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Expert Sees Less Car Use, More Mass Transit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Few subjects are more talked about or boost drivers’ blood pressure any higher than gridlock on Los Angeles freeways and streets.

“Congestion is the No. 1 transportation problem in Los Angeles County,” says Jim Sims, 47, an urban planner and president of Commuter Transportation Services.

For more than 25 years, Sims has worked as a transportation specialist for several Southland cities, the Southern California Assn. of Governments and the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission.

CTS is an $8-million-a-year, nonprofit company set up 16 years ago by local governments to help alleviate congestion problems. The first commuter computer service in the country has helped match more than 42,000 drivers with dozens of employer-sponsored car pools and van pools.

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The commuter service also conducts transportation research. Its annual “State of the Commute” report for 1990 revealed that during the last year the average one-way commute of 35 to 40 minutes had gone up again--this time by 10 or 15 minutes.

With about 5 million drivers clogging freeways and streets, Sims said, rush hour now virtually lasts from dawn until after dark.

“Surveys show us that two-thirds of the people believe congestion is worse now than it was a year ago,” he said.

As a result, motorists’ attitudes are changing.

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“People are telling us they are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore,” Sims said, paraphrasing the line from a popular movie.

In a wide-ranging interview, Sims was asked about transportation problems and how they might be solved.

Q: Los Angeles has long been the leader in building more freeways to give Southern Californians the freedom to drive where and when they please. Now, it seems the system is breaking down. What went wrong?

A: You have to realize Los Angeles is no longer a big suburb. . . . Los Angeles is a very densely populated, world-class city with world-class transportation problems.

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The idea that you can jump in a car anytime and go anywhere you like without encountering congestion is out of date. Those days are gone forever.

There are just too many more people and more cars on what is basically a mature (completed) freeway system . . . (and) we are not likely to build any more freeways. . . . The Century Freeway (to be completed in 1994) is probably the last that will be constructed in Los Angeles.

In the future, we will have to solve our transportation problems by making better use of what we have . . . (and by) developing other forms of transit.

Q: How can we make better use of what we have?

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A: First, we must put more people in fewer vehicles by ride-sharing, using buses and trains. Second, we should stretch out the work hours . . . (give people) variable work hours. Third, we have to reduce the number of trips taken by using four-day workweeks, tele-commuting, things like that.

Q: That will require changes in the way motorists think and behave, won’t it?

A: Certainly. And changing behavior may well prove more difficult than going out and building additional freeways.

Q: Why may changing behavior be more difficult?

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A: We can always build a freeway. We know how to do that. But we only know a little bit about changing deeply entrenched behavior patterns. It’s going to be hard to make the needed behavior changes.

Q: What kind of changes are you talking about?

A: Helping individual drivers figure out that there are better ways of getting to work than driving alone every day . . . (then) helping them find ways to ride-share or find alternatives like using rail or bus transit.

Q: Are you also talking about changing the behavior of companies?

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A: Definitely. Private companies have had it their own way, they open the doors in the morning and it’s up to the employees to be there on time. That has to change. . . . (Companies must) assist their employees in easing the commute if they want to be competitive.

Q: What do you mean “be competitive?”

A: Skilled workers have choices. They can choose to live and work elsewhere if the commute remains such a hassle in Los Angeles County.

Q: Are workers going elsewhere now?

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A: Yes. Between 1986 and 1989 (Los Angeles) lost about 38,000 workers . . . (and) there is evidence that some of this exodus is a direct result of congestion, poor air quality and their impact on lifestyles.

Q: What can companies do to change?

A: Employers can set up ride-sharing, encourage the use of (buses and trains) by subsidizing fares. . . . They can let people work at home a day or two a week, change work hours and schedules, guarantee rides home anytime, that sort of thing.

Q: Changing the subject, Los Angeles has embarked on an ambitious plan to build a 300-mile rail transit network at a cost of $7.5 billion. Some critics say rail is too expensive and want the money used for other transit forms. What do you think?

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A: Rail transit works extremely well when you have corridors with high population densities. True, it is expensive, but in certain corridors there are no other options.

For instance, how do you push more people up and down Wilshire (Boulevard)? You can’t do it in buses and you can’t do it in cars.

But rail isn’t the only answer. It should be a part of a larger solution that includes increased bus services and things like ride-sharing and improved signalization in traffic control systems.

Q: What part of the daily commute can rail handle?

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A: Probably never more than 5% to 10% of the total commute, but that will be a very important 5% or 10% because the trains . . . will operate primarily into and out of downtown (Los Angeles), with its high density.

Q: Downtown Los Angeles continues its high-rise growth, while the freeways leading into downtown and the surface streets are approaching gridlock. Is the growth downtown overwhelming the existing and planned transit systems?

A: I don’t think so. The rail systems and the new Harbor (bus) Transitway (now under construction) will add needed capacity to serve downtown. However, I think the days of the average worker driving downtown are numbered. (In the future), people . . . will either have to car-pool or ride the trains. And we must develop a decent circulation system downtown so people don’t have to have their cars to get around.

Q: We hear talk of so-called “smart corridors” with high-tech solutions to speed up auto traffic on freeways and surface streets. How does this fit the transit equation?

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A: What these (high-tech routes) will do is add up to 15% more capacity to the system . . . and that’s a good idea, but it doesn’t solve the larger problem and that is the fact there are too few people riding in too many cars.

Q: Continued growth raises the specter of more congestion. If we develop commuter trains to Riverside and Saugus, aren’t we just inviting more growth which means more congestion?

A: As long as we have (population) growth and as long as we have a strong economy, we are going to have congestion. The question becomes: What level of congestion is tolerable? And the indications are that we are about to reach intolerable levels.

Q: Does this mean we need to set growth limits?

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A: First off, you are not going to control growth. The forces that generate growth are bigger than either local government or state government. . . . We are not going to control people moving into Los Angeles . . . (so) what we do then is try to balance the growth with increased efficiency (moving people).

Q: How do you balance growth with efficiency?

A: You do it two ways: one traditional, one a bit unusual. First, you require developers to add new streets, widen old ones, which is done now. But we must also require developers to contribute to long-term transit subsidies that promote ride-sharing for the people living or working in these developments.

Q: What do you mean by long-term subsidies?

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A: We would ask the developer to set up a fund to help provide subsidies for those commuters who ride-share. The money would pay for vans, help them buy discounted bus passes, that sort of thing.

Q: Do you have any final thoughts?

A: Yes. In the past, we’ve thought about work as a place ; in the future, we are going to think about work as an activity that can be performed at various places . . . at different hours and days of the weeks. There are all sorts of options.


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