The debate about L.A.'s uncontrollable traffic congestion is sparking a prairie fire of ideas to "solve traffic" in the region, with multiple opinion makers, academics, and transit officials squaring off. These discussions are always a mixed blessing for the Bus Riders Union, as the focus of these discussions begin and end with the stereotypical, highly stressed car driver on L.A.'s streets and highways.

Don't get us wrong, we also think it's important to reduce auto use in the region; its impacts on public health and on the environment are of central concern to us. Our work since the beginning has been about the intersection of civil rights, mobility, public health and the environment.

Unfortunately, the solutions to alleviate frustrated and stressed out car drivers are often based on two classical models: either attracting drivers out of their cars through costly rail/subway projects, or expanding streets and highways to alleviate congestion. Worse, these two models are usually weighed, and implemented, against the needs of the region's 450,000 transit-dependent bus riders, who are indeed primarily Black, Latino, Asian and profoundly poor.

This context was the basis of our original civil rights lawsuit against the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 1994; the MTA was running a "separate and unequal" transit system. The bus system was bursting from the seams and in shambles even though it served 94 percent of MTA ridership. All the while, MTA officials were pouring billions into building a rail and subway system that served almost no one, and in many cases didn't have a legitimate transit need, gobbling up roughly 70 percent of the MTA's entire budget. The result was a consent decree that vastly improved the system.

In fact, the system is being flaunted by the MTA today after it was the foundation of the decision by the American Public Transportation Association to name the MTA the "Nation's Best Transit Agency." Simultaneously, the consent decree is being blamed by many as the main culprit in limiting the ability of MTA to resolve traffic, or even as the worst mistake that could have happened to L.A. transit.

Would you call a 12 percent jump in bus ridership a mistake, when prior to the decree, the MTA was losing an average of 31 bus riders a day? The Wilshire Rapid Bus corridor alone has quietly and with little fanfare attracted over 17,000 new riders, one third of whom were former car drivers. This, we might add, occurred without the advantage of an exclusive bus lane.

I worry when I think about how certain forces in the city could portray the improvements made under the decree to serve one half million bus riders of color as an unworthy or misguided investment. For our people, it's not only a worthy investment but an affirmation of our civil and human rights when the MTA replaced broken and diesel polluting buses with over 2,235 new compressed natural gas buses, expanded service by 550 additional peak hour buses to reduce overcrowding and protect night owl service all while maintaining equitable fares.

Ultimately, the first step in securing the future of transit will be to uphold the multiple improvements gained under the decree. For that we need political leadership from city and business leaders. The recent rumors and rumblings of future plans at MTA to increase fares and cut bus services will only have a negative consequence; it would reverse the trends gained in ridership and undo one of the most important breakthroughs we have had in the region over the last decade.

Once we can secure the baseline won under the decree, the immediate conversation has to begin with doubling the existing MTA bus fleet to 4,000 buses. The current fleet of roughly 2,200 buses operating during rush hour is much too small, overcrowded and slow. Secondly, the age of the bus-only lane needs to be ushered in.

Virtually all independent transit experts agree that in a city as spread out as Los Angeles where the most extensive and modern highway system in the world already exists, the only cost effective solution to truly "massify mass transit" is a comprehensive system of bus-only lanes throughout the region.

Buses can be flashy, fast, attractive and ultimately an important tool to combat congestion and toxic air emissions by luring car drivers out of their cars. And of course, by expanding bus service, we will be serving and rewarding bus riders who by either choice or circumstance are riding public transit.

In Los Angeles, the aversion by some transit officials and many "experts" to a bus-centered transit model has handicapped the region. The age of this model is within reach.

Manuel Criollo is the lead organizer of the Los Angeles-based Bus Riders Union.

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