Out of Control Policy Blog

L.A. Times on Transit - Just get out of my way!

The L.A. Times recently ran a humorous piece that really nails the reason that transit hasn't caught on in L.A. (or most other cities, for that matter). It's all about freedom and automobility:

    [P]eople once again have started nodding their heads when one or another dough-faced urban planner from the Institute for a Joyless Future or some pol with lots of contractor friends starts talking up another public transit project.

    Well, I've been to that dance before and this time count me out.

    Not the real me, but the archetypal me – the native Southern Californian and nearly lifelong Angeleno, who believes that when Jefferson wrote the words "pursuit of happiness" he had in mind something with leather seats and a little snap. What this archetypal me objects to is that transit projects never seem to accomplish what really needs to be done, which is to get other people out of their cars so that mine can take me where I want to go – fast.

    . . . .

    Actually, Los Angeles already has two public transit systems, one of them full and one of them pretty much empty. The one that's full is the bus system. Its riders are mostly people who can't afford a car or – for one reason or another – can't operate one. They're people with no choice. Now, lots of smart people will tell you that modern, high-tech buses are the only form of public transportation that makes sense in a sprawling city like Los Angeles. The fact is, though, that buses are transit's equivalent of the Toyota Corolla. They may be functional wonders, but the only hearts that race at the sight of them are covered by pocket protectors.

    The other transit system looks like public transportation should – light, heavy or subterranean, it runs on rails. It has stations and not just "stops." It's really expensive, so it should appeal to people with a choice, but the problem is that most of them still don't choose to use it.

    Ignore the MTA's ridership numbers. When it comes to fiddling the books, those guys are the WorldCom of public agencies. The subway cost billions, but – so far – its major achievement has been to save Langer's Deli by putting America's best pastrami within convenient reach of the downtown lunch crowd.

    . . . .

    [The] real reason so much of our most expensive public transit goes unused is because it's public. Los Angeles is all about private – private lives in private homes and private cars. To a real Angeleno, public transportation has all the charms of public baths. In fact, for about a generation we've been extending our home's amenities into our cars: first decent climate control systems, then real stereos, then telephones and, now, cup holders. It's all there, the rudiments of a seamlessly private life, plus the freedom to go where you want, whenever you want to do it.

Read the whole thing. It gives some tongue-in-cheek insight on a common phenomenon: surveys repeatedly show that the public supports light rail and transit, as long as it's other people that are going to use it.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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