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Memo to MTA Board: Be Bold, Be Bold, and Everywhere be Bold!

By Frank Gruber

According to something I could only have read online in "The Onion: America's Finest News Source," 98 percent of Americans favor mass transportation for everyone else.

If you are familiar with "The Onion," you know that it is not likely their data had been subjected to peer review. But the logic of the article was dead on. Anyone who drives congested streets and freeways should demand improvements in public transportation -- for everyone else.

The reason is simple. People who say they "must drive" have the greatest incentive to reduce the number of other cars on the road.

When thinking about public transportation, this principle is crucial. What works best for transit users, works best for drivers. Watering down transit projects, whether for budget reasons or to accommodate the perceived needs of motorists, is always disastrous, as the history of mass transit in Los Angeles shows.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) will soon decide what kind of public transit system it will build on the Westside. This is a huge decision -- probably the most important for the area that any governmental agency will make this year.

The MTA will make its decision after a long process and the digestion of myriad details, a process that is often inscrutable. The most recent step along the way, and one of the most important, was the recent release by the MTA and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) of a 500-page draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) analyzing the costs and impacts of three alternative systems.

One alternative is to build a "bus rapid transit" (BRT) system, consisting of dedicated bus lanes, on Wilshire Boulevard from downtown Santa Monica to the western terminus of the Red Line at Western Avenue. The MTA Board has already determined that the the Wilshire BRT is its first priority -- meaning, that if the MTA builds any public transit system on the Westside, it will include the Wilshire BRT.

The other two alternatives under consideration are to build along with the Wilshire BRT either a BRT system from Santa Monica to downtown L.A., mostly along the Exposition right-of-way, or a light rail transit (LRT) system along the same route.

Obviously, since Santa Monica is the western terminus of all these systems, the ultimate decision will be extremely important to the city.

I cannot summarize the whole of the EIR in this column, but it is worth considering a few facts it brings to light. The "study area" for the project, which consists of everything west of downtown L.A., south of Sunset, and north of Manchester, Florence and Slauson, has the highest population density in the region (approximately 14,000 per square mile) and the highest rate of transit use (8 percent of all trips, and almost 14 percent of rush-hour trips).

The population of the study area, and the number of jobs, will increase roughly 20 percent by 2020. There are no plans for major roadway improvements. As roads currently operate largely at capacity at peak periods, transit improvements are the only available means to maintain mobility.

Transit improvements can make a difference. Even a small decrease in the number of cars on the roads can significantly reduce traffic. Anyone who remembers how smoothly traffic on the freeways flowed during the 1984 Olympics knows that even unfounded fears of massive congestion can scare off enough motorists to improve traffic dramatically.

A lot of people use transit. The Wilshire Boulevard/Whittier route alone sees 102,000 bus boardings a day. This compares impressively with the number of vehicles on the Santa Monica Freeway -- about 300,000 per day. There is huge potential for increasing the number of transit users. Merely implementing the improved Metro Rapid bus service on Wilshire Boulevard has increased ridership 27 percent in one year.

Yet, in the tradition of Los Angeles, the anxieties of motorists threaten to whittle down the effectiveness of any plan the MTA will consider, which would result in a system that will not deliver what we need: a transit alternative that is good enough to attract riders who would otherwise drive.

For instance, the original plan for the Wilshire BRT called for running the dedicated bus lanes down the middle of the street, where they can travel fastest. But in part because people objected to how this plan eliminates many left turns, the transit agencies are now considering two plans that move the bus lanes out of the median.

Just as cross traffic slowed and then doomed the old Red Cars, allowing more left turns by private automobiles will slow down the buses, and defeat the purpose of the project.

Similarly, to preserve two lanes of private traffic in each direction, the proposed transit projects would remove street parking, and in certain places would narrow sidewalks. But street parking provides an important buffer for pedestrians, and narrow sidewalks are not compatible with the the pedestrian-friendly environment people want on their boulevards.

As an example, if the BRT or LRT operates on dedicated lanes on Sepulveda, the street will lose parking and the sidewalks will be narrowed to eight feet. The alternative is to have the buses or trams operate in traffic, but that will drastically reduce their speed.

The better alternative is to bite the bullet and reduce private traffic to one lane in each direction, which will also make it easier and safer for pedestrians to cross the street.

It is time to be bold. Half measures won't work. We should acknowledge that if we put bus rapid transit or light rail on a boulevard, then the primary purpose of that boulevard should be to move tens of thousands of people by bus or tram, speedily and in comfort. Let cars dominate the other streets.

Not only is it unfair to balance the needs of the motorists on the backs of mass transit users and pedestrians, but cutting corners on transit will only make traffic congestion worse.

This is the first of two columns on the draft EIR. Next week I will write about the alternative plans. One can obtain copies of the draft EIR through MTA's website,, or obtain other information by calling the project phone number, (310) 366-6443. Comments may be submitted until June 15.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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