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Frank Gruber

Getting to the Point to Point

"The shuttle merged onto Highway 101, made its way across three lanes packed with slow-moving vehicles and into the carpool lane, where it began speeding past hundreds of commuters." From a New York Times article, Mar. 10, 2007, about Google's transportation system.

By Frank Gruber

I have been writing a lot lately about what might make for a better transportation system, one that would not only provide transportation to the transit dependent, but would also reduce the congestion that has finally become so bad on the Westside that even affluent residents who never ride the bus have concluded that we need a transportation system more elaborate than, say, a left-turn lane with a left-turn arrow.

After all, even if you don't have a bad commute, you'd like to reduce the number of cars coming in and out of Santa Monica and the rest of the Westside so that you're not trapped here on those occasions when you might want to meet friends for dinner in West Hollywood or go to a Dodger game -- but can't because all roads to the east are backed up from the 405 to 11th Street.

Of course, if you work at the Water Garden, and you want to get home at night, either in a car that comes with cup-holders or in a bus that doesn't, you have an urgent need for fewer people to be trying to get on the freeway at 26th Street.

Might we reduce the number of cars coming into Santa Monica and the rest of the "jobs rich, housing poor Westside" (to borrow a phrase from L.A. City Council Member Bill Rosendahl)? Are there ways to do this that don't involve waiting seven or ten or 20 years for mass transit, in the form of the Expo light rail line or the Wilshire Boulevard "subway to the sea?"

I'll start with what won't work. It won't help to increase the capacity of the 405 by, for instance, spending a billion or so to complete the carpool lanes. Carpool lanes can have a role in reducing traffic, as I will discuss later in this column, and a (hypothetically) free-flowing 405 would mean traffic would not bunch up on the 10 and on east-west arterials. But any increase in the capacity of the 405 will ultimately mean more cars on feeder surface streets.

Point being that any solution that encourages more cars is not a solution. The challenge is to give Westside commuters more and better transportation choices -- so that some significant number of them might choose not to commute by car.

Last month the New York Times ran an article about how Google operates its own bus system so effectively that nearly one-quarter of the employees at its Mountain View headquarters use it to get to work. To get an idea of how significant a number that is, consider that the percentage of commuters who use public transportation in downtown L.A., with its billions of dollars of investment in transit, and dozens of bus lines, is also about 25 percent. The percentage in the rest of L.A. County is less than ten percent.

If 25 percent of workers in Santa Monica and the Westside used transit to get to work, congestion would not be a problem.

Google's service utilizes 32 37-passenger mini-buses with leather seats and wireless Internet access. Google runs 132 trips daily on 230 miles of freeways -- 4,400 miles in total each day. The buses are so popular that they are having an effect on real estate markets, as Google employees look for houses and apartments near drop off and pick up locations -- of which there are only 40.

That's right -- only 40 stops on those hundreds of miles of routes throughout the six-county Bay Area. I'm sure the seats are comfortable and the Internet access is cool, but the key to the success of the Google transportation system is that it operates point-to-point (PTP).

The current model for transit -- buses running in a grid pattern and trains making serial stops on radial routes -- developed in the context of traditional cities that emanated relatively densely from a single center. Buses can move a lot of people on short trips, and trains can move a lot of people to and from the center either along dense corridors or from suburban nodes.

The model, however, is inadequate for polycentric metropolitan regions.

Google provides the shuttles as a free perk to employees and for a small fee to contract workers, because the company wants to attract and keep employees from throughout the Bay Area. There is no traditional bus system that could work for its employees, and there are not enough workers at Google headquarters to justify major capital investments in transit.

Google did not disclose to the Times reporter how much its PTP system costs, but it can't be cheap. Google must, however, believe it is getting good value in terms of productivity. I suspect that the system also enables Google to keep workers who receive compensation that is insufficient to pay for housing near Google's offices -- according to the Times' article, the shuttles start running early enough in the morning to transport cooks in Google's famed employee cafés, workers who presumably don't have a lot of Google stock.

The bigger point is that the hidden costs of supposedly free or cheap transportation are now so un-hidden that forward thinking companies are acknowledging and absorbing them. There is no such thing as a free ride. Americans have an aversion to paying the real costs of transportation, but we are being forced to do so by congestion.

Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus operates one line on a somewhat PTP basis -- the 10 Express, which connects the Westside to downtown L.A. by way of the freeway. Even though the fare is more than twice the normal BBB fare, the 10 Express is booming; the BBB recently added six more runs -- four of them serving east-to-west commuters.

But the BBB does not operate any PTP service to the Valley, Hollywood, the South Bay or to any other places where large numbers of Westside and Santa Monica commuters live.

Although PTP buses run faster than regular buses because they make many fewer stops and use freeways, they still suffer from the same bad traffic that affects buses. They are never going to be an alternative to a subway on a dense route like Wilshire Boulevard.

But the building, at great expense, of 500 miles of carpool lanes in Los Angeles County over the past two decades raises the possibility that point-to-point shuttles could provide faster commutes than the private car along routes that will never have a train.

If carpool lanes were restricted to vehicles with three or more riders (and if the silly experiment of allowing hybrid cars with just a driver to use carpool lanes is not made permanent), then PTP buses could -- as the Google shuttles evidently do -- "speed past" thousands of commuters. This would create a virtuous circle -- the more commuters the PTP buses attracted with their speed, the fewer motorists competing for road space.

One advantage that Santa Monica and the Westside have over the Silicon Valley is that we have lots of jobs located close to each other. We don't need to rely on each company to do its thing.

Local businesses also spend a lot of money providing their employees with parking -- money that could go toward PTP buses.

It's time for Santa Monica and Westside businesses, perhaps under the organizational leadership of the BBB, to collaborate on a PTP system that would connect Westside job centers to locations that would serve many workers, including transit centers such as where the Orange Line crosses the 405 in the Valley.

It's time to think outside the grid.

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