Mass Appeal: LA’s New Embrace of Public Transit

MTA

Photo: The Port of Authority/Wikipedia

When my parents started to work longer and longer hours to support their five kids, they sat me down and told me I had to start taking the bus to school. At 11 years old, this was the best news I could have imagined. Yes, I had to wake up at 6 a.m. to get ready for school and catch the 212 and 33 bus lines, but that sense of independence I got from being able to “roam” around the city was priceless. (Well, almost…if you don’t include the price of a bus pass.) I learned to take the bus to Hollywood, the Montebello Mall, Santa Monica — places that seemed so far away from home in South LA. 

It wasn’t always fun, of course: I have many memories of sitting at the La Brea/Venice bus bench for 45 minutes trying to catch the Line 212 after a long school day. I eventually learned to cope by reading a lot, getting homework done and daydreaming. When bus rides turned into two-hour voyages home, the bus became my second “hangout spot” for me and my friends—the “bus crew.” We did “girl talk,” discussed politics and music and practically ran a mobile-tutoring lab in the back of the bus.

The thing is, when you grow up poor, the idea of taking public transit is a no-brainer. I learned very early that driving was a privilege, and that taking public transit was the only way I would be able to go to school and eventually get to work.

ridership

Source: Move LA

While mass transit was a necessity for me and many other working-class people of color, the service wasn’t exactly stellar. How I dreamed of one day being able to get around on a subway, like in D.C or New York, or taking the bus to the beach without having to crowd around with 50 other people wanting to do the same thing. I always wondered why public transit was so neglected by elected officials and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Agency itself. Was it because most of those who depended on it were poor folks and people of color?

The limited mobility options of working people of color was what initially drove me to urban planning, where I eventually ended up many years later. But the million-dollar question has always been: what is it going to take for everyone in L.A. to care about investing in public transit?

la ridership

Source: Move LA

Similar to the economy, people really begin paying attention to the issue when it starts to affect their own wallets. With wages stagnating and prices at the pump increasing by the day, funding public transit became not just a concern for poor people but for all Angelenos. Since 2007, gas prices have been steadily increasing and I can’t remember the last time I paid under $3 for a gallon of gas (full disclosure: I do have a car on “retainer” that I occasionally drive…since after all, it is L.A.). Was this the wake-up call L.A. needed?

That seems to be the case.

new survey of Southern California voters sponsored by Move LA, Natural Resources Defense Council and the American Lung Association in CA found that 80% of respondents supported local government expanding public transit — which includes trains, buses and light rail.

What I found most surprising was the response to this question: Which of the following do you think should be the highest priority for future investments to improve transportation in Southern California? Nearly two-thirds (66%) of voters surveyed indicated that the “highest priority for future investments to improve transportation in Southern California” should be the “expansion of public transportation, including trains, buses and light rail.” Only 29% of respondents actually mentioned the expansion of roads and freeways as a priority.

jackie cornejoWith budgets tightening in cities across the country, I am still concerned about how we’re going to pay for expanded public transit and keep the service running (Metro recently had to scale back a lot of bus service). But I’m still optimistic about Angelenos and residents across Southern California finally changing their attitudes towards public transit. And with Metro rolling out a plan to modernize our transit system with 12 bus rapid transit, light rail and subway lines, we seem to going in the right direction.

Jackie Cornejo
LAANE, Research/Policy Analyst

Jackie Cornejo is a research and policy analyst for the Construction Careers Project at LAANE.

Republished with permission from The Frying Pan.

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Comments

  1. says

    As someone who spent a lot of years living in New York City, I find all conversations about transportation in LA somewhat strange. I find it strange when people complain about traffic. They act as though traffic is some outside force that can be fixed somehow to allow us to get somewhere faster in our cars. People don’t seem to understand that they are complaining about a problem they are causing. And that only by reducing our use of cars can we do something about traffic.

    But I also find it somewhat strange to read a piece like yours, which sees public transportation as something that only poor people use. After you live somewhere where almost everyone, even the well-off, use the subway or bus or commuter train to get to work, it sounds odd to think of public transportation, as we do in LA, as something you would only take if you can’t afford a car. We have to get over that attitude somehow.

  2. says

    Thanks for this article.

    There is one thing that is sometimes better for our shared environment and social costs than switching from private to public transit – and that is to switch to less or no transit at all. If I were a consistent long-distance commuter (to work or to cultural or other events) from here in Long Beach to, say, downtown LA, I would use public transit a lot – but I am happier to be able to largely avoid such commuting and to typically find sufficient other fulfillments far closer to home.

    So my preferred personal solution to transit problems is to avoid or reduce need for transit altogether. If I do have to get somewhere reasonably fast, I usually drive. And that behavior not so different from what a practical comprehensive real-time real-place transit system – taking you anytime in reasonable time from any desired point A to any other point B in the LA Basin – would call for. That behavior can use the existing infrastructure, and can be quite environmentally benign if it uses gas-efficient or electric autos, especially if in carpooling. And it works especially well for excursions involving baggage-tote or massive shopping.

    Like many folk who do as I do, I do indeed support multi-mode public transit – because it is backup insurance transport and because its use by others means less-clogged freeways and streets. And yes, when I have leisure and want to relax while rapidly moving, nothing beats a train ride.

  3. Nate says

    Yep ;

    I too enjoyed the freedom provided by riding the bus all over New England in the 1960′s , scary at times but also a valuable learning experience and I still love taking to the open road to experience new places .

    I often take the local bus when I’m far from home and visiting because you get to meet the real people and see the actual pace you’re visiting .

    -Nate

  4. Ross S. Heckmann says

    Thanks for your article, Jackie, I too am glad to see public attitudes shifting in favor of mass transit. People don’t realize what there missing by taking public transit. It tends to slower and can be more inconvenient, but as you have written if you make the best of it it provides a much more enriching experience than the immediate gratification and thoughtlessness that attends using your own car 100% of the time. If the vehicle in which you are traveling is not too jammed, you can also pray & read the Bible while taking public transit–there are very few quiet times & places and this can be one of them. Maybe slow travel (mass transit) is to fast travel, as slow food is to fast food.

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