R We There Yet? Re-evaluating Los Angeles's Transit Future

Looking ahead on the gold line.  (Photo by Bill Lascher)

Looking ahead on the gold line. (Photo by Bill Lascher)

Sidebars: Does L.A. Really Love Its Cars? | Transportation Terminology

"Out Of Service,” The Driver Tells Me As I Step On The #4 In Downtown Los Angeles.

It is nearly 3 a.m. and Broadway's indoor swap meets, electronic stores and jewelry shops sit darkened behind me. Shadowed by the marquee of an ancient movie house my face betrays concern, perhaps even desperation. I've waited to catch a bus for nearly an hour alongside the vacant thoroughfare after staying out with a friend and missing the night's last Red Line subway. It's cold. The bus already carries about a dozen riders, so I don't understand why the driver seems to be telling me I can't board. Not wanting to linger on the street much longer, I pause on the bus's steps.

“Out of service,” the driver repeats. I step back down to the sidewalk. She laughs, smiles, and rolls her eyes.

“I didn't say you can't get on,” she teases, as if she's going to finish the sentence with “rookie.”

It's the farebox that's “Out of Service.” I jump back onto the bus and find a seat along the center of the bus, where its two sections connect like an accordion. None of the other riders pay me any heed. Each haggard face exudes fatigue. Two women, both dressed in identical white pants and white sweatshirts, sleep leaning against one another. Perhaps a mother and daughter, perhaps middle-aged sisters, one rests her shoulder on the other, who is slumped against a rattling window. Their long brown hair tangles together.

It's becoming clear that the age of the automobile is coming to an end, or, at the very least, changing. Los Angeles, like other cities, loses billions of dollars each year just because of people stuck on the region's tangled roadways. Scholars, politicians, activists and numerous overlapping government agencies each offer often-competing solutions for how to get the region moving. All the while, the solution might begin not with expensive upheavals and construction of vast new transit networks, but instead with better cooperation, education and mobilization of the surprisingly robust transit network that already exists in the metropolis.

What's certain: voters in Los Angeles County are fed up with traffic. Confounding expectations, they accomplished an extraordinary feat in November, 2008 and gambled that an investment in the region's transportation network would pay lasting dividends. Despite an economic downturn, more than two-thirds of them chose to tax themselves to pay for Measure R, a $40 billion expansion of the region's transit system. Since July 1, the county has collected a half-cent sales tax to pay for new rail lines, expanded bus routes, and improvements to existing infrastructure. But a debilitating state budget battle earlier this year put transit in a precarious position across California, including Los Angeles, whose position among the world's great cities could be at risk.

“We're going to fight tooth and nail for every penny from the state,” Richard Katz said in January. Katz sits on the governing board of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Metro, by far the largest transit agency in the region. A former state assemblyman, Katz was appointed to the board by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and was a key architect of Measure R. “I think we make a mistake if we don't recognize that the voters made a clear choice in November. They said transportation is the number one issue in the county. We're going to give you the resources to fix it and we expect you to fix it. They don't expect us to be whining about losing $200 million a year.”

As the #4 bus carries me past Union Station it turns westward on Cesar Chavez Avenue. I notice how the prerecorded voice announcing each stop perfectly pronounces the deceased farm labor organizer's name. A few blocks away, after Cesar Chavez Avenue becomes Sunset Boulevard, the recording stumbles over a cross-street's name, uttering Micheltorena like a Gringo. The sleeping sisters are oblivious to their surroundings, until a few blocks later, when the bus stops at Sunset and Alvarado. Two middle-aged men drunkenly babble to one another as they board. They stumble in search of a seat, startling the women.

The bus turns down Santa Monica Boulevard. I disembark at Vermont Avenue, where I can connect with the #204, a North-South line with a stop a block from my apartment. A light drizzle falls as I wait in the dark along Vermont. A dozen or so men line the curb, peering north up the street. A few step into the road. If only they could spy the bus, it seems, they could will it to carry us out of this uneasy wait sooner. It's about 3:30 a.m. The only passing cars are taxis hoping to pick up a few desperate fares. The drunks who earlier boarded the #4 stand next to me, talking about the relative morality of stealing bicycles versus cars and beds. They reminisce on times they've had to pull guns, what it felt like with the finger on the trigger and the experience of staring down the barrel of a friend's firearm. Illustrating one such experience one of the men mimes a pistol with his fingers outstretched.

“Those days are gone,” he says.

Profit and loss

Union Station Information Booth. ( Photo by Bill Lascher)

Union Station Information Booth. (Photo by Bill Lascher)

Three months earlier the stock market was crumbling. News of layoffs increased in frequency. Home foreclosures ticked up. A historic election took place. But it wasn't Barack Obama who delivered a nail-biter in Los Angeles County. It was Measure R.

It took a month for elections officials to certify the close vote. The requirements were stricter than ballot measures that only need a simple majority to pass, because state law requires new taxes to pass by two-thirds majorities. Measure R barely cleared that higher bar, winning just a bit more than 67 percent of the electorate.

Most of the $40 billion the measure is expected to generate over the next 30 years will go to Metro, which operates about 200 bus routes in the county, the Red/Purple line subway, the Orange Line rapid busway, and three light rail lines (See Transportation Terminology). Each of L.A. County's 88 embedded municipalities will also get a share for transportation projects. Metro officials are currently hammering out exactly how their share will be spent and when, but it's expected to pay for new light rail lines, a long-anticipated Subway to the Sea under Wilshire Boulevard, and other projects.

Preliminary estimates from the Federal Transportation Administration suggest the massive economic stimulus package passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in February could pay for about $190 million of transit improvements throughout Los Angeles County.

Yet gains from the stimulus and Measure R may be thwarted by news at the state level. Only days after the stimulus package passed, lawmakers in California ended long-stalled budget negotiations in the state. As many transportation advocates and agency officials feared, in the weeks and months leading up to the deal, millions of dollars in assistance to transit agencies throughout the state were slashed from the final budget.

For hundreds of thousands who rely on the region's buses (about 75 percent of Metro's bus riders make $12,000 or less annually), any cuts sting.

“They're the reason the agency exists,” says Katz. He says government should focus more on transit, especially in a city as sprawling as Los Angeles. “We have people in L.A. who, were it not for our system, could not get to work, could not get to school, could not pick up their kids, could not get to health care. Public transit is an integral part of the fabric of this city.”

Los Angeles' love affair with the automobile is a myth. It's not the nation's most car dependent city, nor does it have the worst transit network in the U.S. (See “Does L.A. Really Love its Cars?”). But while it might be a myth that Los Angeles residents own more cars than inhabitants of other cities, or that the city has no public transit, the metropolis faces harsh realities. Angelenos may not love cars, but they're stuck in them. Many studies show the metropolis' traffic is the worst in the country, a situation explored by an Oct. 2008 RAND Corp. study called Moving Los Angeles: Short-Term Policy Options for Improving Transportation. Traffic costs Los Angeles dearly. Each year, the area's economy loses more than $9 billion simply due to the 490 million hours drivers collectively spend sitting still in their cars. To put it another way, each driver in the region spends three days stuck in traffic annually. During those three days, individual drivers burn 57 gallons of gasoline without going anywhere.

“Reducing congestion should help to improve quality of life, enhance economic competitiveness, reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, improve air quality, and improve mobility for drivers and transit patrons alike,” the report read.

So why can't Angelenos get anywhere if they don't own many cars and there's such an incentive to cut down on traffic? The answer can be found by dispelling one more myth, that L.A. is a mecca of urban sprawl.

Gold Line Station. ( Photo by bill Lascher).

Gold Line Station. (Photo by bill Lascher).

In fact, Los Angeles's suburbs are actually the country's most densely populated. While more people might be packed into the urban cores of Manhattan and Chicago than Downtown Los Angeles, more people per square mile live in Los Angeles' surrounding suburbs than anywhere in the country. Normally, density helps shorten the lengths of drivers' commutes, but that's not true in L.A., where more drivers compete for the same road space. There is still congestion in other dense cities, but they also have direct transit alternatives. In Los Angeles, that's not always the case, because the area doesn't just have one central urban core or Downtown. It is “polycentric.”

Los Angeles isn't a sprawl of low density suburban communities. Instead, the city and its surrounding metropolitan area have multiple “Downtowns,” including Century City, Santa Monica, Culver City, Pasadena and Glendale, to name just a few. This polycentricity makes public transit more logistically difficult. Commuters don't just move between a suburban periphery and a dense core – they move in multiple directions at all times of the day. So many trips in so many directions across a polycentric city require a more complex transit network.

Thus, a metropolis like Los Angeles, with a complex mesh of roadways already in place between its urban centers, can't just build its way out of congestion with new rail lines. RAND's study recommends 13 traffic-management solutions policymakers could adopt in the short-term. The ideas include capitalizing on the robust bus network that already exists in the Los Angeles area, as well as other ideas, such as parking meters that charge different rates depending on the time of day and location, incentives for ride sharing, and special toll lanes for high-occupancy vehicles.

All these goals, the report says, would serve to help manage demand for Los Angeles' limited road space during peak hours. Such demand management is criticized because its impacts tend to wear off over time, but, say the RAND report's authors, it might work if regional planners simultaneously develop strategies to put a price on the amount of use drivers get from the region's roadways. Meanwhile, the report suggests, the pain lower-income commuters might feel from higher driving costs would be alleviated if convenient and reliable public transit were protected and improved.

New rail lines and realignment of zoning and planning rules to improve land use may be long-term solutions, but the team studied only projects that were likely to measurably decrease the number of cars on the road. ”The region could implement such projects quickly and they could be addressed without needing to engage numerous stakeholders simultaneously. Problems like diesel truck traffic carrying cargo from L.A. and Long Beach's busy ports — a major contributor to both the region's traffic congestion and air pollution — weren't within the scope of the study. Instead, RAND looked at solutions that could be implemented quickly, while policymakers debate extensive, long-term changes, such as those Measure R might allow or the complexities of cargo truck traffic. But some of these policymakers say change is overdue.

“L.A. is way behind,” Katz says.

I meet Katz on a rainy January morning before a Metro board meeting. When I first arrive at Metro's Downtown headquarters I can't find him. He calls as I pay for a cup of coffee and a muffin. Caught behind an accident at Stadium Way, Katz is stuck in traffic on Interstate 5.

I settle down at the corner of the cafeteria to wait for him. Steam from a nearby metal forge billows behind Gold Line tracks as they curve into Union Station. A few trains pass. Mist obscures most of the faint outline of the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance.

When Katz arrives I tease him about not riding transit to the meeting. He normally works from home and only comes to Union Station for Metro board meetings, he says. He often takes the Red Line from North Hollywood but will drive when he expects meetings to go late, as he did today. Just the day before he had been in Washington, D.C. for Obama's inauguration. There, he and Mayor Villaraigosa urged the incoming administration to change federal permitting rules to allow the state's environmental review documents in place of federal ones, thus cutting down on redundant reviews that might slow new projects down.

“We are looking to move the agency so that now we not only turn around projects faster and get them on the street faster and start building them faster, but we do it in green ways as well,” Katz says.

Lifestyle overhaul

Greening a community takes more than quickly building new projects, though. Tim Papandreou, Metro's former transportation planning manager, says any community that wants to be green has to completely overhaul its lifestyle.

“There is no city right now that is sustainable,” Papandreou said at a February conference hosted by the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. “Right now, we need to change the transportation gears, and we need to do it fast.”

Papandreou now works for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority." Despite the broad overtones of the event he addressed, the third annual Expanding the Vision of Sustainable Mobility Summit, most of the event's discussion in fact centered upon new battery technologies and other ways to improve individual automobiles.

“Sometimes designing our way out of things is not the solution,” Papandreou told the audience.

Most people don't drive just because they think it's fun, Papandreou said. Instead, they are “literally forced to drive” because of current land use and transportation policies.

“Automobiles in current planning have more rights than we have,” Papandreou told the summit. “Cars have a right to housing, but humans don't.”

Papandreou, who hasn't owned a car this century, urged the audience to consider more systematic lifestyle changes in how we move through our lives, changes he says are already underway in the Los Angeles area.

Farmers Market at Wilshire/Vermont Red Line Station. ( Photo by Bill Lascher )

Farmers Market at Wilshire/Vermont Red Line Station. (Photo by Bill Lascher)

“Los Angeles is going through a massive transformation.” Papandreou tells me in an interview a week after the conference. “A lot of the stereotypes that people placed on L.A. in the 80s and 90s don't apply any more.”

The city's changing attitudes toward transportation could have an environmental payoff. Papandreou stresses the fundamental lifestyle changes that must happen; others, like Denny Zane, say policymakers must invest in lower emissions transportation systems, like light rail and subways. Zane, a former Santa Monica mayor and the political consultant credited with getting the ball rolling on Measure R, says that's why 35 percent of the $40 billion the new tax will provide will go towards rail.

“The real holy grail for transportation besides walking and bicycles is zero-emission, electric public transit,” Zane says. “We've been doing that for decades. We just haven't done enough of it.”

After convening an unlikely coalition of labor unions, environmentalists and businesses, Zane worked with state and local officials to craft Measure R into a palatable initiative. The campaign was tough, but Zane says the coalition was able to make its case fairly easily.

“I don't think it's rocket science,” Zane says. “Congestion really sucks and gas prices were really high.”

But just because Measure R passed, most people in transit circles don't believe the money will accomplish much if Metro pours it all into subways and light rail lines. Rail can be so energy intensive and expensive to build that it doesn't recover its costs.

Metro's bus fleet also cuts down on emissions. It has been called the nation's “largest clean-fuel bus fleet” because its vehicles run on compressed natural gas, a fuel touted for lower greenhouse gas emissions. However, some transportation experts say CNG vehicles spew more toxins than diesel engines equipped with emissions reduction technologies, claims environmental scientists and engineers continue to study. The debate has yet to be settled.

Some measurements of transit's environmental contributions can be deceptive as well. It's not enough to look at large ridership numbers and declare a rail line a success. Deeper analysis has to take place to determine whether the people riding those lines would otherwise have driven or if they would have taken a bus, biked or walked to their destinations.

What's certain is people are beginning to drive less, at least nationwide. The United States Department of Transportation released data Feb. 19 showing travel on all America's roadways dropped by 3.8 billion vehicle miles between December 2007 and December 2008. The drop partially coincides with a huge fuel price spike in the summer of 2008, but it continued even after oil prices plummeted in the fall (although it also coincided with a worsening economy in which more people are unemployed and not driving to and from work). In Los Angeles County, Papandreou attributes the changes to cities retooling their downtowns and neighborhoods and people deciding to live in transit-oriented communities where they can walk, ride bikes, or take buses and trains where they need and want to go.

“People are not purposefully not driving because they want to be green,” he says. “It just works for them.”

Passengers in Union Station. ( Photo by Bill Lascher ).

Passengers in Union Station. (Photo by Bill Lascher).

One afternoon I observe how it works at a coffee shop near the intersection of Vermont and Franklin Avenues in Los Feliz

Outside, steam and exhaust gather behind the tailpipe of a maroon Pontiac. The traffic shifts and the window of the coffee shop fills with a sheet of orange broken up by white letters reading “Metro Local.” The classical soundtrack dissipates momentarily beneath the whining brakes and chugging engines of the passing #180 to Pasadena. Vacant faces gaze through rain splattered windows, then turn forward as the light changes at the nearby signal.

The bus passes. More cars go by, their exhaust mirrored by gray wisps of vapor above a coffee cup. Moments later the windows fill with color again. This time the deep rumble carries with it a flash of fire-engine red. It's the #780. A Rapid.

It will eventually pass Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, where Pat Brown works. Brown doesn't ride the bus, but he does commute from here in Los Feliz via Metro Rail four to five times a week. Each day, he boards a Red Line train at Sunset Boulevard and Vermont Avenue and rides to Union Station. There he transfers to a Gold Line, which he rides to the Memorial Park stop. The trip can take between half an hour and an hour on the train. Were Brown to ride the #780, #180 or #181 bus, it would take about the same amount of time, assuming there are no significant traffic delays, according to Metro's Trip Planner Web site.

Brown hasn't always relied on rail travel. He and his wife used to share a beat-up car. Then they traded it in for a new vehicle. As gas prices skyrocketed last year they decided to make a point of not driving the new car too often.

Brown started riding the train regularly to work. The commute was easy.

“I get so much reading done,” says Brown, who, for some time ran Vroman's blog. “In general, I like the way the system moves. In general, I'm not on a train that breaks down, and when one does, they handle it well. It feels safe to me. That's not the case in every city. In general, I think they do a good job and for the things that they don't I think they have a good reason.”

Brown says as long as he takes the train during peak hours the experience is smooth, but he'd like it if trains ran later and more frequently at night and to more destinations. Still, in the meantime, Brown doesn't consider taking the bus as an option.

“I think I've taken public buses twice in L.A.,” he says.

While he thinks he could make sense of L.A.'s bus network if he focused on it, he says it's a confusing system. He'd ride it more often if it were obvious where buses were headed, and if there were more express buses available.

“The train in LA makes sense to me because you're bypassing the worst of L.A. The train doesn't have to go through traffic,” Brown said. He acknowledged critiques of rail which argue it doesn't serve low income riders, but he doesn't think buses are adequate transit solutions for Los Angeles. “Rail makes so much more sense in L.A. than buses do. The traffic doesn't seem to be going away, so buses add to that.”

Muddled Messages

Many who might take transit seem daunted by the idea of L.A.'s bus network, perhaps even scared by it. They don't know how to ride the bus, they don't know where it goes, when it goes or how often. To attract and retain these riders, Metro and other transit operators struggle to show how to conveniently take advantage of transportation alternatives.

“I can't tell you how many people say to me 'You know, I don't know how to catch anything on the system',” Katz says. He says Metro's Web-based Trip Planner is an easy way for would-be riders to figure out what routes they need to take, how much the trip will cost, and even how far a walk they'll have to take from their destination to a bus stop or train station.

Right now, though, Trip Planner is only accessible to those with Internet access. Even then, it doesn't provide real-time information about buses or trains, and its information can be inaccurate. One option to make things easier might be software for phones and other electronic devices that can tell people where the nearest bus or train stops are, what the right route is to their destination, and when the next ride can be expected.

“The key is that the people who want to take transit are taking it, and the people who have to take transit are taking it,” Papandreou says “The people who are not sure know they should be taking it more, but they don't know how.”

If banks across the world can provide understandable automatic teller machines and make them available everywhere, why shouldn't there be technology throughout the transit system anyone can use to learn how to get where they need to go in Los Angeles and when they can get there?

Papandreou says part of the problem is the fact there are multiple agencies offering multiple transportation alternatives. Sometimes transit isn't even the right option. For certain trips, rental bikes, car sharing, or just better telecommuting or delivery services to keep people from leaving their homes in the first place might make more sense.

“We have all these different little pieces, but they're not coordinated under one umbrella and the one program or widget you can install on your phone,” he says.

“We need to have a meta information database that basically links all this information together and tells you what you need to do when you need to know it.”

Some officials and transit activists alike say mobile solutions shouldn't be a priority because it wouldn't help the masses of low-income riders who rely on public transportation. But Papandreou thinks more transit-dependent riders have cell phones than some might think. Regardless, no riders will realize what options they have without better marketing and outreach. Transit planners, therefore, might be wise to go into specific communities and speak to specific people about what alternatives they have. Businesses, meanwhile, should be directly engaged and shown how to implement ridesharing programs for employees and other practices that will promote transportation alternatives, Papandreou says. Metro has a working product, it just needs to market it better and show residents and businesses how alternative transportation modes can work for them.

“When I was working at the agency we were trying a lot of strategies, but we didn't have anything to sell,” he says. Now Metro has a product. “In the areas where there is good marketing, the ridership is very high.”

Traffic on PCH. ( Photo by Bill Lascher )

Traffic on PCH. (Photo by Bill Lascher)

In fact, Metro's current product is at risk. Much of Metro's funding for operations — paying bus drivers' salaries and maintaining rail and bus fleets, for example — comes from hundreds of millions of dollars in Streetsblog San Francisco on continued funding for transportation operations. After more than three months of acrimonious stalemate over how to eliminate a $42 billion budget deficit in the state, California lawmakers cut a deal slashing numerous state programs while implementing new fees. Transportation funding from the state was one of the Feb. 19 budget deal's victims. Another was a proposal to tax drivers an additional 19 cents per gallon of gasoline they purchase — a tax hike that would have raised general revenue and was not directed specifically to transit, but might have discouraged driving.

Many transportation experts agree it is a myth that roads are free and highways pay for themselves. Roads have long been subsidized by taxpayers, because gas taxes don't always pay for all the wear and tear drivers put them through. Federal gas taxes haven't risen with inflation, and, despite increased use of the highways they're meant to pay for, they haven't been raised along with demand. More fuel efficient cars also mean drivers aren't buying as much gasoline, or paying as much tax, at once. Thus, transportation infrastructure actually gets less money each year. Many scholars now agree charging drivers for the amount of demand they put on the network, perhaps by taxing the number of miles drivers travel, makes much more sense. Even that would only provide more money if people drove more overall. A different, perhaps more consistently lucrative option might be taxing a percentage of fuel sales. Nevertheless, the difference may be moot. In February, Obama's administration was forced under political pressure to backtrack from hints it might consider a tax increase.

While not a perfect solution, the proposed gas tax hike in California might have helped the state's budget woes. Now, transit agencies are preparing for a blow to their operational funding. While other agencies are arguably worse off, Metro officials must resist dipping into money from Measure R's passage to cover the shortfall. That would be a murky option legally, as Measure R was specifically designed to pay for system improvements and expansion, not everyday transit operations in the county. Metro board members have stated explicitly they won't deny the will of voters and raid those funds to backfill its funding.

“Measure R is the beginning, it's not the answer,” Papandreou said. “It helps as a huge down payment. It's not going to build everything. It’s like a bonus. You've got to figure out how to pay the rest of the mortgage.”

The problem: Metro isn't likely to increase the amount people pay to cover its “mortgage.” That means it's more likely it will decide to cut back on the services it offers, eliminating some bus routes and changing the times on others. While it would be political suicide to raise fares, cutting back on service could have a tremendous negative impact on congestion, Papandreou predicts.

“You don't want to raise fares because people are relying on the system, and you also want to reward people for using the system,” he says.

Simply put, cutting service will leave fewer transportation options for riders who depend on buses.

Even before California's budget passed, transit advocates warned cuts to transportation assistance funding might be illegal. Now some are preparing new efforts to lobby lawmakers to protect transit from future state cutbacks.

Erin Steva, a spokesperson for the California Public Interest Research Group an organization heavily involved in transit policy, says the public adopted new transportation behaviors when fuel prices soared in the summer of 2008. She either bikes to work in the Mid-Wilshire area or takes a combination of the #201 and #603 buses and the Purple Line rail. She says she's been able to figure out the city's transit system.

“The city does not have a reputation for really having any public transportation,” she says. “Clearly it does and it does work for many different people, but it does need to improve.”

The public did its part by passing Measure R, Steva says. Now it's up to Metro to keep up its end of the bargain and pursue the projects it said it would if the measure passed. Meanwhile, the state, she says, has a responsibility to protect transportation funds instead of backfilling it with money from the federal stimulus plan. In Cal-PIRG's view, funding public transportation isn't just a transit policy issue. It means jobs. Maintaining and expanding current operations mean bus drivers and maintenance workers get paid.

“I think of all of those benefits, the angle not covered enough is job creation,” Steva says.

“Transportation is a right. Everyone should be able to get to and from work, be able to travel throughout the community, and they shouldn't need a car for that.”

Not long after my conversation with Steva, I find myself on the #204 as it slithers up Vermont, clinging to the edges of the avenue. Ahead at Pico another #204 is stopped. My driver weaves her charge around her colleague's. Both buses continue North, writhing around one another along the bumpy asphalt.

I sit and stare ahead, noticing an empty Cheetos bag behind the wheel wells on the gray floor. A mish-mashed slough of blue and orange blanket the vacant seats in front of me. The upholstery features a mess of random typographic symbols and icons vaguely suggesting travel. Above, city lights fight their way through the etched graffiti and water-drop stains on the plexiglass windows.

This scene may be familiar to thousands of bus riders every day, riders the Bus Riders Union advocates on behalf of. The grass roots organization advocates for increased transit access, often through the ballot box, participation in civic meetings, and court challenges to transit policy it believes is unfair or harmful to low-income and minority communities.

“We see the intersection of climate change, transit, civil rights and equitable rights and together their ability to transform LA transportation by forming the concept of a bus-centered, pedestrian-centered, auto-free city,” says Miguel Criollo, the BRU's lead organizer.

Wander through Los Angeles County's transportation networks long enough and you won't miss the BRU. Their bright yellow shirts are easy to spot anywhere, particularly when BRU members pack the Metro board room to lobby transit planners to focus more attention on maintaining and improving the city's network of buses. Best known for winning a consent decree in the mid-90s forcing Metro to protect the low fares and purchase the low-emissions buses the agency now touts, the BRU, which attempted to organize voters to reject Measure R, believes spending billions on rail infrastructure that may not be built for years diverts funding desperately needed to move riders around the city today.

“A lot of people have written about how public transportation was destroyed in Los Angeles,” Criollo says. “All of that is true, yet we believe we don't have that long time period to dabble with a new infrastructure that would take 20 or 30 years. In reality [Metro] already has been promising a whole set of models. Ridership hasn't dramatically changed since then.”

Metro timetables. ( Photo by Bill Lascher )

Metro timetables. (Photo by Bill Lascher)

Some new rail lines funded before Measure R are on tap much sooner. An extension of the Gold Line light rail line to the diverse working-class communities of East Los Angeles opened in November. Another light rail, known as the Expo Line and traveling about nine miles from Downtown to Culver City, could open by late next year, though it's more likely to open in 2011.

Even as that line nears completion, an extension of it to Santa Monica paid for with Measure R money is in the midst of environmental reviews. Depending on how the extension's permitting process and planning proceed, it could be finished around 2015. Other Measure R-funded projects, particularly the long-anticipated Subway to the Sea from Western Avenue to Santa Monica, might take longer, but Metro board members have chastised the agency's staff to work harder to speed up those projects' timelines.

Assemblyman Mike Feuer, one of transit's biggest allies in the state legislature, rejects the idea Measure R will hurt Los Angeles bus riders and argues that its passage infuses much-needed funding for both the region's rail network and its bus routes.

“Measure R contributes 8 billion new dollars to the bus system than would ever have been available before Measure R,” he says.

Feuer doesn't regularly ride buses when in Los Angeles, which is usually one day a week. Normally he spends his day driving quickly from meeting to meeting in a Toyota Prius. His children do ride the bus regularly and he says he has ridden L.A.'s buses “extensively” over the years.

“I know the advantages and the pitfalls of the system. It is very possible to traverse Los Angeles by bus, but it is too slow,” he says, explaining that a portion of Measure R money targeting potholes and other street improvements would increase the efficiency and comfort of the area's buses. “We have an integrated transportation system that requires improvement at every access of it.”

Feuer also dismisses the claim nothing can be done to find the solutions and money to fix Los Angeles' transportation network.

“It relegates us to live in a polluted, congested city forever,” he says.

The BRU doesn't necessarily oppose rail travel, but doesn't believe it should be Metro's central focus. Criollo urges observers to look more closely at the statistics Metro provides to justify its focus on rail travel.

Instead of building new infrastructure, the BRU believes transit planners should work to inhibit auto usage. The organization supports the creation of more bus-only lanes on roads and highways, and increased parking fees. All of these measures might make car travel less appealing. More bus riders may be retained if the system seems convenient and intuitive.

Where the BRU lobbies transit agencies to refocus their attention on buses, other critics of Metro's policies say the agency is too focused on expensive projects within the city limits of Los Angeles. Most vocal with this critique is Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who, as a county supervisor, also serves on Metro's board. His district includes some of the county's most conservative areas, including many suburban communities outside of the city of L.A.'s boundaries. All five county supervisors, including Antonovich, sit on the 13-member board, which also includes Glendale mayor and current board chair Ara Najarian, Villaraigosa, Katz and another Villaraigosa appointee, and city council members from Santa Monica, Duarte, and Lakewood, as well as a now-vacant seat for a non-voting representative appointed by California’s governor. Antonovich opposes the Subway to the Sea, because, says his spokesman Tony Bell, it represents “Years and years of diesel belching drilling machines and trucks, earth-moving equipment and special interests.”

“A much more eco-friendly system would be light rail,” Bell says. “But of course that doesn't line the pockets of big construction companies on cement and years and years of work.”

Antonovich is adamantly opposed to heavy rail, but it's unlikely the Metro board will change its priorities until the governing body is reformed, Bell says. Supervisor Antonovich has made a career claiming entrenched interests from the city of L.A. hold the board hostage and ignore the interests of the 7 million county residents outside of the city. He says measure R wouldn't have passed otherwise.

“A lot of it is the media's failure to properly address the issue and to communicate it to the voters who were duped into Measure R,” Bell says.

Still others think deeper concerns are lost in debates about transit's environmental impact. People like Browne Molyneux — the author of The Bus Bench" — say race and class should be more prominent discussion topics

A woman of color born in Canada, Molyneux moved to Los Feliz as a child with her white step-mother and Honduran father. Always around a diverse crowd, as a teenager she loved British sports cars and lived what she described as a “sheltered life.” She hadn't ever thought about gender. She never thought about her race. That changed when she started riding the bus and the train.

“I saw this world that was so different,” she said. “I was actually really pissed. I was really pissed that this city was so segregated, not just by race but by class. There's such a different world that certain people are in.”

As she rode the bus and the Blue Line, a light rail which runs between Downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach through places like South Los Angeles, Watts and Compton, she got angry and depressed. Angry because such stark divides were still prevalent. Depressed because so many people in South Los Angeles and the East Side took it in stride. It was as if they felt like they deserved their treatment, Molyneux said.

Despite Molyneux's pessimism, I wondered if in the midst of this economic crisis, there might be an opportunity for the transportation system to change. I wanted to know how easily she thought change could come to the city with so many layers of power, so many sources of authority, so many people from so many different areas with so many different priorities.

“I think the thing that's so great about the economy going into Hell, it's going to force people to be creative,” she says. “You're going to either have to be creative, or you're going to be on the streets. I don't necessarily think that's bad. I think it's bad that people are going to be on the streets. But I feel like right now is the time to be creative.”

With Measure R now passed, the question for Metro has become when it should start trying to figure out how to get Los Angeles back on the right track.

The return

Gold line at underground stop. ( Photo by Bill Lascher)

Gold line at underground stop. (Photo by Bill Lascher)

In late January I return to Vermont and Santa Monica. There's also a Red Line subway stop here, and this time it's early enough for me to catch a train. I descend the stairs to the station and find a seat in the center of the train platform. Unchanging, unwavering fluorescent light illuminates the speckled floor and the escalators running constantly in my peripheral vision.

Here and there exhausted bodies crouch into their own worlds. A man wearing a backpack and ski jacket fiddles with his cell phone, a pretty girl in sweats intently studies a new-age looking book called The Law of Attraction. Next to me, an older African American woman with short hair and a thin white plastic jacket decorated with a grid pattern, worn over a blue hoodie, highwaters and tennis shoes thumbs through a design magazine, staring at its pages. Soon a man with a bald head, save a sculpted triangular black mohawk just above his brow, props himself against the metallic side of an escalator. He grasps a music player strapped around his hand and taps his fingers against his leg to its beat.

They all wait silently. Time doesn't seem to pass, doesn't seem like it ever will. Maybe someone else appears, but nothing else changes. The train is more than a quarter hour away, if the handful of TV monitors above the platform are to be believed.

The man with the cell phone starts pacing. The woman with the design magazine turns the page to a story about “Hawaii's Big Island" which she devours as intently as the previous pages she's turned through.

Time begins to move, slowly and instantly, first with a soft breeze, then a blast of air, then a rumble combined with a torrent of squeaking and scraping metallic sounds.

Almost unconsciously, I'm aboard a train car. Half the people in the car watch intently as I find a place to ride. Half are indifferent to their surroundings, like the man with the dark brown slick of hair and gray eyebrows staring forward or the old man perched by the door wearing an old L.A. Dodgers hat.

I find a spot by a door and grab a handrail along a nearby seat. My body rocks as the train continues on its journey. As it moves, my feet stiffen beneath me and I find my balance. Time slows down. I relax. Just a few more stops and I will be home.

Any great city exists amidst a great mythology. Los Angeles, so the tale goes, became the place it is today in a post-war economic boom. As the Cold War fueled a booming aerospace industry, the city grew to become the quilt of suburbia and highways it's now readily dismissed as. One of the nation's first freeways, the Pasadena Freeway, was built between L.A. and Pasadena even before World War II. The automobile quickly became a staple of the American dream and the Southern California ethos.

Simultaneous with the auto's rise, a once robust railcar network known as the Pacific Electric collapsed. Cynics alleged collusion between the oil and automobile industries for ushering in its demise, but court cases making those allegations failed. A more likely explanation: legislative decisions encouraged bya public enamored with the new-found freedom that car ownership brought made the streetcars economically unfeasible.

Another myth: Angelenos love their cars. In fact, The city isn't the nation's most car dependent. Residents of four other metropolitan areas drive more miles each day than people in the greater Los Angeles area, according to data from the Texas Transportation Institute. Los Angeles is also fifth in average automobile ownership per household — even residents of eco-minded cities like San Francisco and Seattle own more cars per capita. When it comes to drivers isolating themselves in their cars, Los Angeles ranks ninth in the percentage of employees who drive alone to work.

The same statistics also describe just how extensive the region's transit network is. Only the New York City area offers more total bus service miles, for example, and Los Angeles still has the most bus-service miles per square mile covered. Los Angeles even ranks in the middle of the pack when it comes to measurements of its rail-based transit (a measurement that combines light rails, subways and commuter rails such as the region's Metrolink system).

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A train is a train and a bus is a bus, right? Not exactly. All the different forms of mass transit can get confusing. When planners discuss transportation, they're not just discussing whether commuters are carried on wheels or along rails. Each form of transit has champions in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Here are some brief descriptions of the different forms of transportation scholars and policymakers are currently discussing to keep track of the possibilities for Los Angeles.

Heavy Rail: Electric-powered trains carrying multiple cars capable of transporting large numbers of passengers at high speeds along rails separated from foot and automobile traffic. The Red and Purple Line subways are Los Angeles' only heavy rail mass transit.

Light Rail: While some light rails — such as portions of the Blue Line and the new Gold Line Eastside Extension — can have underground portions, light rail generally travels above ground and is differentiated from heavy rail by short trains (usually electric powered) on fixed railways not separated from street traffic and pedestrians. Trolleys, trams and streetcars are some examples. In L.A., the best examples are the Gold Line, the Blue Line, the Green Line, and the currently under construction Expo Line.

Commuter Rail: Regularly operating railroads with trains powered either by diesel or electricity and connecting job centers and urban cores with suburban communities. Los Angeles' metropolitan area is served by Metrolink, a service run by five county transportation agencies throughout the region. Tragically, the system received nationwide attention in September, 2008, when a Metrolink train collided with a freight train outside of the Chatsworth suburb of Los Angeles. More than 25 people commuting between Los Angeles and Ventura Counties died in the accident.

Bus Rapid Transit: Los Angeles' popular Orange Line service in the San Fernando Valley is an example of bus rapid transit. This type of transit uses buses (powered by various fuel sources such as compressed natural gas, diesel, hybrid battery technologies) on specialized roadways or lanes dedicated to the buses. The systems can be integrated to deal with local conditions. In the Orange Line's case, this meant converting an out of service rail right-of-way to carry the line's buses. Metro also calls its new Silver Line, a consolidation of conventional bus routes using bus-only lanes, BRT as well.


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