A tough sell for public transit

It’s hard to appreciate how truly pitiful our public transportation system is until you spend some time with a system that works.

Over the course of two weeks in Japan, I rode just about every form of public transit imaginable -- bullet trains, express trains, commuter trains, subways, street cars, monorails and buses. Nearly every ride was smooth, on schedule and affordable.

The only glitch came when a major thunderstorm forced one train I was taking through the mountains of Kyushu to be delayed for safety reasons. Anguished railway employees repeatedly apologized for the inconvenience and said there’d be no charge for the remainder of the trip.


So I have to wonder: Is it possible we could ever have anything even remotely similar here?

“It can happen,” said Martin Wachs, director of transportation, space and technology for Rand Corp. in Santa Monica. “But it will only happen over a long period of time and will require a number of policy changes.”

Specifically, it won’t be enough to just lay down lots of track and hope people will leap aboard trains and subways. You also have to discourage the use of cars -- which most Americans won’t stand for -- and make our cities considerably less comfortable.

Good luck with that.

Los Angeles County is attempting to improve its public transportation with tax money from Measure R, which was approved by voters in November. The half-cent sales tax increase is intended to raise as much as $40 billion for a laundry list of projects, including a long-awaited “Subway to the Sea.”

However, sales tax revenue is way down because of the crappy economy, and it’s an open question when work will begin on many of the projects on the Measure R wish list -- and where the money will be found to finish that work once it gets started.

California faces similar funding issues now that voters have approved Proposition 1A, which allows the state to borrow nearly $10 billion to get the ball rolling on a high-speed rail line between Southern California and the Bay Area.

The planned 800-mile system would, in fact, cost tens of billions of dollars more than that. How much more, nobody knows for sure.

Similar projects are planned or have been proposed nationwide.

Brian Taylor, director of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies, said the hardest part isn’t constructing the infrastructure for a world-class public transit system. It’s creating the necessary incentives to get Americans out of their cars.

“We now keep the cost of driving as cheap as we possibly can,” Taylor said. “As long as we do that, we won’t be able to make public transportation work.”

He said investments in transit projects need to be accompanied by policies designed to make driving costlier and thus make public transportation more attractive.

These policies include significantly higher charges for parking virtually wherever you go and the increased use of toll roads.

New York demonstrates the viability of this notion. Who’d even consider the hassles of driving and parking in Manhattan when you can take the subway instead?

Taylor also believes that gas taxes need to go way up, with much of the money used to fund transit resources. Higher prices at the pump could be offset by a modest reduction in sales taxes.

The net result, he said, would be more limited use of cars for everyday activities and increased ridership of public transportation, which, in turn, would help generate revenue for additional transit projects.

This is a big part of the formula that the Japanese used for their system and also is the one pursued by most European countries.

“If we don’t put these policies in place here, people will look at our current investment in public transportation 10 years down the line and say what a waste it was,” Taylor said. “And then we’ll start investing again in roads.”

David Boyce, an adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University, said another key piece of the puzzle is land use. Americans prefer low-density communities and large lots for their homes.

This may be swell from a quality-of-life perspective, but it’s an enormous challenge for public transportation, which requires relatively large numbers of people moving from point A to point B on a daily basis to be profitable.

To address this, Boyce said, construction of new rail networks must be accompanied by a commitment to higher-density cities and suburbs in the form of more condos and apartment buildings near transit hubs.

It also requires dense clusters of office buildings and retail outlets that represent the jobs and stores people want to reach.

The way things currently stand, jobs and homes are spread so far and wide, it’s almost impossible to imagine getting around many metropolitan areas without a car. As a result, public transit is perceived by many people as impractical and inconvenient.

“It’s not a lost cause,” Boyce said. “We can turn this around. But we need to address land-use issues if we’re going to do it.”

I hate to be cynical, but I simply can’t imagine political leaders at the local, state or federal level telling voters that they support a big increase in gas taxes, sky-high parking fees and high-density neighborhoods.

So don’t hold your breath for a public transportation system that rivals what our friends abroad enjoy. It’s not going to happen -- at least not until a majority of us agree that we’re prepared to accept the trade-offs necessary to bring about such a wholesale change in how we live and travel.

Until then, we’ll always have Paris.

And Tokyo.


David Lazarus’ column runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to