VENTURA — Los Angeles' quake-created window of opportunity for public transportation is closing fast. The Northridge temblor induced a short-term spurt of ridership--especially on Metrolink, the region's commuter rail system-- and fueled long-term expectations of packed transit vehicles. But a month after the quake, Metrolink's Santa Clarita ridership is dropping fast, and Caltrans has announced plans to reopen Interstate 5 through the Newhall Pass six months ahead of schedule. Despite all the rhetoric and high hopes, we are not rethinking L.A.'s transportation system. We are rebuilding it.
In a way, this is a shame. The one thing all transportation experts seemed to agree on was that the earthquake presented a golden opportunity to re-examine how transportation works in the metropolis and how it might be improved. But the rebuild-it-quick sentiment reflects a subtle, underlying reality: There's been little consensus on what should be done.
Rail advocates say the quake reveals the importance of a rail-transit system. Highway advocates contend it shows how critical the freeways are and suggest that money should be diverted from the struggling rail system to rebuild auto-oriented infrastructure. Vice President Al Gore will probably tout the quake as another reason to invest in the telecommunications superhighway. The truth is the quake should remind us that all these components must play an important role in our regional transportation system, and if we ignore any one of them, we do so at our peril.
No one questions the importance of auto travel in Southern California. No one can ignore the emerging power of telecommunications. But the quake has tested our long-term commitment to a rail-transit system--especially Metrolink.
Initiated in 1992, Metrolink was, at best, a modest pre-quake success, carrying 10,000 daily riders from distant suburbs to Union Station and Burbank. Though this constitutes a tiny fraction of the region's transit commuters (more than 1 million travel by bus in central Los Angeles), Metrolink is a transportation priority, one of the most heavily subsidized services in the state.
But after the quake, it became a vital connection, especially between Los Angeles and its northern suburbs. With the I-5/Highway 14 interchange knocked out, auto commuters traveling south into the San Fernando Valley had few options. The Santa Clarita line became a lifeline. Ridership rose from 1,000 to more than 20,000 a day. But as soon as Caltrans opened alternate car routes, commuters on the line dropped to fewer than 10,000.
None of this is surprising to transportation experts. Indeed, it parallels almost exactly the Bay Area's experience after the Loma Prieta quake in October, 1989. Like the Northridge temblor, Loma Prieta knocked out several key transportation arteries--especially the Oakland Bay Bridge. And like Metrolink, BART provided an alternative along a similar route for car-bound commuters.
Overall, BART ridership rose 50% between September and November, 1989--from 219,000 to 314,000 riders a day. When the Bay Bridge reopened, ridership slid sharply, bottoming out at about 250,000 riders a day. That's still an increase of 30,000 riders--a 16% permanent increase--almost overnight, which is nothing to sneeze at.
But it's not the whole story. According to researchers at UC Berkeley's University Transportation Center, BART ridership was rising 5% a year before Loma Prieta, meaning a 16% increase would have come in approximately three years, anyway. Furthermore, since 1990, BART ridership has been absolutely flat, at 250,000. The Berkeley researchers theorize that the new, permanent BART riders would probably have switched to transit in any case; Loma Prieta simply captured them a little early.
Metrolink will also probably sop up some latent demand and a little more. The permanent ridership hike will probably run higher than 16% (that would only amount to 1,600 new riders), simply because--compared with BART--the service is still so new. But in numerical terms, any increase would be a drop in the bucket--especially when compared with the 1 million-plus riders on the MTA's bus lines and millions more in cars on the freeways. There's certainly a definable upper limit to rail-transit ridership, especially in the suburbs.
Yet, if the earthquake taught us anything about transportation in Los Angeles, it reinforced the idea that a transportation system has to provide many alternatives instead of being dependent on one mode of travel. In the short run, there's no question that Metrolink proved its value as an insurance policy against natural disasters. The Valley and its surrounding suburbs have to be less disrupted--in terms of mobility and economics--than they would have been otherwise. That alone is worth some of the investment in it.
Lewis Mumford decried the coming of the freeway age by arguing that we should not make cars more important than other ways of getting around. "Each type of transportation has its special use," he wrote. "There is no one ideal mode of speed: human purpose should govern the choice of the means of transportation. That is why we need a better transportation \o7 system\f7 , not just more highways."
Mumford's words ring even more true today. We cannot afford to think about rail vs. highways vs. telecommunications as an either/or future for transportation in Southern California. In a metropolis so diverse, so sprawling, and so accustomed to operating on individual, private decisions, we need them all.