Campaign in L.A. Tries to Pry Residents from Cars, One Driver at a Time
LOS ANGELES Getting drivers to take the train or bus has never been easy in this car-crazed city of endless freeways, where gridlock is so awful that rush-hour speeds average less than 30 mph.
The new mayor wants to change Los Angeles' car culture, though his push for mass transit comes in the same month of the London subway and bus bombings.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is starting small, asking Los Angeles residents to give up driving just one or two days a week. The theory is that getting a few more cars off the road would go a long way toward easing gridlock and air pollution that are the worst in the nation.
"Los Angeles has a history of over-reliance on the single-passenger automobile, and we're going to have to change that history," said Villaraigosa, who went to Washington last week to lobby for more funding for transportation projects.
Since freeways overtook a once-thriving trolley system half a century ago, attitudes toward public transportation in Los Angeles have ranged from blase to hostile.
When a subway line was to expand out of downtown to Hollywood, community groups sued, calling it a source of sinkholes that swallowed up the project's funding. At the low point, construction cracked cement stars on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.
The rail system's four lines extend over 73 miles, but many residents have no idea where their local bus or subway station is, if they even have one. Villaraigosa and others acknowledge some people live too far from mass transit for it to be convenient, but hope those commuters will occasionally walk, bike or car pool.
"We don't have a system that can take you anywhere you want to go," said Villaraigosa. "Until we do, and we make it convenient, safe, affordable, reliable and fast, we're not gonna change those habits."
Tayde Palomares used to ride buses, but now spends about an hour each morning driving 12 miles to her daughter's day care and the downtown law firm where she works. Palomares, 28, said it is worth sitting in traffic to avoid men on the bus who would leer and test pickup lines.
"You know those looks," she said. "That's the main reason why I started driving. I feel much safer."
David Fleming, one of the mayor's appointees to the regional Metropolitan Transportation Authority's board of directors, emphasizes the importance of removing even a small number of cars from the road.
While serving on the California Transportation Commission, he learned that as a rule of thumb, 100 cars can travel together down a stretch of highway at 65 mph with no problem. But add another 20 cars, and traffic reaches a breaking point, with vehicles slowing to 20 mph, he said.
"If you can get 5 percent of the people who would otherwise drive a car and put them in public transit, you've solved a good deal of your public transportation problem," Fleming said.
Since the mayor took office July 1, he has frequently taken bus and train rides, gently suggesting that if the mayor can ride, other commuters can, too.
For commuters who do use mass transit, reasons range from environmentalism to economics.
Amy Wolfberg is among those who has a car but prefers the subway. Staying off the road saves her about 15 minutes each half of her commute, and her company pays for a $52 monthly commuter pass to encourage employees to use public transit.
"I was born here so I've always been concerned about pollution," said Wolfberg, 43, who works at a downtown accounting firm.
Other riders have no choice about their mode of transport. MTA surveys in 2002 found the average household income of bus passengers was $12,000 annually, and $22,000 for train passengers.
So far, the transportation authority hasn't noted any reduction in ridership since the London bombings, and officials have stepped up the number of uniformed and undercover sheriff's deputies and bomb-sniffing dogs. Deputies conduct consensual searches of those they deem to be acting suspiciously, but aren't doing random checks like police on New York subways.
On a typical weekday in June, 1.2 million passengers rode MTA buses. In addition, about 243,000 passengers took MTA trains on a typical June weekday.
If other passengers aren't ready to commit to public transit every day, MTA officials hope they will follow the lead of riders like Anthony Contreras.
The 26-year-old takes an express bus as often as possible from his home in Manhattan Beach to his downtown office, paying $3.50 roundtrip and saving on parking that runs from $10 to $30. He said he would take the bus more often if it ran later at night.
"It's cheaper than parking and it's less stressful," Contreras said.
Source: Associated Press