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There's only one fix for L.A.'s traffic nightmare — we all have to pay up

There's only one fix for L.A.'s traffic nightmare — we all have to pay up
Passengers wait for the bus in Maywood. (Los Angeles Times)

Twenty-five years after the first modern subway train rolled into Los Angeles, traffic is horrible, billions of dollars are being invested in more public transit, and ridership has been declining for years.

Robert Gatica, 24, offers a clue as to what's going on.

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I met him on Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles, where he peddles phones to people on their way in or out of the county social services office. Gatica makes about $100 a day, which is $25,000 a year — just enough for him to have bought the faded 20-year-old van that was parked near his sidewalk booth.

How much? I asked.

"One thousand dollars," said Gatica. "A friend was trying to sell it for his mother, and he knew I wanted a car."

That was a few months ago, and Gatica, a Metro user since he was 3 or 4, became a driver instead. He said his commute from his home in Huntington Park has been cut by more than an hour.

"People feel stranded without a car," said Gatica, and as we spoke, a guy named Joe Camacho approached and offered his take on why some people have peeled away from buses and trains.

"It's a function of not feeling safe," said Camacho, a filmmaker who owns a car but said he often prefers transit when he can conveniently get to his destinations from his home in the Arts District. "I've had to step in myself, when I saw guys harassing women."

The Blue Line, L.A.'s first modern light rail line, opens in 1990.
The Blue Line, L.A.'s first modern light rail line, opens in 1990. (Los Angeles Times)

Fewer transit riders

Security concerns are on a long list of theories about sharply declining ridership on Metropolitan Transportation Authority and other transit agencies, as my colleague Laura Nelson reported Thursday. Other factors include lower gas prices, a slightly improved economy, the rise of ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft and the availability of driver's licenses for immigrants in the country illegally. But a UCLA study said the biggest factor may be a surge in vehicle ownership, and over a 15-year period, the number of immigrant households without a car plummeted by 42%.

I went to East L.A. because the 18 and 720 bus lines, which run along Whittier Boulevard on the way to the center of Los Angeles, have seen particularly sharp ridership declines. I met bus riders like Maria Ceja, who does not own a car, loves Metro and prefers to avoid shelling out money for gas, insurance and parking fees.

But nearby Atlantic Boulevard is practically a used-car flea market, with dealerships everywhere promising great bargains, financing and even insurance. Further to the west is East L.A. Auto Sales, where $500 down gets you a used car and insurance is as low as $14.95 a month.

Cars did not appear to be flying off any of these lots, despite the low prices, and salesmen told me business is flat. This made me wonder if people are leasing new cars rather than buying old ones, so I drove to Downey Nissan, where marketing director Rebeca Galvan told me about a promotion that seems to be a hit with first-time car owners.

The dealership is targeting ride-hailing drivers in a lease deal, she said. For $169 down and $169 a month for three years, plus taxes and license fees, you can drive away with a 2017 Sentra that pays for itself.

"They drive to their jobs in the daytime," ditching buses and trains, Galvan said. "And then they work as Uber and Lyft drivers at night."

Falling Metro ridership.
Falling Metro ridership. (Los Angeles Times)

The bus is the ‘workhorse of transit’

This is great for people who have long dreamed of having their own vehicles in the sprawling metropolis. In December 2013, I traveled with a Bell Gardens woman, Carmen Mendoza, who rode as many as nine buses in each direction every day to get her kids to school and herself to work. A reader donated a van to Mendoza. She still has it, and when I checked with her last week, she said owning a vehicle has greatly simplified her life.

Given stories like these, a quarter-century after the first subway opened for business, is all of our voter-approved, multibillion-dollar investment in transit a mistake?

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Not at all.

Imagine what traffic would be like without hundreds of thousands of people riding buses and rail every day.

The problem isn't that mass transit hasn't worked in Los Angeles, but that we built a system decades ago, tore it up, dragged our feet, started to build again but have a long, long way to go.

Mike Manville, who did the ridership study for UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies, said Metro was originally designed "to provide mobility for people who couldn't afford cars."

But as more people get cars, Metro needs to compete by offering greater convenience to more people, and that means improving and increasing bus service along with the long-promised rail expansion.

"The bus right now is overwhelmingly the workhorse of transit in Southern California and it will be for a long time," said Manville. "You can't just focus on rail, because our bus riders need improvement and relief as well, and the most obvious thing is that on some bus routes, buses need dedicated lanes."

Agreed, but let's think even bigger, because a serious, built-out, more efficient transit system will deliver ridership increases, not decreases.

We need more clean-energy buses and we need them to run more frequently in every direction, so that taking the bus isn't slower than riding a mule.

We need a dozen more busways like the Orange Line, even if it means converting thoroughfares now monopolized by cars.

Metro is finally, after years of unforgivable delay and dunderheaded planning, headed to the Los Angeles International Airport. The long-promised Wilshire Boulevard subway is coming, and the subway to the sea — or at least to the marine layer — is on the books.

Old Pacific Electric Railway Red Cars sit at a junkyard in 1956 before they were dismantled for scrap metal. The rail system was replaced by buses and freeways.
Old Pacific Electric Railway Red Cars sit at a junkyard in 1956 before they were dismantled for scrap metal. The rail system was replaced by buses and freeways. (Los Angeles Times Archive / UCLA)

Lessons from ‘Roger Rabbit’

But those should be looked at as starting points, not the finish line, especially when we're all sitting alone in our cars, wasting the hours of our lives and pushing poison into the clouds.

And guess what, this is going to cost money. A ton of it.

Where to get it?

I like the idea of the bullet train, but if billions of dollars were to become available, is that money better spent on Gov. Jerry Brown's imagination or on California cities crippled by traffic?

Here's an idea that has never won me any friends, but I like congestion pricing, which discourages driving at peak hours by charging a fee. And the money gets dumped into transit.

As more people drive, we need to give them better reasons not to.

Public transit? Make it cheaper, or maybe even free.

As Eddie Valiant said to Judge Doom in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" — the classic 'toon's take on L.A.'s transportation planning follies:

"Nobody's gonna drive this lousy freeway when they can take the Red Car for a nickel."

Get more of Steve Lopez's work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez

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