Century City. 5:16 p.m. The van pool to Cucamonga was late. “We’ve never left anyone behind,” said driver Lynda Moore.
“But if there’s a crisis in the morning they have the option of racing me to the next stop or driving in themselves.”
Five minutes later the straggler appeared, and Moore pulled out into traffic. She steered easily with one hand as she swung the 12-seat Dodge van through back streets that brought her to the San Diego freeway’s La Cienega Boulevard on-ramp at 5:35.
Two hours later, she was home, having dropped off her passengers at three San Gabriel Valley towns en route.
Jack Benny used to get a laugh just by mentioning Cucamonga, now called Rancho Cucamonga, but the commute to Century City is no joke.
Thus, 11 San Gabriel Valley residents welcomed the chance to join together and lease a van for the daily commute under the auspices of the Century City Commuter Center, a ride-sharing program organized by the Century City Chamber of Commerce and Commuter Computer with private and public funds.
The San Gabriel Valley van pool began May 20. “It’s great. It’s a lot less stress,” said Mary Anne Johnson, a receptionist at a financial services company in Century City.
According to figures published by the National Organization of Van Pool Operators, her 64-mile round trip from West Covina would cost about $400 a month in a car that gets 25 miles per gallon, compared to $85 for a guaranteed seat in the van.
A similar van pool has served Long Beach for nearly a year. Riders napped, leafed through magazines and chatted in their plushly upholstered, high-backed reclining seats as driver Larry Turner skipped from one radio station to another to get the latest traffic reports.
“They’re more friendly when they get home,” he said.
“We talk a lot . . . about food on the way home, especially when we get stuck in traffic and we’re late for dinner,” someone piped up from the back of the van.
Turner, who works at Saudia, the Saudi Arabian airline, gets free use of the van on weekends in exchange for driving it every day. His share of the monthly leasing fee is paid by the other riders.
Despite the van pool’s financial advantages and the relaxation that comes from letting someone else drive, the program got off to a slow start last year. As a result, despite hopes that ride-sharing may prove to be a partial solution for air pollution and traffic congestion, funding ran out this summer and the program’s part-time coordinator found another job.
The money has since been renewed, with $57,000 coming from the city’s share of county transportation tax funds and about $40,000 in cash and services from local businesses, but organizers say it will take a lot more work to make a dent on the average commuter’s driving habits.
“It’s an uphill battle to change behavior in the city of Los Angeles,” said Alisa Katz, chief deputy to City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky.
The challenge is especially tough at Century City, home to about 35,000 workers at 2,600 businesses, only 93 of which have more than 50 employees.
Ride-sharing programs are generally run by big companies for their own employees. At El Segundo-based Hughes Aircraft, the largest private employer in the state, a staff of just under 20 runs a complex network of private buses and van pools that serve about 30% of its 45,000 employees, according to Bruce L. Rogers, commuter bus project manager for the aerospace giant.
At Century City, where the typical enterprise is a law firm or accountant’s office with a handful of employees, organizers hoped that the city-backed program would do the same for workers at firms too small to have ride-sharing coordinators of their own.
But the large number of small businesses meant it was hard to get news of the program out to the workers, said Bonnie Goodman, the former ride-sharing coordinator for the Westside office complex.
“This was something that really hasn’t been done before,” she said.
It wasn’t easy, but Century City now has eight vans and about 100 riders shuttling to destinations as far away as Chatsworth in the northern San Fernando Valley and Huntington Beach in Orange County.
At first, problems were as basic as getting past security guards who had been instructed to keep out all solicitors, Goodman said.
Eventually, word got out through the Chamber of Commerce and other channels. In many cases, however, those who signed up learned about the program when organizers parked a van outside their office buildings and handed out informational leaflets.
In the first year, the Century City program affected 200-250 people, said Joel A. Baker, executive vice president of the Century City Chamber of Commerce, which sponsored the program along with Commuter Computer, a nonprofit group that promotes ride-sharing.
“Out of 35,000 that doesn’t seem like a lot, but on the other hand, in terms of the monumental task of changing people to group commuterism, this is a very important step,” he said.
By the end of the fiscal year, a survey showed that 35% 40% of the workers at Century City knew about the ride-sharing program, and 6% said they were interested in joining, Baker said.
Hopes to Double Vans
Since most of the lawyers and accountants at Century City need their cars for work, those interested tended to be support personnel, especially those at an income level where the monetary savings are significant, he said.
With Goodman’s full-time successor already chosen, Century City hopes to double the number of vans in coming months, Baker said.
But the City Council has made it clear that no more money will be provided after 1986, when Century City businesses will have to decide whether to come up with the difference if the program is to continue.
“We’ve made visible progress in year one; we’ll need to make more in year two,” said John A. Yingling, director of business management at ABC’s West Coast headquarters. “That will be one of the most difficult calls to make at that time.”
ABC, which has about 500 employees at Century City, pays the parking fees for all eight vans and underwrote the design and printing of ride-sharing leaflets.
Although no one expects the entire work force there to switch to ride-sharing, Yingling said, the hope is that the number of cars will be held below the point of “the ultimate traffic jam.”
As Century City’s program got under way, a similar program began at Warner Center in the western San Fernando Valley, funded by $69,000 in county transportation funds.
In business since April, the program has four vans on the road, with two more set to start Oct. 2.
Anne Cooley, Warner Center’s full-time ride-sharing coordinator, said that support from the Voit Cos., which developed the office and light industrial complex in Woodland Hills, made a significant difference.
Also, she said, Warner Center is home to only 19 firms, all of them major employers, so it was easier to get the word out to the 34,000 workers at the complex.
“We want people to be able to get to Warner Center,” said Norman H. Emerson, director of public affairs for Voit. “The whole strategy, we think, is that for ride-sharing to really happen a commitment has to come from the top.”
Although the city funding for the pilot programs at Century City and Warner Center is not likely to be continued, their experience will help as the city struggles to deal with continuing growth, said Alice D. Lepis, principal transportation engineer for the city of Los Angeles.
New developments in areas such as downtown and the Los Angeles International Airport area will be required to take steps to reduce their impact on traffic flow, she said.
“If this traffic is not mitigated, or if people do not elect to use alternate forms of transportation, it will mean more vehicles on the street and it will be more and more congested,” she said.
According to Martin Wachs, professor of urban planning at UCLA and, like Emerson and Yingling, a member of the board of directors of Commuter Computer, there is little chance of new streets or freeways being built on the increasingly congested Westside.
“The only way to allow growth to continue,” he said, “is to get greater and more efficient utilization of existing streets.
“If you can replace 7 to 10 vehicles with one, it obviously improves conditions for everyone. It conserves energy, it contributes to cleaner air, it’s a relatively low-cost solution to the traffic problem. And it doesn’t require a large capital investment like a subway system. It makes sense from every criterion that I can imagine.”