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.
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