Remembering Transit’s Most Important Duty

LA transportation policy should focus on effectiveness, not glitz

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s “subway to the sea” plan, already one of his top priorities, just got a lot more momentum. A panel concluded that tunneling under Wilshire Boulevard is safe and says there no need to fear a repeat of the 1985 methane gas explosion that has long frightened officials from extending the Red Line westward. Yet the explosion debate diverts attention from a more common tragedy: Rail projects often compromise transit’s most important duty – serving the transit-dependent poor.

Few things help the poor achieve self-sufficiency like improved mobility. When people can get to more places faster they have more job opportunities, more educational opportunities – their worlds expand.

The mayor describes himself as a “proud progressive, but bus, not rail, is the transit mode best suited to serving the transit dependent. It offers great flexibility and more bang for the buck. Even the most extravagant bus system costs only about a third of what light rail costs- and light rail is a bargain compared to subways like the Red Line.

Early speculation puts the per-mile price tag of a Red Line extension at about $300 million — yes, per mile. And you can bet on the final cost being higher than that because rail has a well-documented habit of costing much more than advertised. Since public funds are always limited, the more LA commits itself to rail, the less it can provide widespread transit service, like buses, for those who need transit most.

Yet officials often justify the expense of rail because they think offering sleek rail cars is the only way to attract wealthier motorists to transit. But humans aren’t hardwired to hate buses. Travelers care more about speed, convenience, and cleanliness than whether they’re riding on rails or roads.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone, another proud progressive, has improved bus service in his city by using congestion pricing and other strategies. In London even businessmen in pinstripes gladly hop aboard buses.

But here in LA, the idea that the bus is inherently repellant persists, as does the practice of shortchanging bus service. In the 1980s, local policy makers began diverting funds from a successful bus ridership program toward rail construction. That prompted the ongoing legal tug-o-war between the Bus Riders Union and the MTA. Recently, a similar controversy erupted in the Bay Area and bus riders in Minneapolis and Houston have been stung by new rail lines.

Rail clearly remains LA politicians’ favored child. That was clear even before the recent Red Line chatter. Los Angeles’ latest light-rail project, the Gold Line, fell well short of ridership projections, yet local officials forged ahead with plans for a $900 million extension.

Thankfully, there are better ways to please both transit users and gridlock-weary motorists. One way is to convert the region’s carpool lanes to special toll lanes that reserve a specific amount of capacity for buses and vanpools and sell the rest of the space to motorists. Call it a “Virtual Exclusive Busway (VEB).”

A VEB allows buses to zip through traffic at the maximum speed limit, at dramatically less cost than building a separate facility like the Orange Line. A VEB that ran a bus every minute would dwarf the frequency of service of the Orange Line, yet each hour there would still be enough room for 1,600 additional paying vehicles in the lane. For individual drivers, the price of the toll would go up and down with the flow of traffic, allowing LA motorists and bus riders to enjoy the unthinkable – congestion free travel any time of day.

It’s time for LA to embrace the bus and help transit riders get where they want to go, on time. Expanding opportunities for the poor, now that’s progressive.

Ted Balaker is the Jacobs Fellow at Reason Foundation, a free market think tank, and author of a forthcoming book on mobility and congestion. He can be reached at