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PENNY WISE / A street-level look at how Southern Californians
are stretching their dollars in a sputtering economy

Breaking the car habit

Public transit, bikes, even walking gain ground amid escalating prices

May 09, 2008|Alana Semuels | Times Staff Writer

When food and gasoline prices started climbing, Thomas Franklin started putting one foot in front of the other and -- the horror -- often walked where he needed to go.

"My friends ask me what's wrong with me," said the 29-year-old talent agency scout, who recently sold his Ford Escape and bought a Vespa scooter. Franklin relies on the scooter, public transit and his own two feet to get around town and estimates that he is saving about $70 a week by not driving to work in Los Angeles from his home in Van Nuys.

Franklin isn't typical. Cars are too ingrained in daily routines, and alternatives too scarce and scattered, for most people to give up driving. Only 7% of people in Los Angeles took public transportation to work in 2006, the last year for which figures are available, while 2.8% walked, 1.4% took a cab or motorcycled and 0.6% bicycled, according to the Southern California Assn. of Governments.

But people are cutting back in a million little ways, and even in the Los Angeles area they're cutting back on driving. Interest in cycling is growing, gasoline consumption is down and bus and light-rail ridership is up.

After declining at the end of 2007, L.A. rail and bus ridership started rising in January. From January to March, average weekday boardings were up 16% on the Red Line rail system, 13% on the Blue Line and 17% on the Gold Line, which set a record for highest average weekday boardings in March with 22,231. Bus ridership grew 8% from January to March.

The explanation is in the math. It costs $1.25 to take the train from the North Hollywood Metro station to the stop at Wilshire Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, while driving a car would cost $6.05, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. (The agency uses the AAA formula, which sets the cost of driving at 56.2 cents a mile when gasoline and vehicle wear and tear are taken into account.)

MTA statistics show that carpooling has become more popular too. An average of 50 new van pools have been created each month since the authority's program was started last year.

Steven Schoeffler, executive director of eRideShare.com, a national site where people find others with whom to carpool, said these days there were more than 100 new listings every 24 hours on the site. Before March, there were about 30 to 40 new listings a day -- about 30% from California. Web traffic to the site has doubled since February.

"Gas prices are up at the same time as food prices, and that's hurting a lot of people," he said.

That includes Eric Berg, a movie production artist who has started carpooling to work with his brother. They have two Subarus, but one sits in the garage of their apartment in Hollywood while one sibling drives the other to work in West Hollywood. Berg has also started walking to the Hollywood Farmers Market for fruit and vegetables and to a nearby Fresh & Easy market for groceries.

On a recent weekday morning, he walked from his office to Target to buy a prop, although his employers "would want me to drive" because it's faster, he said.

Besides shoe leather, bicycle tires are also seeing more pavement these days. Aurisha Smolarski, outreach coordinator for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, said more people were biking to work. The group's membership has been rising in 2008, she said, and more people have been coming into the community center to get information about routes and to have their bikes repaired.

Michael Giardina, a Miracle Mile resident starting his own business, uses his bicycle for daily errands. "I'm cutting back on everything, including driving," he said, though he doesn't have a bike lock yet, limiting his flexibility.

Not everyone who switches to biking, walking or carpooling will stick with it, MTA spokesman Dave Sotero said.

The MTA usually sees a temporary increase in riders when gas prices reach certain thresholds, like $3, $3.50 and $4 a gallon, he said. Then ridership goes down once people become accustomed to the higher cost.

"What we hope every time," he said, "is that as more people become introduced to using rail as an alternative, we can retain more of those discretionary riders over time."

What is more likely, said Brian Taylor, director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, is that people will begin buying more fuel-efficient vehicles. In April, in fact, sales of passenger cars were up 5.2% nationally while light-truck and sport utility vehicle sales were down 17.4%.

Franklin, the talent scout, said his experience as a walker in Southern California had convinced him that the car culture was unlikely to change.

"When people see you walking, they think something's wrong with you," he said. "People driving by turn their heads away like you're going to ask them for money."

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alana.semuels@latimes.com

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