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Love for Car Still Top Roadblock for Mass Transit

June 28, 1996

Whether we're hit by an earthquake or come here from another country, we Southern Californians love our cars.

Those are the findings of two studies that present challenges for solving the region's transportation problems.

One study found that even the 1994 Northridge earthquake could not shake Southern Californians out of their cars.

"If public transit cannot compete even when major highways are closed, we certainly cannot expect it to compete under ordinary conditions," said a study conducted by a USC professor, under the direction of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies.

Traffic on freeways damaged in the earthquake dropped dramatically in the weeks after the temblor--almost 60% on Interstate 5 and 55% on the Santa Monica Freeway, the study found. But within three months, when both routes were reopened, traffic had returned to normal levels.

Ridership on Metrolink trains jumped immediately after the earthquake, but higher levels could not be maintained. While there were an average of 19,000 trips a day on the Santa Clarita train to downtown Los Angeles after the temblor, the number of trips dropped to 10,000 the following week and continued to fall as roads were opened, the study found.

Even so, says, Richard Stanger, executive director of the Southern California Regional Rail Authority, which operates Metrolink, the Santa Clarita line now has more riders than it had before the temblor. "That line carries now 3,700 trips a day--four times what it did before the earthquake," Stanger said.

The trend isn't unique to Los Angeles, according to researcher Genevieve Giuliano, USC associate professor of urban and regional planning. In studies of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, commuters began using ferries and BART, but soon after returned to their cars.

The other study concluded that immigrants abandon riding the bus in favor of driving alone after residing in the United States for a decade or longer.

Recent immigrants are much less likely to drive cars alone to work, the study found, noting that they account for 42% of the region's transit users.

The study found that as immigrants assimilate, they begin to act more and more like native-born Californians, according to Dowell Myers, principal researcher and associate professor at USC's School of Urban Planning and Development, one of those who conducted the study.

"In Southern California, only the very young, and especially, the poor, travel by bus," the study says. "In some other cities, mass transit may serve a broader clientele, but in freeway-oriented Los Angeles all who can afford cars escape from the bus. Indeed, for immigrants to fully assimilate into California life, they strive to become like the majority--solo commuters by private automobile."

Upward mobility is a factor in immigrants' shift from public to the automobile, Myers said. The reports are required reading for transportation planners who are spending billions of dollars on improving the region's bus and rail network.

"In California, with so many new immigrants, we have a very large stock of bus riders," Myers said, adding, however, that the region's public transit system is built on a "precarious base."

"Should immigration policy seal the border, or at least slow the rate of new arrivals, this would lead quickly to an accelerated decline in transit ridership," he said.

Transportation planners must use events such as the earthquake as a "window of opportunity"--to use Myers' words--to promote public transit.

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