Opinion

Once I took the railroad...

VehiclesMusical TheaterPublic TransportationCommutingTravelAntonio Villaraigosa

In the beginning, I backed my words with shoe leather. Honest.

Despite all the well-researched data reasonable people keep churning out, I've long been an enthusiast for publicly financed transit, particularly the least-flexible, most-expensive variety: digging billion-dollar tunnels under a famously sprawling and NIMBY-tastic county. I know and respect most of the arguments, but I also love the ride and the galvanizing effect the Metro seems to have had on transforming neighborhoods, particularly my backyard of Hollywood along the Red Line. Besides, name a great city that doesn't have a subway.

So when I got my first L.A. office job in 2006, I leaned enthusiastically into my new daily commute — a 14-minute, 0.7-mile walk to the Red Line's Vermont/Sunset stop, followed by a leisurely and contemplative ride down the Observatory-themed station's bottomless escalators, then (after maybe a three-minute wait) onto the train for the 12-minute jag to Pershing Square, where I'd pip off one stop early so that I could breathe in the bustle of Broadway for half a mile before keeping the world safe for opinion journalism.

Average time, door to desk? A little less than 50 minutes. Which is fine, until you consider how far I actually live from work — five miles (or 10 minutes, according to Mapquest). Still, I got to read on the train ... except when there were no seats, which happened most every day. Also, catching a train back to Hollywood from the Civic Center station after 7 p.m. is a voodoo-inspiring exercise of waiting and hoping, with trains coming as infrequently as every 15 or 20 minutes — an experience made even more painful by the public art installation there, which consists of six humanoids flying overhead and blurting out irregular, eardrum-slicing chirp noises, libelously misdescribed on this website as "an occasional peaceful trill of a bird."

I started to experiment with shaving off minutes from the daily routine so that I could steal that crucial extra 10 minutes of sleep in the morning. Escalator reveries gave way to the grimy efficiency of the Vermont/Sunset elevator shaft. The Broadway bustle fell casualty to a two-block walk down Hill Street. Still, there were nearly 35 minutes built into the basic template, easily expandable to 45 and more if I just missed a train, or got caught in the multi-traffic-light pedestrian hellscape of the Hillhurst/Virgil/Hollywood/Sunset/Sunset Drive intersection, or simply came home late.

Thus I eventually learned what every person who actually has no choice but to ride mass transit has long known — the buses are much better.

The walk to my new bus stop was a couple of clicks shorter as the pedestrian walks, with no terrible intersections and a bit of shade for the hot days. Two different heavily serviced bus lines took me by a much more direct route to the exact same Metro-stop location, only without the chirping humans to greet me and the long escalator up to civilization. The average door-to-door commute was down to a much more manageable 35 minutes.

I could even usually find a seat! But reading was usually not an option, due to the unpredictable shouting/silence cycle of the bus system's awful Transit TV. But at least I could stare out the window and see beautiful Silver Lake and Echo Park whiz by. Well, except for the encrusted scum on the windows nine days out of 10. (Note to the MTA: I'll gladly pay an extra dollar per ride if you'd just mix in a squeegee now and then.) And worst of all, there are few transit hells as thirst-inducing as crawling up Sunset to meet your friends for dinner while coping with the traffic furies unleashed by the Dodgers' inventive new parking system.

So it was with heavy heart that I began to drive to work. Or at least that's where this narrative seems to be leading. But a couple of little confessions are in order if we are to have a truly honest discussion about transit policy in the City of Angels:

1) For the first several months of my job, my car stood idle in my driveway, in need of repairs I was too lazy to arrange. So I didn't really have a choice while I was being "good."

2) Once I got the old T-bird running, I began to take the car in the morning whenever I needed to be somewhere not exactly on the Red Line after work — the movies, a friend's house, band practice.

This is where the rubber meets the road on all transit debates, and it's why there'll never be a lack of stories about how almost none of the region's public officials who have the most effect on transportation actually take the damned bus. People who can take their cars will take their cars, particularly if they're in a hurry or need to make multiple stops. As Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa explained his non-transit commuting to The Times in November 2006, "I'd like to do more, but my problem is I have to go all over the city. It's very tough because of my schedule." Sure. And it turns out many of us have hectic schedules as well.

At any given time, roughly 72% of the commentary about transit is based on the Invisible Rabbit of transit-oriented development and "sustainable growth": That what we really need to do is to "get people out of their cars." City observers — who I would bet out-drive the parents of public-school kids by a ratio of at least 2 to 1 — are perpetually surprised that their fellow car owners insist on using them, no matter how close they live to the spiffy new urban village. The following paragraph, from a June 30 Times story on the subject, needs to be seared on the forehead of every urban planner south of the Tehachapis:

But there is little research to back up the rosy predictions. Among the few academic studies of the subject, one that looked at buildings in the Los Angeles area showed that transit-based development successfully weaned relatively few residents from their cars. It also found that, over time, no more people in the buildings studied were taking transit 10 years after a project opened than when it was first built.

For eight years, I have chosen to live in neighborhoods in large part because of their walkability and proximity (via public transit) to the excitement of downtown and Hollywood. I support the mayor's "subway to the sea" without irony, no matter how many billions it takes. But as long as my drive to work is less than 15 minutes, you will not get me out of my 1986 car until traffic gets at least three times as bad. Or unless the engine craps out.

In the meantime, transit should be seen — and supported — for what is: A way for poorer people to get around until they become rich enough to buy a car. And an option for if (or when) the 101 ever really does become a parking lot.

Matt Welch is assistant editorial page editor; click here to read more of his Opinion Daily columns. Send us your thoughts at opinion@latimes.com.

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