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Public Transportation Should Get You There From Here

Public Transportation Should Get You There From Here

#6 TRANSIT

Taking public transportation in Los Angeles is often a circuitous experience.

There are few direct lines from the residential suburbs that ring the L.A. basin to downtown, and none to the Santa Monica-Westwood area. Hence the traffic jams every morning and evening rush hour (and increasingly at other times during the day) on the San Diego (405) and the Ventura (101) freeways.

Mass transit commuting is possible in other cities. Why not here?

Metrolink, the subway and three light-rail lines have all managed to pull some commuters out of their cars as routes are added and service improved. And with the skyrocketing price of gasoline, it’s become cheaper to travel by train.

Trouble is, once you get off at your station, there’s often no easy way to get from there to your office and then back in the evening. As a result, only 10 percent of the region’s population uses the transit system. What should be done?

The days of massive projects with comparable budgets are long gone. The county’s 30-year transportation plan started out in 1993 with $78.3 billion targeted for rail projects; by 1995 the figure was brought back to reality at $15.4 billion. The formula for mass transit will have to come from attainable funding resources.

But within those limitations, a lot can still be done. For instance, there is the confounding matter of conveniently connecting commuters from subway and light rail stations to their offices and back.

Roger Snoble, chief executive of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is looking to reconfigure the entire bus grid into a hub and spoke system at a cost of “hundreds of millions of dollars” (with much of it coming from federal and state grants awarded annually for transportation projects).

There would be 25 to 40 different hubs under this concept. Some of the spoke-routes could be served by smaller buses or vans. The new system, called Metro Connection, will be phased in beginning next year and completed about two years later. A goal will be to time the train and bus schedule for coordinated transfers.

And commuter lines will be added and expanded:

-The Gold Line will be stretched east, a five-year project with a budget of $898 million in federal, state and local funds.

-The Orange Line, a dedicated bus route across the San Fernando Valley, is under construction, slated for completion in 2005, with a budget of $329 million in state and local funds.

-In a project scheduled from 2007 to 2012, the Exposition Line will run from downtown L.A. west to Venice Boulevard and eventually to Santa Monica. (The cost hasn’t been estimated because the length of the line hasn’t been established; the length of the line may depend on available dollars.)

Combine these additions with “spoke” lines running from the new transit hubs to the stations and public transportation might become a viable alternative. One other thing: Make the bus stops and hubs welcoming.

“Facilities that have restrooms, machines with little snacks, places to sit that are fairly appealing,” offers Dana Gabbard, executive secretary of Southern California Transit Advocates. “Provide a level of comfort.”

Gabbard also suggests dedicating lanes for buses so they won’t get stuck in traffic. That’s not feasible currently, because it would create traffic tie-ups and paralyze the city. But for now, the addition of more bus routes on a hub-and-spoke network, combined with extending light rail and express bus lines, could prompt enough people to opt for public transit and make the system work. Adding ridership will increase revenue and lead to improved and sustainable service.

Snoble also sees improvements coming from new thinking in urban development.

Mixed-use projects that are becoming increasingly popular in various areas of the city will lead some residents to live where they work. Those centered near transit axes, such as a development at Hollywood and Vine, will also serve to change the transit patters of the city.

Here is where the problem of commuting in Los Angeles comes into sharpest focus: There are so many people traveling every day to so many places that transit lines can’t possibly serve them all. That presents the need for less traditional transit methods.

Snoble talks about a network of shared cars along the lines of communal bicycles in Holland that allow drivers with a key to pick up a vehicle at Union Station, drive it and return it and be charged for the use. (A pilot program already exists.) He also evokes a day when more and more L.A. residents will be tooling about town on Segways, those wacky scooters.

But those are micro-solutions to a macro problem. Ultimately, the key will be devising mass transit that serves more residents more effectively.

Fare box recovery the percentage of transit operating costs funded by ticket prices is about 30 percent. “With critical mass, you could get over 100 percent,” Snoble said. “You’d have to have really spectacular service.”

But really spectacular service is what Los Angeles should have.

TRANSIT

Proposal: Covering more of the city with transit routes

Obstacles: L.A. drivers’ resistance to abandon their cars; decreasing availability of funds for transit projects

Cost: About $100 million to increase bus service by 10 percent

Time Frame: Coming years

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