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Today’s Topic

Of all the challenges of living in southern California, perhaps none is more vexing than getting to work.

Although some commuters use public transportation, most--about 85%, or 3.5 million people in Los Angeles County alone, according to 1990 U.S. Census Bureau figures--get behind the wheel of a car each workday.

Traffic on most freeways can be intolerable and one accident can tie things up for hours. Still, Southern Californians overwhelmingly prefer the sound of the morning traffic report to the sound of a train whistle.

“The fact is that automobiles, with their stereo systems and the flexibility they provide, will always be more attractive than public transportation,” says Franklin White, chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

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“Until it is as painful to use the automobile as it is in other cities, people will not move to mass transit,” White adds.

Yet mass transportation is a prominent concern, at least according to the responses Voices received in response to the Times’ special July 17 section “The Next Los Angeles,” which focused on creative solutions to some of this area’s problems.

Those comments, some of which are printed in today’s Readers Respond, indicate that many commuters are not looking for such long-term and expensive solutions as railway and subway systems. They want people movers, bicycle lanes, minivans and more motorcycles.

“You need more personalized solutions,” says Catherine Burke, an associate professor of public administration at USC. “Mass transit was for the 19th Century; it shaped cities. If heavy-duty rail systems would solve problems, New York would be paradise.”

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Burke, who calls building a railway system “an outrageous expenditure of public funds,” agrees that such low-tech solutions as minivans and bicycle lanes are good ideas if safety issues can be resolved. “I would open up public transit to private operators and allow people to develop things like minivans,” Burke says. “But you need to have some assurance that you are not going to be attacked on these minivans. If we could make it safe to ride a bicycle, that would be great.”

Orange County is experimenting to see if simpler solutions, such as transporting people to trains in smaller buses, will take more cars off the roads, says David Elbaum, director of planning and development for the county transportation authority. “Roads are always going to be the foundation to mobility,” Elbaum says. “They’re convenient and flexible. The key question is, ‘Do you invest in a rail system to prevent future congestion?’ ”

It’s a question that Los Angeles County has already settled. The MTA is spending $870 million annually, including debt service, on railway systems, including subways.

“The answer to people who don’t understand why we’re building this rail system is that we’re focusing on tomorrow,” White says. “The rail system we are building must be seen as a supplement to a highway and road system that will be unable to meet the demands of the future.”

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