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Don’t lead or follow, just get out of the way

Times Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES, as we all know, is a city on the move -- except when we’re all trying to get somewhere, like to work or home.

Let’s face it, in the last 10 years we’ve gone from being the most mobile people on earth to being a populace in park. This great civilization whose grand processional boulevard -- Wilshire -- was the first ever designed specifically to accommodate the automobile is in full decline-and-fall mode and we’re all in denial. We’re strangling on traffic, and the best people can do is trade “surface street routes” to the Westside as if they were atomic secrets or try to convince themselves that they don’t actually mind their hideous commute because it gives them more time to spend with “All Things Considered.”

Worse yet, people once again have started nodding their heads when one or another dough-faced urban planner from the Institute for a Joyless Future or some pol with lots of contractor friends starts talking up another public transit project.

Well, I’ve been to that dance before and this time count me out.

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Not the real me, but the archetypal me -- the native Southern Californian and nearly lifelong Angeleno, who believes that when Jefferson wrote the words “pursuit of happiness” he had in mind something with leather seats and a little snap. What this archetypal me objects to is that transit projects never seem to accomplish what really needs to be done, which is to get other people out of their cars so that mine can take me where I want to go -- fast.

We all know this region and, particularly, this city have reached what the too-easily-influenced nowadays insist on calling a tipping point. We’re about to move from congestion to paralysis. Just try and get from Santa Monica to Pasadena in the middle of the day. At any given moment, the Westside is just a Lexus, two BMW SUVs and a Hummer away from total gridlock.

You know why that freeway is really called the 405? Because no matter where you’re going or when, it takes you four or five hours to get there. If Dante were writing the “Inferno” today, he’d ring hell with our highways.

Traffic horror stories even have begun to rival real estate as a topic of casual conversation ... “If we had bought in Mid-Wilshire in ’92" giving way to “That damn Grove has turned Beverly into a parking lot.” Actually, the two preoccupations have begun to merge. The reason people suddenly are willing to pay almost anything for a decent house has less to do with low interest rates than it does with their secret fear that, pretty soon, they won’t be able to get out their driveway.

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Public transit could cure all this, if only other people would use it.

Actually, Los Angeles already has two public transit systems, one of them full and one of them pretty much empty. The one that’s full is the bus system. Its riders are mostly people who can’t afford a car or -- for one reason or another -- can’t operate one. They’re people with no choice. Now, lots of smart people will tell you that modern, high-tech buses are the only form of public transportation that makes sense in a sprawling city like Los Angeles. The fact is, though, that buses are transit’s equivalent of the Toyota Corolla. They may be functional wonders, but the only hearts that race at the sight of them are covered by pocket protectors.

The other transit system looks like public transportation should -- light, heavy or subterranean, it runs on rails. It has stations and not just “stops.” It’s really expensive, so it should appeal to people with a choice, but the problem is that most of them still don’t choose to use it.

Ignore the MTA’s ridership numbers. When it comes to fiddling the books, those guys are the WorldCom of public agencies. The subway cost billions, but -- so far -- its major achievement has been to save Langer’s Deli by putting America’s best pastrami within convenient reach of the downtown lunch crowd.

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People have all sorts of explanations for this, but only two count:

One is that our transit system is a system in name only. What it most resembles is a defective connect-the-dots picture -- lines running from one point to another, but never meeting to form something intelligible -- or convenient. If Gertrude Stein had been forced to ride the MTA, she’d have concluded that there is no there there, or here.

Try to get somewhere you really need to go on one of them and, suddenly, a traffic jam doesn’t look all that inconvenient.

But the real reason so much of our most expensive public transit goes unused is because it’s public. Los Angeles is all about private -- private lives in private homes and private cars. To a real Angeleno, public transportation has all the charms of public baths. In fact, for about a generation we’ve been extending our home’s amenities into our cars: first decent climate control systems, then real stereos, then telephones and, now, cup holders. It’s all there, the rudiments of a seamlessly private life, plus the freedom to go where you want, whenever you want to do it.

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At least it used to be. Sometime around 1990, things began going to hell. Orange County slipped out of reach. A trip to Ventura and back suddenly became an all-day agony. Those of us who remember when you could leave downtown at 7 and easily make dinner in Santa Monica by 7:30 want that back because we’re Southern Californians, and we’re entitled to it.

The only new transit proposal that’s going to get my support is the one that makes all those other people understand how much better off I’ll be, if they get out of my way.


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