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LA and public transport

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  • Andie Miller
    Go west, young subway rider Changing transit priorities mirror the changing face of the city, with convoluted routes of the past leading into an unrealized
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 26, 2006
      Go west, young subway rider

      Changing transit priorities mirror the changing face of the city, with
      convoluted routes of the past leading into an unrealized future.

      By D.J. Waldie, D.J. WALDIE is the author of "Where We Are Now: Notes from
      Los Angeles" (Angel City Press, 2004).

      December 5, 2005

      THAT HOLLOW laughter you hear echoing from beneath your feet is the Ghost of
      Mass Transit Past, stirring again like one of Ebenezer Scrooge's unwelcome
      holiday visitors below the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Western
      Avenue, where the mid-city arm of the Red Line subway terminated in 1996.

      Twenty-five years after a downtown-to-Santa-Monica subway line was proposed,
      and 10 years after it was pronounced DOA, the idea of a "subway to the sea"
      will not lie quietly in its grave.

      It's not hard to see why, particularly when you're stuck in worsening
      traffic. The Wilshire Corridor has the jobs, retail, housing and population
      density to make a subway west of Western both desirable and practical — just
      as desirable and practical as it was in 1980, when county voters approved an
      initial half-cent sales tax increase for a transit plan that would have
      built it.

      But it never happened. And let's be blunt: The Red Line subway stopped at
      Western because of Anglo homeowner fears of "those people" coming to their
      neighborhood (and Anglo shop owner fears that subway construction on
      Wilshire would kill business for years, only to deliver "those people" to
      their doors afterward).

      That Rep. Henry Waxman and County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky (old opponents
      of a Red Line extension) are now talking about allowing a subway to cross
      into the so-called methane zone has nothing to do with their sudden
      discovery of a better, safer way through the Westside's former oil fields.
      (The first Red Line tunnel came through the 1994 Northridge earthquake with
      hardly a crack.)

      Rather, today's talk of a subway extension demonstrates just how many
      homeowners and shop owners on the Westside have become "those people"
      themselves. Los Angeles is finally hybridized enough to imagine that transit
      riders are not Mau-Maus on the bus but only you and me and the woman who
      cleans your house.

      It's a demonstration of will and ingenuity that tens of thousands of these
      riders daily cobble together bits of a politicized transit system and
      commute to work, shop and make their way in a city that often misunderstands
      their transportation needs.

      Los Angeles may be grown up enough for transit (and grown dense enough to
      need it), but that's not enough to deliver the system the city should have.
      Transit in Los Angeles isn't the neutral delivery of passengers from one dot
      on a map to another. Like everything that accelerates the flow of public
      money and political influence in this city, transit isn't really about buses
      and trains, it's about the mechanisms of power.

      Every "great idea" for transit in the last 25 years has found a constituency
      of contractors, lobbyists and consultants ready to carve out their piece of
      the county, state and federal funding pie: heavy-rail subways, light-rail
      trolleys, dedicated busways, limited service buses, granny-toting jitneys
      and long-haul commuter trains. If it has wheels and you can find someone to
      subsidize its construction, it's currently running on, under or alongside
      the streets of Los Angeles.

      Passing enthusiasms and political fixes have contorted the city's bus and
      rail networks into forms that are not logical or efficient. But that's what
      happened when well-intentioned voters offered up a sea of county sales tax
      revenue in 1980 and again in 1990 for a transit system they had no intention
      of using.

      It's not to get themselves out of their SUVs that so many frustrated drivers
      support transit funding, it's to get their neighbors out of theirs.

      Big public transit projects are essential to the future of Los Angeles, even
      if they never add up to a coherent system. The proposed Red Line extension
      down Wilshire is essential, even though it will cost $200 million to $300
      million per mile to build the three miles just to Fairfax. The new
      Exposition light-rail line to Culver City is essential too. So are more
      limited-service Rapid buses. And the plodding local buses, completing their
      crooked routes across the disregarded parts of the city, are utterly

      Building subways and light rail and expanding bus service won't restore the
      visceral pleasures of 1960s freeway momentum (when the county had 4 million
      fewer residents). It won't break up the rolling gridlock that infuriates
      Westside drivers. But more transit options are making an increasingly urban
      Los Angeles a little more livable.

      If you've been reading these pages for a while, you may have caught the
      half-anxious, half-amazed tone of city watchers who seem to be wondering
      what to make of Los Angeles when it isn't Los Angeles any more, when all of
      our cliched assumptions — bright and noir — are questioned by our encounters
      with a city that isn't Raymond Chandler's or even Joan Didion's.

      Public transit has the unsettling capacity to redefine our experience of a
      built-up, built-out and densified Los Angeles. If it's ever built, a subway
      into the west will carry more than passengers; it will bear our imagination
      into a city as yet unrealized.

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