Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Why We Hate L.A. Public Transport: The PYT Factor

The biggest complaint I repeatedly hear about L.A. is that it has a poor public transportation system. News flash: that's true, we're not New York or Tokyo by any means. Yet I often feel compelled to protect L.A. from empty criticism. The people who complain about L.A.'s public transportation system are complaining due to what I see as three major factors: 1) the effect of hearing other people complain (to which I have nothing truly helpful to contribute), 2) the absence of a transportation culture, like the subway-state-of-mind of New York City or even the let's-take-BART-to-the-Giant's-game compulsion in San Francisco, and finally, 3) the feeling of disorder and general lack of safety surrounding the systems we already have. Here's my take on those things.

So let's face it: in Los Angeles, we drive our cars. Everywhere, all day, every day. We jam up our freeways and complain about commutes and argue about congestion but still, we drive our cars. Historically speaking, there is a reason for this. East Coast cities were designed with pedestrians in mind; they are planned to some extent, but largely that American grid pattern wasn't implemented until we started growing westward. People still had few options but to walk when those cities began to develop and subsequently explode in population; hence those cities have easily identifiable centers. Like many European cities, the center is actually in the middle, creating a smaller but more concentrated radius of things-that-are-important-to-get-to: financial buildings and offices, cultural offerings, commercial centers, etc. Los Angeles, however, is a totally different breed of city. Most significantly, by the time L.A. took off in terms of population, Americans were falling in love with the automobile. (Isn't it just like a bad romance novel? The honeymoon period is magical and then we find out that the objects of our affections are shredding the ozone layer. Typical.) This city is not designed for pedestrians but for vehicles, which explains our lack of green space and, obviously, our general difficulties with creating a truly cohesive transportation network. Additionally, L.A. is a highly stratified city, partially because it contains so many levels of specialization and industry. L.A. has many centers - Westwood, the financial district, etc. - and subsequently has a harder time connecting them except by vehicle lanes. Given that information, it's hardly surprising that our public transportation appears subpar. Do you realize how much harder that task is for L.A. than for New York? The concept of reducing VMT (vehicle miles traveled) is a very new concept that is miles away from what L.A. was really planned for. Oh and while we're facing facts, don't lie: those of you who are complaining, you wouldn't ride public transportation anyway.

And why wouldn't you ride public transportation in L.A.? Because there's no guarantee that you'll be as safe as you would be if you were driving. Many of the complainers are students I go to school with, and further, many of those are members of my sorority. This is where the AYF (Attractive Young Female, or as Michael Jackson might say, PYT) factor comes in. Pretty girls are the best way to judge the success of a public transportation system, because they are a) the most noticeable and b) the most vulnerable, for either real or imagined reasons. Pretty girls will not ride public transportation if they don't feel safe. So here we reach another issue with L.A. public transportation: the pretty girls don't trust it. Now part of that, I think, is that these PYTs are expecting the hip subway culture that is not typical of Los Angeles, and as I said earlier, there's nothing we can do about that. They're also expecting fancy light rails with Starbucks and Yogurtland in them. Here's the problem with that, though: who rides public transportation in L.A.? Largely it's the low-income minority population, and they're not riding the fancy light rails. They're riding the derelict, overcrowded buses - the non-glamorous option, and thus, the one with less funding. There are no PYTs on these, nor are there likely to be while they remain in that state. And L.A., in all its innovative glory, continues to invest in highway expansions that don't work or rail lines with low ridership because that's what the PYTs - and higher income residents - want. In the meantime, we force our bus riders to suffer inadequate resources while we develop for the people who complain and yet do not provide ridership.

I've talked for a while now, so in conclusion: to the city of L.A., please put more money into the bus systems. Make the bus stops safer, clean them up - throw in a Yogurtland if you want - invest in better, more fuel-efficient buses, and make sure the buses are always reliable. Maybe you'll attract more people to them; but even if you don't, at least we won't shove the majority of our population into grimy outdated machines.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Protecting the Light Rail Line

Sorry I've been out for a bit; I'd forgotten what real school was like. To bring you up to speed with my thoughts, I'm worrying about the realities surrounding the CA light rail line - as usual. It's not a secret that President Obama has his sights set high for American light rail. He's portioned out $8 billion worth of funding to go to various projects around the country. I took this, at first, to be an excellent sign in regards to the president's indication in favor of public transportation (in contrast to President Bush's desire to cut nearly all of Amtrak's funding, I personally would say this is a step in the right direction.) Lately, however, I've come to wonder whether this gesture is really just a nod of approval rather than a true dedication to the growth of American light rail projects.

Though a great deal of that apportioned $8 billion seems intended to go to California's rail-related ambitions, there are now a great deal of worthy rail projects popping up across the country, including one between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and a network connecting the Southwestern United States. According to Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee, "There is a suspicion among those who chart the erratic course taken by the bullet train project that when push comes to shove, its only tangible fruit will be those local projects." I have to say I count myself among one of the skeptics. It worries me that not enough attention will be paid to the larger scheme of things, causing the grand concept of a state-wide light rail system to fail.

Part of my skepticism comes from a wariness I had previously nurtured, but my faith in the rail line has slipped even more after reading the article "Bus Factory, Symbol of the Stimulus, Now Laying People Off," an op-ed by Michael Cooper in the NY Times. The story basically revolves around the economic hope placed in a factory that made hydrid electric buses, commodities that were intended to bolster the economy as well as supplement climate change-related policy. What was originally expected to become a stimulus success story, however, has been sinking; funding has been delayed, and despite the big talk for mass transit, the expected financial support does not appear to be available. As a result, employees who were led to believe that their jobs were safely rooted in consumer demand for public transportation projects are now being laid off.

Does this situation sound oddly familiar to anyone else? A mass transit project that was promised to the people as an economic life preserver but can't seem to come up with the promised funding? Sounds like what I've been worried about for a while now.

At the risk of sounding repetitive, I have to once again bring up my doubts in our devotion to rail-related projects. Here's a thought, though; what can we do to ensure our elected officials will continue to protect our brainchild that is the CA light rail line? Any thoughts? Otherwise, stay tuned. The wheels are still turning on my end.