Fixes needed for L.A. public transit system

I knew Tuesday’s column on public transportation would get a big reaction from frustrated commuters. But I wasn’t expecting the message that was waiting for me that afternoon on my voice mail:

“The mayor is trying to reach you. He wants to speak with you.”

And that’s how I found myself in City Hall the next day sitting at a big table opposite Jaime de la Vega, the deputy mayor for transportation. We spent nearly two hours discussing and arguing about ways to make public transit more attractive and practical for Los Angeles residents.

And, as if on cue, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called in just as De la Vega and I were getting into it over the financial feasibility of the mayor’s much-ballyhooed “30/10" plan to do 30 years’ worth of transit development in just a decade.

Villaraigosa apologized that he couldn’t be there in person — he had an event he had to attend. And then I figured he was going to lower the boom and tell me I had a lot of nerve criticizing the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority for lacking a vision to expand ridership.

But no.

“I just wanted you to know that I thought your column really hit it on the head,” Villaraigosa said. “We do need to increase ridership. I’m going to have my folk get together to address the things you brought up.”

He didn’t go much deeper than that, but there it is. And I plan to hold the mayor to his pledge.

So let’s look more closely at what we’re up against — and what might be done over both the short and long hauls to improve a situation that many L.A. commuters might think is unfixable.

As I wrote on Tuesday, a number of regional transit systems, including the MTA, plan to jack up fares this summer. But all that will do is reach deeper into the pockets of those who already ride buses and rail lines.

Longer term, the trick to boosting revenue isn’t demanding more cash from existing riders. It’s getting more people to ride public transit.

To do that, we need to look beyond those who already choose to travel by bus and rail, and those who have no choice. We need to attract casual riders who do have a choice but who might be willing to leave the car at home one or two weeks a month.

De la Vega and I agreed that convenience is key — and recent studies by the Southern California Assn. of Governments back this up. Their surveys found that convenience is the leading concern for local commuters, followed by travel time, cost and being able to easily switch from one transit system to another.

The problem, of course, is that the region’s public transit network is pathetically inconvenient, especially for those who might have more than one stop to make during the day or who have to get somewhere in a relatively timely fashion.

For this reason, three-quarters of local residents drive alone in their cars to get around town, according to the Southern California Assn. of Governments. Thirteen percent carpool or drive with others, and a meager 12% use public transit.

Compare that with New York, where a majority of workers (55%) use public transit every day, according to census figures. That percentage is 37% in Washington, D.C., 31% in San Francisco and Boston, and 27% in Chicago and Philadelphia.

“We want to grow ridership,” De la Vega told me. “That’s clearly a good thing. The challenge is that when we add more service, we don’t always see an increase in riders.”

Which brings us back to the vision thing. Incredibly, we have no regional transit authority or czar dedicated to expanding ridership in Southern California, arguably the most car-happy place in the country. Instead, we have dozens of city- and county-run transit systems competing with one another for a limited pool of transit funding and revenue.

There are complex and costly issues at play here, no question. But the bottom line is that precious little effort is being made on a coordinated basis to sell a product to a more-than-willing customer base. (The fact that 67% of L.A. voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase in 2008 to fund transit projects tells us that people hereabouts really do want public transit to work.)

So Job One: Put someone in charge already. The head of the MTA seems the most likely choice, but perhaps other system operators would prefer a more neutral party. Whatever. The most important thing is that someone be responsible for presenting commuters throughout Southern California with a regional approach to public transit.

Next up (and these are the easy fixes): Offer commuters daily, weekly and monthly passes good for all local transit systems, and make those passes available at all supermarkets, post offices and other locations. People won’t know how viable public transit might be unless they give it a try. Let’s make that as easy as possible.

And let’s create online resources that can crunch all the variables of getting people from Point A to Point B and come up with the best possible route and itinerary. There are such resources available — the MTA offers a decent trip planner — but they could be a whole lot more user-friendly and intuitive.

What about the bigger picture? Next week I’ll outline some ways we could — if we had the political courage and a willing public — make things a good deal better relatively soon and infinitely better in years ahead.

David Lazarus’ column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to