Fixing public transit in L.A. requires both a carrot and a stick

The tough economy has taken its toll on Altadena resident Efrain Rojas. The freelance graphic artist has put his car in storage to save money and now takes public transportation everywhere.

Well, almost everywhere.

“There’s no practical way to get to West Los Angeles via public transit,” Rojas, 37, told me. “The amount of time it takes, it’s a soul-crushing experience. I’ve seen people literally break down and cry. So if I can avoid it, I don’t even go there.”

Yes, Southern California has a public-transit network. But is it anywhere close to what a region of nearly 22 million people requires to move workers, shoppers, visitors and others around an area of more than 45,000 square miles?


No way.

This is the third of a trio of columns on public transportation in the Southland. Last week, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told me he plans to follow up on my suggestions for boosting public-transit ridership.

Today I want to offer him and other local officials some ideas for improving bus and rail service over the short and long hauls. These aren’t politically easy solutions, and they’d require significant compromises on the part of businesses and commuters.

But big problems require big solutions. So let’s put some stuff on the table.

First of all, L.A. needs a world-class subway system — the sort of go-everywhere transit network found in places like New York, London and Tokyo. But we’ll never get it. It’s just too costly a proposition and would face too much opposition from self-serving (and well-lawyered) neighborhood interests.

So as a short-term fix for the region’s miserable traffic congestion, let’s supplement our existing rail lines with “virtual subways” on key surface roads during rush hours. For example, dedicate two lanes of Olympic Boulevard in both directions to create an east-west corridor for express, rapid and local buses — no cars allowed.

Couple that with dedicated bus lanes on Vermont Avenue for a north-south axis, and then interweave the two with local buses that would give other neighborhoods easy access.

Would this disrupt nearby neighborhoods and businesses? Without doubt. But the benefits of getting people out of their cars would almost certainly outweigh the hassles.

“If everybody made just one trip on public transit a week, we’d have about 20% less traffic on the roads,” said Jaime de la Vega, L.A.'s deputy mayor for transportation.

The trick, of course, is giving people a good reason to leave their cars at home. Convenient, timely and reasonably priced transit lines can do that.

Longer term, although I believe subways are best for metropolitan areas, L.A. would probably be best served by an elevated rail system — maybe a monorail, maybe something else. Elevated lines and stations are significantly cheaper to build than subways, and it would be relatively easy to begin with existing freeway routes.

For example, an elevated track could run down the center of the 405 to the 10, make its way downtown and then loop up the 101 back to the 405. Once that’s running, we build out from there. Getting a line to Los Angeles International Airport would be very high on my to-do list.

So how would we pay for a transit system that experts say would cost tens of billions of dollars? Here’s where the real pain starts.

Politicians love to tout the benefits of various transit schemes, mainly because it’s an easier sell to voters. In 2008, L.A. County voters approved Measure R as a way to remedy all sorts of transit woes with $40 billion raised through a half-cent sales tax.

But Measure R, while representing a big step forward for public transportation with its rail extensions and other projects, had it all backward. The trick to raising revenue isn’t just to offer a carrot to drivers. It’s to also offer a stick.

“The carrot alone is not very effective,” said Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies. “We need to adjust the incentives we now have that make driving artificially attractive.”

Politicians won’t tell you this, but here’s what a lot of experts think: Public transit will thrive only if it’s funded primarily by higher gas taxes, higher parking fees and higher car-registration fees.

Measure R’s sales tax hit up everyone. Instead, we need to focus on those who stand to benefit most from improved transit systems — drivers — while simultaneously creating incentives not to drive.

Congestion pricing is another piece of the puzzle. This is a method being experimented with or considered by major cities worldwide. The way it works is that prices to use highways or to enter high-traffic areas vary throughout the day.

An L.A. driver might not have to pay anything to use the 405 late at night. But it might cost a buck or two during rush hour. Similarly, you might have to cough up a little scratch if you head into downtown during work hours.

There are different ways to enforce such a system. My suggestion would be to require installation of transponders in vehicles as part of the registration process. Those transponders would tell transit authorities when you’re entering and leaving highways and high-density areas. You’d be billed monthly or have congestion costs deducted from your bank account.

I know: This raises privacy issues. But some toll roads already use such technology, and your cellphone is broadcasting your whereabouts pretty much every second of the day. This wouldn’t change things much.

Also, a crucial part of the equation would be to set up a lockbox-type deal whereby all funds raised by these taxes and fees would go solely toward transit improvement, and not get squandered on politicians’ pet projects.

Once we start building out a serious transit system, we also want to zone appropriately to create higher-density hubs near stations. Public transportation works best when lots of people live and work near the system. We can give developers a financial nudge to help make this happen.

It’s pretty simple. We can continue with how things are until we’ve achieved total gridlock. Or we can finally take steps to improve our public-transit infrastructure, offer realistic alternatives to traveling by car, and make Southern California vastly more livable and eco-friendly.

Shoot me an e-mail and let me know where you stand. Better yet, let the mayor know too by cc’ing him at

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