Getting the Masses to Ride Mass Transit in LA

The first time my East Coast-raised parents ate artichokes back in 1960 in San Francisco they really didn't know what they were getting themselves into. So they asked their friend Jim, himself a transplant from Tennessee, what it was like. "It's like licking a sow's ear," he drawled, though I doubt that helped my folks much as sows weren't something they saw too much of growing up in Brooklyn.

Jim's wisdom comes to mind now that LA has discovered that if it wants to win the congestion game and put a dent in Metro's operating deficit we need to get far more Angelenos to give Metro's trains and buses a try. While the conspiracy of perennially clogged freeways, smart Metro advertising, and the decline of the car-centric LA culture in some sectors is helping, by all accounts we've still got a long way to go. And cuts in service that reduce the frequency of Metro passing by aren't going to win over any Angelenos just now cracking open the bus door for the first time. But there are concrete steps Metro and the city can take to get more people riding the rails and buses. While we are waiting to start on the major improvements that the 30/10 Initiative will bring, Metro should be accelerating the development of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines on critical thoroughfares throughout the city.

Metro's Orange Line, a BRT poster child that runs on a dedicated route through the San Fernando Valley, the Silver Line which connects the South Bay and the San Gabriel Valley to downtown, and Metro Rapid which has grown into a network of 450 miles running on key routes like Wilshire and Santa Monica Blvds, are an excellent start. But far more of these lower cost and easier to implement solutions are needed to get drivers to get on the bus. And it is those broad boulevards that used to carry the red and yellow car trolleys and trains that are a good place to start. Thoroughfares like Venice, West Adams, Pico, and Olympic Blvds are wide enough through many neighborhoods to accommodate bus-only lanes that would speed Metro along and show the other drivers idling in traffic why it makes sense to give the bus a try. But the emphasis needs to be on true, dedicated BRT lanes with barriers and adequate traffic enforcement to keep cars and trucks out of the way.

There's so much happening transit-wise in LA that for the uninitiated it can be hard to keep up. For example on Tuesday night together with about 50 others I attended an informative community meeting hosted by Metro about alignment options for the Purple Line subway between Century City and Westwood. Metro staff have down their pitch and have done an excellent job of anticipating questions from a concerned public. And this includes those whose homes may be directly over the route where the subway tunnel to Westwood and hopefully beyond will be dug soon. At Tuesday's meeting the presentation and the signage on display went out of its way to emphasize that tunnel depths would typically be 50-70 feet below ground, well in excess of the 20 feet erroneously reported in several online and print publications. A PowerPoint of the already widely reported community meeting is available at Metro.

Mindful that every extra foot of tunneling can cost the equivalent of feeding a developing world city's residents for a year I'm hopeful that this next push for the Purple Line will actually put a stop past the 405 at the VA in Brentwood concurrent with the Westwood opening. A VA station built sooner rather than later will help dissipate the parking and traffic nightmare that will ensue once Westwood Station opens. Otherwise there will be total gridlock, even worse than what is currently there, every morning and evening as eager commuters travel between the 405 and a terminus at Westwood. Demonstrating to Angelenos that the Metro stations at Westwood and the VA work well from the start will do more than any advertising campaign ever will to get riders to give Metro a try. Maybe next week I'll write about the parking that will need to be built by someone to accommodate all of the cars bringing commuters to Westwood and the VA. As much as we'd like to think so, until there is a fast north/south mass transit connection as well, it's just not realistic to expect that most Valley and South Bay commuters will be taking mass transit to the subway.

What else? How about the exciting public private effort to restore streetcar service to part of downtown LA. A 2006 study by the IBI Group, HNTB and others for the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles provides a comprehensive history of streetcars in LA (yes LA) and presents several attractive service options that would shuttle riders between key destinations in downtown. As anyone who has been to San Francisco, Seattle or Portland knows, well-conceived and well-executed streetcars can be a successful redevelopment spark for underutilized and in some cases decrepit downtowns. The feasibility study and other information on the streetcar project is available on the goLAstreetcar website. And next week LA Streetcar is making a video designed to capture the public's feelings about downtown with a streetcar (AKA sustainable urban living). You can sign up to be interviewed for the space-is-limited filming on Saturday May 29th by going to This is My Downtown.

While I don't agree with some of the stuff said in a recent Los Angeles Times rant on mass transit it is great to see so many Angelenos starting to read, write and talk about mass transit. Even likely mayoral candidate Rick Caruso is getting into the act with his comments in BusinessWeek about putting a monorail on the 10. If done right, maybe, but hey, until then, would someone please send Caruso a map of the Expo Line.

With so many viable, desirable and thoughtful mass transit options out there let's keep plugging away on the good ones. I, for one, want more bus rapid transit and the Subway to the Sea along Wilshire. After all, it is LA's Champs-Élysées, n'est-ce pas? À Bientôt.