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BEHIND THE WHEEL

Officials Split on Staying the Course on Bus Lanes

The MTA wants to keep the mile-long route on Wilshire Boulevard. But L.A. city officials and the Auto Club say the path slows traffic flow.

September 07, 2004|Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writer

Six months after a controversial set of bus-only lanes opened on Wilshire Boulevard, transportation officials are clashing over whether the experimental transit route should become permanent.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials, touting the benefits to transit riders, hope to make the mile-long lanes permanent in West Los Angeles and to create more lanes along other major streets.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 08, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Bus photo -- A photo caption with the Behind the Wheel column in Tuesday's California section misidentified a Santa Monica Big Blue Bus as a Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus.

"We are going to have to inconvenience some people ... otherwise this whole town will be gridlocked someday," said Mayor James K. Hahn, a member of the MTA board.

But others, including the Los Angeles Department of Transportation and the Automobile Club of Southern California, are trying to curb the MTA's support of the bus lanes.

In a report, the Transportation Department said the lanes caused significant traffic delays. The agency is asking the City Council, which has authority over the street, not to make the corridor permanent but to extend the experiment for six months so traffic engineers can study the effect of the lanes and explore allowing vehicles into them.

The issue will be heard Wednesday by the City Council's transportation committee.

Though only a small part of the Southland's streetscape, the Wilshire lanes are part of a larger debate over an increasingly scarce commodity -- space -- and who is entitled to it.

The curbside bus lanes, which extend from Federal Avenue in Westwood to Centinela Avenue at the Santa Monica border, are off-limits to cars from 7 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. on weekdays. Vehicles making right turns are allowed in the lanes.

Street parking was previously allowed on about two-thirds of the stretch, and the loss of parking has angered some store owners. Now, parked cars are towed, and drivers who sneak into the lanes are cited.

Motorist Ann Brown was stuck in traffic one evening when a red-and-white Metro Rapid bus zoomed past in the bus lane. A few minutes later, as she inched forward, another bus zipped by.

"This is a city that's driving-oriented. It doesn't make that much sense to devote so much space to public transportation," said Brown, a 21-year-old Harvard University student commuting between Westwood and Santa Monica for her summer job. "It's annoying. You see an empty lane, you want to dart over, but you can't."

But a few blocks away, bus rider Barbara Cattouse said she thought it was about time that riders' needs got priority.

"Before they had the lane, the buses were stuck in traffic," said Cattouse, a 53-year-old office manager. "Now it allows buses to be on time and buses to move more smoothly."

The MTA found that on average, the lanes shaved 30 seconds off the bus' mile-long route. But at peak evening rush hour, an MTA study found, cars took 19 minutes to slog through the stretch, while buses sliced through in seven minutes.

"This is incredible!" said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, an MTA director. "It is far superior and far better to be in a bus in that peak hour than in a car. Let's move quickly to see how we can expand this."

But James Okazaki, an assistant general manager for the city Transportation Department, said the study says a lot about the lanes' effect on motorists. "This study shows ... taking a lane away for MTA buses helps MTA buses -- that's a no-brainer," he said. "MTA sometimes has blinders and does what's good for buses and doesn't realize we still need to move people in their cars."

Steve Finnegan, principal transportation policy specialist for the Auto Club, said that in pushing to make the lanes permanent, the MTA has "ignored the impact on congestion." The Auto Club will ask the City Council for a more comprehensive study on how drivers are affected.

Meanwhile, some store owners are struggling to survive.

Like many along the street, dry cleaner Habib Sedghi displays a yellow poster in his window denouncing the bus lanes.

"Business is hurting!" reads the yellow sign in Express Cleaner. "We are all inconvenienced!"

Sedghi said he has lost longtime customers who used to leave clothes on the way to work and pick them up on the way home, because parking now is inconvenient.

"Since they did this, my business [is] down 75%," said Sedghi, waving his arm at the empty clothing rack behind him.

He now minds the counter alone because he had to lay off his three employees. "I don't know how much longer we can stay. If this goes on

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Times staff writer Jia-Rui Chong contributed to this report.

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