Thursday, May 10, 2012

We've Got a Ticket to Ride

In a scene from a wonderful movie called “L.A. Story” which probed
the foibles of life in our merry megalopolis, Steve Martin emerges
from his house, gets in his car and drives to his neighbor’s home
next door.

Funny? Sure. True? Exaggerated, perhaps, but not far from reality.

Let’s face it, we have always been in love with our cars and are
loath to abandon them in favor of public transportation.

There are reasons for that. First, we were blessed with the best
freeway system in the world which, on a good day, could whisk us
anywhere in Southern California with a minimum of fuss.

Second, we live in a place that defines the word sprawl. It forces us
to go great lengths to go great lengths. People here measure distance
in time, not mileage. Mileage is irrelevant on the eastbound 210 at 5

Third, for years the alternative to the auto was a fleet of dirty,
diesel-belching buses overseen by uncaring bureaucrats whose real
purpose seemed to be to alienate the public.

Now, we are on the cusp of change. Our torrid affair with the
automobile may be turning cold. And alternatives abound.

To illustrate: I was sitting in an endless traffic jam on the 101 one
day when I looked to my right and saw a guy in slick,turbo-powered,
six-figure Porsche. He was wearing racing gloves, the kind you’d don
to drive in the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring. It looked
particularly goofy since this guy never got out of first gear.

The point is that it’s hard to love your car, even a sleek and sexy
one, when you spend your days awash in a sea of red taillights. No
matter how posh the ride, you’re just wasting a sizable chunk of your
life and mental health while sucking up five dollar gas.

Now, however, we have a bustling, thriving downtown that is home to a
state-of-the-art subway/lite rail/bus system which will seamlessly
and cheaply transport people to where they live or work or play.
Witness the new Expo Line which runs from downtown past Staples
Center, L.A. Live and USC to Culver City and eventually to Santa

And there’s more to come.

Within the next decade, our very own Gold Line will expand eastward
to Azusa. A new subway route through downtown Los Angeles will link
the Metro Blue Line, Gold Line and Expo Line. The Purple Line will
run from Union Station through MacArthur Park along Wilshire
Boulevard to Westwood.

Voila! Access to sporting events, major universities, museums,
nightlife, even the beach, without backing your car out of the

We’re becoming just like New York, London and Paris. We’re just a
century late.

Will people use it? The answer appears to be yes. Metro bus and rail
ridership has jumped during the first two months of this year thanks
in part to soaring gas prices, according to a story in the Los
Angeles Times. The Metro Gold Line from downtown to Pasadena saw the
biggest spike: up nearly 22% over boardings from a year earlier.
Orange Line commuter traffic also carried significantly more
passengers than a year ago, up by 18%, and the Blue and Green lines
also drew more commuters.

From which we can extrapolate that a new generation of commuters are
beginning to shun Sig Alerts and budget-busting gas prices in favor
of clean, sophisticated public transit.

For those of us of a certain age who have lived in and loved Los
Angeles for decades, it is a development both astounding and

Astounding in that a subway/lite rail system was talked about for
decades and seemed as remote as time travel. Now, it is actually up
and running.

Bittersweet in that we once had a great rail system that served every
corner of Southern California. We’ve spent billions just to get us
back to where we were almost a century ago.

Back then, we had the Pacific Electric Railroad, the largest electric
railroad in the world connecting Los Angeles County with San
Bernardino County, Riverside County and Orange County with 1,000
miles of track. We also had the Yellow Cars which serviced central
Los Angeles and surrounding communities.

It didn’t last. It was felled by corporate skullduggery, poor
planning and a region that grew so fast it couldn’t keep up with

--- General Motors and a number of other companies bought and
dismantled our streetcars and electric trains, then sold local
governments buses which they manufactured.

--- Following World War II, politicians decided to construct a web of
freeways across the region because it was seen as a better solution
than a new mass transit system or an upgrade of the Pacific Electric.

--- Ironically, congestion also helped spell the end to commuter
rail. Most of the Red and Yellow cars ran on city streets and the
region was becoming so congested because of the post-war population
boom, the trains found it impossible to run on time.

It was a sad and costly chapter in our history. Let’s hope we grab on
to the future while it is there for the taking.

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