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THE NEXT LOS ANGELES / TURNING IDEAS INTO ACTION : Getting Around : Are we creating a transit system that makes sense or simply a costly edifice that most Angelenos won't use? : Rethinking Our Transportation Dollars

July 17, 1994|NORA ZAMICHOW

My sister-in-law called me from Century City when she arrived on business from Ohio. "I'm coming to visit you," she announced, although the hotel concierge had told her he didn't have a clue how anyone traveled in Los Angeles without a car.

But she'd forgotten her driver's license, so she couldn't rent a car. She tried to get bus information but hung up after being put on hold for 20 minutes. The shuttle companies said they would charge $60 to take her 24 miles to Pasadena.

So I drove to see her.

"What kind of city is this?" she asked, exasperated.

If you live here--and especially if you are poor--you may ask that question every day. You make your way through the world in a substandard transportation system. You have no choice. A day laborer like Mario Vazquez, who lives on the Eastside, takes four buses daily to get to work.

When the Northridge earthquake shattered parts of six freeways, having a car no longer necessarily meant you could get places faster. Perhaps what angered commuters most was being treated as though their time was not valuable, being forced to wait for crowded buses and trains or sitting in traffic jams for hours.

It proved what most of us already suspected: that public transportation is inconvenient. After the quake, ridership on the Santa Clarita MetroLink train--the route most affected--increased 20-fold at its peak. But as soon as the highways began opening--despite discount fares and appeals to our consciences about the environment--most of us returned to our cars.

Telecommuting, another highly touted alternative to the car, met a similar fate. After highways reopened, its popularity waned.

People won't use public transit unless it's convenient and safe, transit experts warned us. Unless poverty or disasters like earthquakes force them.

Based on our brief encounters with public transportation, a lot of us began to wonder: Are we creating a transit system that makes sense?

Nationwide, despite the billions poured into erecting elaborate rail systems, fewer and fewer people use public transportation. In 1960, about 13% of us traveled on bus and rail. Thirty years later, only 5% do.

In Los Angeles, public transportation peaked in 1985. When fare for the county's buses was 50 cents, 1.6 million passengers took buses daily. But there were service cuts and fare hikes. And we began building rail lines, starting with the Blue Line trolley, which travels between Long Beach and L.A.'s downtown.

Boasting 37,000 daily passengers, the Blue Line carries more riders than the Red Line subway or MetroLink. Shortly after the Blue Line opened, we shut the bus lines that ran parallel. True, those buses often beat the spanking new trolley by as much as 20 minutes. But we meant to usher in the new age of rail.

Today, about 60,000 passengers a day ride L.A.'s rail, the Blue Line, Red Line and MetroLink. That's a lot fewer than the roughly 400,000 riders who stopped using the buses after service cuts and fare hikes.

Did we achieve our goal of taking cars off the region's crowded roads? About two-thirds of Blue Line riders say they used to take the bus. They merely switched from one form of public transportation to another.

We need better transportation now. Maybe that means we need to rethink how we spend our transportation dollars so we get more for our money.

Maybe we need to experiment, try shuttles in neighborhoods served by overcrowded buses. Or open the transit market so that more companies can offer services.

At the very least, we could improve the bus system so that it serves more people with greater comfort and convenience.

Rail, we are told, is for the future. With only a fledgling system in place, we are building for our children. But what happens until then? The visiting sisters-in-law shouldn't have to wait a decade. Nor should Mario Vazquez.

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