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Coping With MTA Strike Takes Ingenuity, Gumption

By foot, by bicycle, by bumming rides from friends and strangers, transit-dependent commuters scramble to get to work.

October 28, 2003|Sharon Bernstein | Times Staff Writer

Freddie Summerville needs his job.

It's the best job he's ever had.

It's kept him off the streets. It feeds his mother. He is determined not to lose it.

Before the Metropolitan Transportation Authority strike began two weeks ago, Summerville's day started at 4:30 a.m. with a mile-long walk from his North Hollywood apartment to the Red Line station. He'd board the subway, take it downtown to Union Station and transfer to the Gold Line, disembarking at Lake Avenue in Pasadena and walking another mile to the construction company that employs him as a laborer.

As tensions built between the MTA and union mechanics Oct. 13, the day before the strike started, Summerville prayed that the trains would still be running when morning came. He normally goes to bed very early, but he set his alarm to wake him up in time for the evening news, so he would know for sure.

The answer came at 11:30 p.m.: strike.

Summerville, 45, sat for a moment, pondering what to do. Then he put on his heavy work boots, tied a windbreaker around his waist and donned his worker's cap.

He started walking.

"I walked from Lankershim to Victory, Victory to Highland, Highland to Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood Boulevard to Vermont, up Vermont to Los Feliz and along Los Feliz into Glendale," he said. From Central Avenue in Glendale, he took side streets to Colorado Boulevard and followed Colorado through Eagle Rock into Pasadena, making it to work by 7:20 a.m. -- an hour and 20 minutes late, and nearly eight hours after he set out.

Along the way, he slugged Pepsis to stay awake and explained to an inquiring police officer that he was on his way to work.

"I was just walking, just looking and walking, talking to myself," he said. "I said a prayer to God: 'Help me keep this job.' "

Summerville's walk was presumably one of the longest, but certainly not the only pedestrian trek to work in the days since the strike halted most public transportation in L.A. County. When the mechanics walked off the job Oct. 14, joined by supportive union drivers, clerks and dispatchers, nearly half a million riders were left to find alternate ways of getting around.

Many walked, some rode bicycles, and some bummed rides from family and friends.

David Yehudian lives in Woodland Hills and owns a business in L.A.'s jewelry district. He normally takes public transit, but drove his family's minivan along Ventura Boulevard on his way downtown each morning, picking up passengers at idle bus stops or on street corners.

He took people to the doctor or to work or to do their shopping.

"It's mostly older people," he said in an interview. "They are standing on the side of streets. Some of them raise their arms and try to signal a driver to stop for them.

"Some of these people are desperate," he said. "They need to go to the doctor's office."

People have crowded the few transit lines not operated by the MTA and therefore still running. At Union Station, where the city's DASH buses stop on routes that loop to the downtown business district, buses that are supposed to come every five minutes take as long as 20 minutes to arrive.

During the strike, they have been so crowded that riders have been left waiting. On several mornings, four buses arrived about the same time, discharged their passengers and then went out of service so their drivers could take a break -- simultaneously, and with more than 50 people waiting.

Taxi and rental car agencies reported a spike in business, as transit-dependent customers dipped into savings to hire some wheels for a week or two. A spokeswoman for Enterprise Rent-a-Car said rentals were up throughout the county, with business particularly brisk in the San Fernando Valley and in Central and South Los Angeles.

Others bit the bullet and purchased cars. Joel Rios was using public transportation to shuttle between classes at Cal State L.A., his part-time job downtown and the homes of his mother and father, who are divorced and live on opposite ends of the L.A. Basin. After the strike hit, the 23-year-old missed a week of classes and showed up late for work several days running.

Finally, his father bought him a 10-year-old Geo Prizm. He said several of his friends are thinking about pitching in and buying a car together -- just to help each other get to school and work.

Rios' new ride contributed to a citywide jump in traffic of about 4% -- which planners said was just enough to clog the morning and evening commutes throughout the strike. It also probably will contribute to an expected dip in the number of people who ride public transit after the strike ends: Now that he has a car, Rios says, he might not go back to taking the bus.

Summerville, whose grateful boss took him to lunch at McDonald's the day he walked to Pasadena, actually owns a car, but it isn't running. It needs $800 worth of work, and he can't afford to fix it right now.

But, with his feet and back aching and his head spinning from lack of sleep, it didn't seem like a great idea to walk back to Pasadena the next day. He decided to rent a car, calling company after company before he found one that would rent to someone who didn't have a credit card.

"I told my mother, and she just said, 'Boy, that was a long walk,' " Summerville said. "I said, 'I'm going to rent a car today.' "

He put down a cash deposit, and drove off in a Mitsubishi.

Times staff writer Julie Green contributed to this report.

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