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Making Metro grow up

December 11, 2007|Matthew DeBord | Matthew DeBord is a writer in Los Angeles.

By the standards of most big cities, Los Angeles has a frisky, young public transit system. But in recent years -- as the city's population has increased and, more important, the region's traffic problems have evolved into a full-on civic tragedy -- it's become obvious that public transportation in L.A. needs to grow up fast.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has responded to the challenge with energy and vision. The agency's 2001 long-range plan is unflinching in its analysis of population trends and projected budget shortfalls. By 2025, there will be more than 13 million people living, working and -- depending on gas prices -- driving in L.A. County. The MTA estimates that it will have a little over $11 billion to improve the transit system, and some profound incentives to do so. Baseline freeway speeds are expected to drop below 20 mph for a vast swath of the current network; we're looking at universal gridlock. If we don't ramp up a highly integrated public transit grid, blending subways, buses and light rail, L.A. may face an economic crisis brought on by our inability to get around.

That is why it's crucial that the MTA's plan to install 275 turnstiles in subway stations and some light rail stops, at an estimated cost of $30 million, not be greeted with laments for the honor-system policy that has been in place for 15 years.

The MTA estimates that it's losing $5.5 million in annual revenue to scofflaw ridership. About 5% of riders don't pay the $1.25 per trip. They don't even need to be especially innovative about their transgressions. They can simply meander into a Metro station and slip into a train, taking their chances that they won't be asked to produce a ticket by one of the few dozen fare inspectors or sheriff's deputies riding the rails. Most fare-beaters seem to have done their own risk-benefit analysis, determining that the crime is worth the possible fine, a mere $250.

When I first moved to downtown L.A. from New York and took the Metro out for a spin, I was stunned to discover how easy it was to ride gratis. "Honey, you can't believe it," I said to my wife, a nearly lifelong New Yorker. "The subway here is free!" She scowled. Now I'm scowling too.

The MTA needs to stamp out this lazy insurrection, and the proposed turnstiles will be an effective, low-impact way to do it. As an added benefit, turnstiles will make it easier for the MTA to implement a zoned fare system, similar to that of Washington's Metrorail, which charges riders a fare based on how far they've traveled. Jane Matsumoto, an MTA executive working on implementing the gate plan, says "smart" turnstiles will even enable riders to pay with credit cards.

Public transportation in Los Angeles is at a crucial juncture: The population has finally recognized that it's in everyone's interest to dial back our collective obsession with cars. Important transit improvements, notably the controversial "subway to the sea," are no longer chuckled about at cocktail parties -- they're eagerly anticipated by Angelenos of every ethnicity and social class. We are at the very definition of a tipping point, the moment when we graduate to Metro 2.0.

If the MTA balks on defending the system now, it will do worse than sacrifice a few million in urgently needed revenue -- it will blow its opportunity to make our public transportation system a point of urban pride. "Most people who use the system want to pay," Matsumoto said. "Most people are honest."

All the world's great mass transit networks, from the New York City subway to the Paris Metro to the London Underground, are beloved by their riders, commemorated in film and celebrated in song. In New York, where access to the system is tightly protected, turnstile-jumping is viewed as an acceptable youthful transgression -- something that everyone might try once -- but is despised as a regular practice. New Yorkers understand that the subway is a vast, complicated organism, almost a living, breathing entity, and that it requires a steady inflow of money to remain healthy. By its actions, the MTA needs to encourage us not just to use our public transportation system; it needs to insist that we cherish it.

In the overall scheme of L.A. County's large-scale transportation goals, the installation of the turnstiles is a relatively minor component. The reason it has attracted so much attention and a measure of outcry is that Angelenos are in the awkward position of not really knowing what our transportation grid will look like in the future. What we do know is that our freeway-centric system is breaking down.

Anxiety is in the air. But in a city synonymous with the automobile, the adaptation to subways has gone unexpectedly well: Metro trips are at 1.5 million a day and rising.

Some of this can be chalked up to the loose organization of the public rail network itself: The honor system has made the subway inviting. But the time has come to put away those childish ways and allow our Metro to become what it needs to be: a mature partner in our transportation destiny.

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