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Opinion

Column: Don’t widen any more freeways. Just make buses better

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A map of the Metro Rapid 720 route is displayed at the bus stop at Wilshire and Western on June 7, 2011.
(Los Angeles Times)

El Camino Real, the steamers that whipped around Cape Horn during the Gold Rush, the Big Four, I-5, Uber — all are testaments to California’s obsession with cutting down on travel time. Every generation has hailed a new savior for our traffic woes, only to eventually complain about it. I’m sure even Father Serra at some point cursed PCH at rush hour between Ventura and Santa Barbara.

And here we go again. Orange County just started a multibillion-dollar expansion of the 405 Freeway, a year after Riverside County finished widening the 91. Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties are building a brand-new highway to connect Victorville to Lancaster and Palmdale. Metro plans a massive rail expansion in anticipation of the 2028 Olympics, and more lanes on the 710. Even Santa Ana wants to build a trolley to go through its downtown, although that project is less about moving people around and more about gentrifying out the area’s last remaining Mexicans.

We all want traffic to drop, so let’s accept the one solution that could actually work. Let’s get on the bus.

None of these efforts will alleviate traffic or make commutes faster. We just love our cars too darn much; we’ll fill up those freeways as fast as you expand them.

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A recent study by UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies revealed that between 2000 and 2015, car ownership in Southern California grew from 1.7 autos per household to 2.4 — even as urban planners force-fed us alternatives. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s felt like a goose getting gavaged.

Of course we all want traffic to drop, so let’s accept the one solution that could actually work. Let’s get on the bus. No, seriously: It’s not Elon Musk’s hyperloop or the Jetsons’ flying car that could become our best congestion-killer, but the hulking, humble mule of mass transit.

I say this at a time when buses are increasingly unloved. Riders are ditching them. New Urbanists prefer the glamour of light rail. Metro’s figures show that bus ridership is down 20% since 2013, while figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation show a 13% decline nationwide from 2007 to 2017. Fewer riders means agencies offer fewer lines, which means those affected find other options and use buses even less — and this vicious cycle never stops.

But buses are our most workable answer. The infrastructure is already there. A bunch of them are already on the road, whether used by public agencies or private companies. This means that investing in buses is far cheaper than building and sustaining new rail systems or highways. More importantly, buses aren’t on fixed paths, allowing for flexibility as commuting or even population patterns change.

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All we need now is a holistic approach that incorporates individual, business and government efforts to take on a future that increasingly looks like the Sepulveda Pass around 5:15 in the afternoon.

Obviously the problem remains that we just love our cars too darn much. Demonizing drivers won’t help. Mileage taxes are Orwellian, and banning gas-powered cars will hurt poor people the most. San Francisco-area Assemblyman Phil Ting has proposed a bill to do the latter by 2040; Ting can pry my 1979 Ford Ranger Supercab with dual tanks from my cold, dead hands.

Better to abandon the stick and try the carrot — let’s improve the bus experience. Here are some ideas.

* Think of the dedicated lane Metro runs from Union Station to Dodger Stadium during baseball season. Big cities can designate bus-only lanes during rush hour on their most-crowded streets; Caltrans can do the same with carpool lanes (used by only 10% of Californians, by the way).

* Encourage businesses to promote buses among their workers through tax breaks — businesses always love tax breaks!

* The state could invest in a multitiered fleet: short buses that pick up passengers at or near home and drop them off at depots that connect to bigger buses. And mighty double-deckers for statewide travel. All that land bought for the high-speed rail? Lay asphalt on it, and give it over to buses. Same with the old Pacific Electric right-of-way.

Get on a bus and imagine the possibilities. I did last week. I hadn’t taken one in years, so I didn’t know what to expect when I boarded the OCTA’s 47 line to get from Santa Ana to Costa Mesa and back. Just $5 for an all-day pass. Crowded at first with high schoolers, mothers and senior citizens, all devoted to their smartphones. The ride lasted 40 minutes, twice the time it would take by car. There’s the rub — but with innovation, that can get fixed.

This leads me to a non sequitur: Why did the urban planners who created our current transportation morass during the 1950s through the 1970s build only puny three-lane highways with no rail option down the middle, a la the 105’s Green Line? Did they really think the California population wouldn’t get any bigger during their lifetimes? Let’s not be shortsighted like them. Let’s focus on a superior, statewide bus system until Musk finally figures out teleportation.

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mexicanwithglasses@gmail.com

Twitter: @gustavoArellano

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