Sunday, July 20, 2008

Mass Transit: California and Los Angeles

EDIT: Thought I'd quickly add a cool link I found with information about metropolitan rail systems around the world. Has info on their history and the present day states of the system. Did you know that the first Metro rail system was the London Tube, which started operation in 1863? (!!)

As a follow up to my last post, I thought I'd talk a bit about transit issues specific to California and Los Angeles, in particular.

As for state-wide service, check this out: A high-speed rail (220 MPH trains!) system that will eventually extend from San Diego through Riverside and Los Angeles and San Francisco all the way to Sacramento. A trip from downtown L.A. to San Diego would cost $35 and take 1 hour and 20 minutes. A trip between L.A. and San Francisco would cost $55 and take 2 hours and 40 minutes. And we can vote to approve it in November's election! I'm glad that California government is taking the lead in trying to make this state more European in dealing with high gas prices and making long-range high speed rail transit more commonplace than it is today. I only hope the rest of the population will see the benefits that such systems can bring to their children and their grandchildren, instead of leaving their descendants to deal with the rising national debt we are incurring, and the environmental impacts we are causing, by continuing to rely on personal transport and fossil fuels.

In Los Angeles, public transit is a challenge. The city is a sprawl, with a huge number of people living in the San Fernando Valley, the west side, Santa Monica, Hollywood, East L.A., Pasadena, South Central, the South Bay, Long Beach, etc. L.A. Metro has a very difficult problem ahead of them: they are trying to expand and improve their network of rail and bus lines across a huge urban and suburban sprawl. Subways and trains are fast, reliable, and can keep to their schedules without having to worry about traffic throughout the day. Everyone would love a train that goes straight from their house to their job, but obviously we can only have so many rail lines. They are expensive to build, especially in areas where the region to be developed into a rail line is privately owned.

The regions that are too far from a rail station (most of the county) are served by buses. I can say from experience that the local versions of these buses are simply not worth it if you have access to a car. You will waste 15 to 20 minutes waiting at the bus stop (they are rarely able to hold to the schedule), and they make so many stops that you could almost always make the trip much faster in your car. And if you are only traveling ~5 miles or so, the distance over which you’d likely want to use a local bus, it’d be much easier to use a car.

Over longer distances, the “rapid” lines become quite useful. These are usually larger, articulating buses that make fewer stops along their route, allowing them to get you from one place to another much faster than a local bus. I use a rapid line to get from UCLA to my condo in Sherman Oaks.

L.A. Metro really is trying to make improvements and expand service. But of course, we only notice the little problems, and take the good things about the service for granted. The fact that the buses are not able to arrive and depart on the scheduled timetable does not really surprise me: the buses are subject to the same traffic fluctuations and stoplights that cars are. We can’t expect the buses to arrive within minutes of the time on the schedule; especially when it’s near the end of that bus’ route.

What I would love to see is something like Chicago has. A way for people to tell how long until the next bus arrives at the bus stop. Something that is accessible by cellphone would be great. Anything accessible online would work as well. If I could know how long before the bus will actually arrive at the bus stop BEFORE I leave my house or office, I could save a lot of time that I am currently wasting waiting at the bus stop, not knowing whether or not I have time to sit down and work on my laptop, or whether there is a bus coming within a couple of minutes.

The rail system in L.A. is actually very effective (see map above), but if you don't live near a rail station, it is useless to you. The entire west side of L.A. is not served by a rail system. The purple line (a subway) currently goes from downtown to Wilshire and Western, and it will eventually be extended all the way to Santa Monica. That will be great when it's finished, as it will take lots of car congestion off of Wilshire, Santa Monica Blvd., and I-10. But that is probably 10-15 years out. . . and I can not imagine having to deal with all the legal issues and property owners underneath and along Wilshire Blvd.

The MTA has a long term plan, and it is moving in the right direction, but I hope that the recent rises in gas cost will inspire some political motivation to inject even more money into the transit system here. This could be an even greater city if public transit were fast, affordable, and efficient. I don't expect that people will be able to live here easily without cars anytime soon, but reducing car usage by a large amount (as in, the ability to commute to work without using your car) would be a significant and attainable goal.

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