If There Is No Mass Transit, Kiss 'Big Orange' Goodby

Selwyn Enzer is associate director of the Center for Futures Research at USC's Graduate School of Business Administration

With the Los Angeles Metro Rail project facing a very uncertain future in these days of Gramm-Rudman, the city's dream of a mass-transportation system is turning into another nightmare.

Some Angelenos may rejoice at the loss of Metro Rail, believing it too expensive and too limited in its potential ridership. They may also believe that with the Metro Rail out of the way we will get back to thinking about how to improve the freeways and reduce the surface-street congestion.

Unfortunately, that would be a nightmare disguised as a dream.

Simply put, there are no viable alternatives to mass transportation that will permit Los Angeles to continue its present growth. Our buses are operating very close to their practical limits. Alternatives such as car pooling, ride-sharing and jitneys will not satisfy the city's need for mobility.

Adding freeway lanes, or even double-decking the freeways, would not help, either. The ultimate bottleneck will be on the surface streets, already congested to the point of near-gridlock.

So, without some form of mass transportation to reduce the number of private cars entering the already congested centers, Los Angeles will stagnate in traffic. This will drive businesses that would otherwise have chosen to locate here to the San Francisco Bay Area, or to Orange County or San Diego. Los Angeles' role as America's gateway to the Pacific Rim would be limited.

While this prospect no doubt would please advocates of no growth, it would do little to improve what has already become an untolerable situation.

If we are to maintain mobility for all, and allow the community to meet its destiny as the "Big Orange," we must get some traffic off surface streets. This is not an attempt to drive Angelenos out of their automobiles en masse . Quite the contrary. In every long-range scenario the private automobile will continue to be the dominant mode of transportation in Los Angeles. If we ever develop a mass-transportation system, it will primarily be used for business-related trips and mainly in centers where surface streets can no longer handle the traffic.

This is something, however, that our leadership has failed to explain adequately, giving mass transportation the false image of a white elephant that would benefit only a few but be paid for by all. Mass transit is an integral part of our transportation future--not a threat to our current wayof life.

It is often argued that mass-transit systems do not earn enough from the fare box to be self-sufficient, and that they are subsidized in virtually every community where they exist. So why does almost every major city have such a system? Because a large city cannot function without one. It would be as foolish as trying to design a high-rise building without elevators because they are so much more costly than stairs. While it can be done, who would rent space on the upper floors?

The fact is that the entire community benefits from mass transportation. The users benefit directly, the motorists benefit because it relieves traffic congestion, and the community benefits from the increase in commercial activity that would otherwise not occur. In total, the economic benefits more than offset the cost of mass transportation.

We must address our transportation planning in a more realistic way than we have done to date. But first we have to recognize that some form of mass transportation is essential to the fulfillment of more important community objectives. We have to design our system in a way that assures that it captures its target ridership. This means that it must provide convenience and speed at an affordable price. We cannot afford a Miami-like failure brought about by high parking fees at local stations, high fares and a poor downtown distribution network. In that spirit, it must be possible to try to improve Metro Rail's engineering or economic features without being accused of opposing it. We must all work toward the realization of an effective system and stop trying to block every start-up attempt.

Any mass transportation system will take a long time to implement, to capture a sizable ridership and to stimulate community development. We cannot afford to drag our heels any longer. The Pacific Rim will not wait for Los Angeles. An effective mass-transportation system is not a luxury that the city can no longer afford. Instead, it is essential to the continued development of the community.

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