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THE SPIN / BILL BOYARSKY

On the Road to Breaking the Car Habit

March 30, 1997|BILL BOYARSKY

I sometimes take the subway downtown, but it's not what you'd call a speedy commute.

Usually, I need my car for my job. But I've found the subway convenient on days I meet my wife, Nancy, after work for an evening event, and we carpool home. All told, the trip takes an hour, door to door, from my home to my office on buses and subway, compared to roughly half that time in my car.

But since I can read the newspapers in peace, I see this as time gained, on days I can spare the time.

*

The $5.9-billion subway is viewed here, and around the country, as one of the great boondoggles of the late 20th century.

Collapsing tunnels, cost overruns, delays, leaking walls, fumes, on-the-job injuries and a death have marked the slow progress of an underground rail line that will extend from downtown's Union Station to North Hollywood.

Add to this the paranoia of earthquake-nervous Southlanders who fear being trapped underground when the Big One hits.

Even though I'm acutely aware of the huge numbers of dangers facing we Southlanders, I have never sympathized with the paranoia. Disaster can strike anywhere, especially where I live, in West Los Angeles, where local motorists, L.A.'s most inconsiderate, barrel through intersections, screaming profanities at any driver with the chutzpah to pause for a stop sign.

So when the subway opened, I looked forward to the day I could take it to work. At the beginning, the Red Line ended too far from my home, but the opening of the Western Avenue station brought the Red Line into my range. Sort of.

The journey begins at a bus stop at the corner of Olympic and Westwood boulevards, within easy walking distance of my house.

I pull a newspaper out of my briefcase, have a seat on the bus stop bench and wait a few minutes. That's all it takes for the Big Blue Bus to arrive.

I pay the driver 75 cents--50 cents for the basic fare plus 25 cents for a transfer. Burying my nose in the paper, I pay no attention to the familiar sights of Westwood Boulevard.

At Wilshire, there is another short wait for a Metropolitan Transportation Authority Limited, so named because it makes a limited number of stops. I am supposed to pay another 25 cents to the MTA, but the bus drivers usually forget to collect it. So on many days, my ride downtown will cost only 75 cents.

The route along Wilshire is a drag because Beverly Hills is so congested. We pass the glamour stores--Saks, Neiman-Marcus, Barney's--cross La Cienega Boulevard, past Larry Flynt's high-rise headquarters to Museum Row. Once past the museums, Wilshire descends into urban decay, a gloomy sight for one who remembers better times. But with The Times, the New York Times, the Daily News and the Outlook to pore through, I seldom look up.

It takes the MTA bus more than 40 rattling, stop-and-go minutes to travel the approximately eight miles to Western Avenue. A few steps take me to a long escalator that brings me down into the pleasantly utilitarian and always clean Western Avenue station.

A train is always waiting or no more than five minutes away during rush hour. The train is well-maintained and brightly lit. There are very few other passengers.

The train glides out of the station, a marked relief from the bumpy buses, and then picks up speed. We stop at Normandie, Vermont, 7th Street, Pershing Square, and then Civic Center, a short walk from The Times. The subway trip, roughly four miles, takes less than 10 minutes. The trip home is the same, except it costs more--$1.35 plus a 25-cent transfer fee. That's because the Santa Monica system, on which I start my morning trip, has a lower fare than the MTA, my initial carrier on the ride home.

*

It works, just as a combination of bus and rail works in other parts of the Southland.

The system is far from perfect but slowly, almost imperceptibly, we are building a practical alternative to the Southland habit of one person, one car.

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