote alternatives to car travel — which means taking a side, as a trial lawyer does, and not sharing views that make your side look bad, even if you privately think those views are legitimate.

     I am going to give myself permission here to be vague.  I like some of these people. (Not all.) I think some are sincere. (Some aren’t.)  I feel personally grateful to one, who made a special effort to help TransitPeople that I think was undertaken out of the goodness of his heart.  I think he’s an idealistic, committed guy and don’t want to put him on the spot, but it is long past time to point out how much writing on Los Angeles transit matters is done by hired guns, and that most of these hired guns do most of their getting around in L.A. in the driver’s seat.

     There are exceptions.  Dana Gabbard and Kymberleigh Richards aren’t hired guns, and are regular L.A. bus riders.  I wish Hank Fung would write more about transit, although I believe that Hank works for the county, and might have to deal with some unpleasant, behind-the-scenes arm twisting if a media outlet here gave him a widely-read public forum.

     The horrific earthquake that likely looms in Los Angeles’ future is rarely or never considered in public discussion of major Los Angeles transit projects.

     I don’t have any quarrel with the reporting of Southern California earthquake risks.  The Los Angeles Times hasn’t flinched from it, so far as I can tell. I’ve never heard of or sensed any muzzling of experts like Lucy Jones, or of SCEC director Thomas Jordan

     The trouble is that the truth is told, but not digested.  I understand why.  Most tax and mortgage paying adults are stuck where they are.  Imagine flying over Southern California’s famously sprawling acres, gazing down at the rooftops of miles and miles of seventh of an acre pride-and-joys, and telling all those homeowners that it’s time to hawk the furniture, list the castle on the MLS, pull the kids out of school and start collecting unemployment, because the Big One is coming and they’ve got to get out of Dodge? 

     They can’t.  It’s not practical.  And isn’t it true (they might say) that no one knows when the Big One is coming, or can even say for absolute certainty that it is coming, despite the high odds in its favor? 

     So, the threat is ignored.  Life goes on as it did before, and maybe that’s the best psychological approach for the adult who can’t sell or move or quit, and who already has done her practical best to prepare her home.

     But does it make sense when contemplating big transit projects?  If your hands were on the federal purse strings, would you really want to commit billions of discretionary dollars to a city that could get majorly clobbered sometime soon, and take your billions of infrastructure investment with it? 

     Los Angeles is mostly finished.  The city’s parents and grandparents built a city that almost requires a car.  This won’t change. 

     A map of the Los Angeles rail network in the Red Car era is here:
     And a map of today’s freeway grid is here:

     Please take a minute to compare the two.  Line ’em up side by side, if you’ve got the screen real estate space for it.  Think of the colossal outlay of time, money and effort that went into that PE system (which is gone now, largely thanks to the long ago meddling of General Motors, Standard Oil, Firestone and other corporate conspirators).  And now think of the billions that went into Los Angeles’ current freeway system.

     Los Angeles is done, Jack.  Done. 

     Consider a few hypothetical modern travel chores.  You’re in Inglewood, say, and want to travel to a business lunch in Northridge.  Or your son needs a ride to a soccer practice in Griffith Park, or your daughter needs to go to a an evening dance practice in Lakewood, and then come home afterward.

     You need a car for this stuff.  Do you really want to walk your ten year old daughter to the nearest 266 stop at eight in the evening, wait for a bus that runs only once an hour after 7:00 p.m., and then transfer to another runs-every-once-in-awhile line to get back home? 

     Of course you don’t, unless you’re ready for a sabbatical at Camarillo.  You wouldn’t need a car in Manhattan, or Singapore, or parts of San Francisco — although I straphang regularly in San Francisco now, and know better than to say much good about its transit system.  But you do in L.A.  If you want to chew out the folks responsible, visit Hollywood Memorial and look up the appropriate ghosts.

     Most Los Angeles politicians seem to use “transit oriented development” as a smokescreen to justify infill.

     This is an educated guess.  If I am the tracker, and the Los Angeles political establishment’s ulterior motives are the animal I seek to track, then my guess represents ten years of studying hoof sprints and squinting at bits of fur left on branches. 

     It’s only a guess.  I have never been a fly on the wall (or a flea in the roquefort dressing) at the Pacific Dining Car, eavesdropping on an inebriated politico confiding his true, dastardly motives for supporting a given bill.  But I think it’s a good guess.

     My collection of hoof prints:

     * Los Angeles has nowhere left to sprawl.  Politicians can’t feed the “growth machine” described in William Fulton’s Reluctant Metropolis with new projects in outlying areas.  Only infill is likely.

     * Plain old “infill” is hard to defend.  Who wants blocked views, construction noise, and more traffic so a politico can pay off a campaign contributor?  But if you banish the word ‘infill,’ and hang glitter and bunting on the term “transit oriented development,” (aka TOD), you can dupe the innocent into regarding the project as a shared sacrifice for an environmentally responsible future. 

     (Please note that I still think that legitimate transit oriented development is an excellent idea.  If I were back in L.A., I would love to live in the sleek highrises at Wilshire and Western, although maybe not in the penthouse suite when the San Andreas unloads.  But I would never trust a politician or developer to tell me what’s TOD and what ain’t.  Never.)

     * The champions of transit oriented development don’t seem to want to live in it. 

     The nice thing about writing in the Internet age is that I don’t have to send readers to the library stacks to prove a point.  David Zahniser’s excellent 2007 Do as We Say, Not as We Do is still online.

     Please take a break to read it.  I’ll wait.

     I believe that the tremendous potential of paratransit is untapped because the cultivation of that potential would either hurt vested interest groups, or be of no benefit to them.

     I’ve saved this one for last.  Intentionally.  I’m going out on a limb.  You won’t find anyone else jumping up and down about this idea, so I risk looking just a little like a Fortean Times crank panting over a Bigfoot sighting by jumping up and down as I do.

     With that said: 

     In Paratransit in America, transit expert Robert Cervero describes the shared ride taxi system that operated in Little Rock, Arkansas from the early 1950s to 1981.  Taxis operated in ninety-one zones; cabbies typically carried two to three passengers; the average trip cost $1.35.  The system worked well, exceptionally well, but the local transit agency saw it as a threat, and helped kill it in the early 1980s.  Adios, Little Rock shared ride.

     In 2005, Google Labs launched Ride Finder, which fed GPS data into Google Maps to let users track the whereabouts of nearby cabs.  The debut reached ten cities, including Los Angeles (but apparently failed to rake in any dinero, which might be why Google pulled the Ride Finder plug a couple of years later).

     I won’t forget the first time I fired up Ride Finder.  There my icon was at, say, Fifth and Grand, and here’s a cab icon inching west toward me from Hill and Third, and another motoring away from me south on Flower.  The second I saw that screen in my browser, I knew — knew! — what a difference it or some related service could make for paratransit. 

     But it hasn’t happened.  To my knowledge, anyway. 

     So, out on my limb I go:

     There are nearly six million registered vehicles and twenty-one thousand miles of roadway in Los Angeles County.  Eighty-three percent of American adults have cell phones, and thirty-five percent of cell phone users have used their cells to access the internet.  People set up impromptu pillow fights and flash mob riots with the internet now.  It’s everywhere. 

     How hard could it be to set up a computer network to match offerers-of-rides with wanters-of-rides, and a licensing agency to handle back-end chores?  (Weeding out drivers with DUIs and some criminal convictions, screening vehicles for safety, providing vouchers to low income riders.)  Could anyone argue with a straight face that there aren’t tens of thousands of drivers eager to pick up Starbucks change by picking up and dropping off a few passengers on the way to work, or the mall, or anywhere else? 

     I doubt many would.  But I’ll steal a line from Hammett’s Big Knockover, and write that the future for this idea is likely as black as an honest politician’s prospects.   

     Why?

     No current entrenched special interest would profit from it, and many would lose money if it took off. 

     Go through the list.  Cab companies.  Transit agencies.  Labor unions.  (Which I include reluctantly, as I’m generally a defender of unions.) Car manufacturers, and sellers of any and all products dependent on private car ownership.  This idea would help none of them and inflict varying degrees of hurt on every one.  I’m not enough of a political insider to guess what they’d do to derail it, but also not naive enough to doubt that they’d do something. 

     And for me, that’s an important takeaway:  an excellent, feasible, we-could-do-it-right-now idea to reduce traffic congestion, reduce per capita driving, reduce air pollution and fatten up the average American’s wallet to boot isn’t going to happen because no one important can make a dollar on it.  Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have believed society could function that inefficiently.  I believe it now.  It’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned as an adult, and I offer sincere, nonsatirical and only slightly embittered thanks to MTA and Los Angeles politicians for helping to teach it to me. 

     So I Don’t Ride the Bus Anymore?

     I’m still a transit rider.  I now live in San Francisco, where I was born, a five minute walk from several bus lines and a much longer walk to the nearest BART station.  My home includes a garage, and in this garage is parked a small car, my first since early 2001.  I bought it three months ago.  

     It doesn’t get much exercise.  I am painfully aware of how much more dangerous driving is than anything else I usually do, and also am now intolerant of driving stresses:  the battles for parking spaces, friction with other drivers, worry about accidents, thefts and breakdowns.  I used to take that stuff for granted, but my years as a Los Angeles straphanger spoiled me. 

     (Ironically, however, I discovered one task that the private car is exceptionally good at: travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles.  I hope never to suffer through a TSA striptease again, at least not for that short a trip.)

     I would need to drive daily if a job required it, or if I were a parent daisy chaining after work errands.  But I don’t need to.  I usually take the car out once or twice a week, particularly for grocery shopping, and do the rest of my getting around with my Clipper card.

     But this might not be permanent.  Transit in San Francisco is much more widely used than it was in Los Angeles, and the city’s compact dimensions allow one to travel almost anywhere here by train or bus.  But the buses are often much more crowded than what I was accustomed to in L.A., and the graffiti in some is worse than I’d expect to see in a public bathroom on Venice Beach.

     San Francisco’s leaders are now in hot debate on the Central Subway project.  I am new here, but persuaded by the arguments offered at Save Muni.  To me, at least as a newcomer, the Central Subway looks like yet another plundering of public coffers to fatten the wallets of a well-heeled few. 

     If transit services here get worse, I will give up my bus pass and resign myself unhappily to an auto-dependent future.  The suburbs may get me back yet.  I hope not, but they might.— first posted October, 2011

 

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