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The Battle for the Mind of the Commuter : Transit: No matter which options we build, relieving congestion depends on changing driver habits.

July 22, 1990|William Fulton | William Fulton is editor of California Planning & Development Report, a monthly newsletter based in Ventura

Last week, two transportation events dominated Los Angeles' headlines and evening news programs. One was the opening of the first rail transit line in the region in almost 30 years; the other, a dramatic change in people's commuting habits that averted major traffic congestion. Unfortunately, the two stories were unconnected.

On Monday, close to 15,000 people rode the Los Angeles-to-Long Beach "Blue Line," marking the beginning of a new era in rail transit in Southern California. That same day, the expected nightmarish traffic tie-up in downtown Los Angeles--created, ironically, by a freeway closure resulting from a fire in a Metro Rail tunnel--never materialized, because thousands of commuters adjusted their schedules and routes to avoid it.

The proximity of these two events points up an important fact about commuting in Southern California: No matter what kind of transit alternatives we build, our ability to manage mobility and reduce congestion ultimately depends on the willingness of individuals to change their habits. As any advertising expert will tell you, you can't persuade people to alter their behavior unless you understand what motivates them. But instead of concentrating on this fact, we are losing sight of it in the hoopla over the new rails.

As our rail transit lines open one by one--the Blue Line this year, the Metro Rail subway in 1993 and so on--each will receive a blizzard of publicity, and each will be under tremendous pressure to perform well immediately to prove that the multibillion-dollar public investment was worthwhile. In each case, the transit agencies will put out inflated ridership forecasts. And then the cabal of rail skeptics will run the projects down when actual ridership falls short of forecasts, saying that all the massive project has done is transfer bus riders to rail lines. But this short-sighted debate misses the point.

The Blue Line, for example, will not make a dent in the city's traffic problems in the foreseeable future. But it should probably not be held to such a standard because its importance--indeed, its reason for being--is symbolic. The line's chief attribute is not its location or its potential ridership, but that it could be built cheaply and quickly. The Blue Line was used to prove that a rail project could be built in Los Angeles--and so it was built. On these terms, it is a success. Hooray. To expect any thing more at this point is ridiculous.

For close to 70 years, the city has been building itself away from rail-commuting patterns. The Blue Line is merely the first step in re-orienting the city to rail commuting. Considering all the places in the city a commuter cannot travel to on our new rail transit system, it will be amazing if anyone rides it.

This is not to say the Blue Line represents a wasted billion dollars of public funds. It doesn't. But, as befits such a large public investment, it will take a generation for us to reap all the rewards. During the next 20 years to 30 years, several more rail lines will be constructed in the Los Angeles area. It will be possible to be mobile in this sprawling region--at least to some extent--without a car.

But construction alone won't guarantee success. What will make the difference between success and failure of the rail transit system is people's attitudes. Whenever some disaster like the tunnel fire motivates people to change commuting habits, hopeful transportation planners cite it as evidence that the city's endemic traffic congestion can be alleviated. The misty, nostalgic vision of free-flowing traffic during the 1984 Olympics is usually used to bolster the argument. Actually, the traffic situation surrounding the Olympics and the Metro Rail freeway closures proves the opposite: Angelenos are so reluctant to change their habits that only a call to arms in an emergency situation--the moral equivalent of war--can cause any improvement. The rest of the time, people could care less.

Unfortunately, transportation officials cannot arrange a world-class disaster or emergency every day of the week. So they should be concentrating on how to change people's attitudes--especially, the attitudes of middle-class commuters most likely to cause congestion and smog by driving to work alone. In this regard, the Blue Line as a symbol may turn out to be less than a success, simply because it runs through the city's poorest neighborhoods.

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