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Frank Gruber

No Bang for My Hypocrisy

By Frank Gruber

Recently I have had family business in the Valley that has had me driving up and back on the 405 on almost a daily basis. Usually I've been able to schedule these voyages of the damned for the middle of the day, and avoid the worst, but even so the horror, the horror of the San Diego Freeway has turned me into a hypocrite.

Readers may remember a few years ago when I derided former Assembly Member Fran Pavley's bill that opened up carpool lanes to certain hybrid cars beloved by Westside right-thinking left-wingers. (see column)

Time flies and all that and what do you know but my wife -- right-thinking left-winger that she is -- bought a Honda hybrid in time to get the carpool stickers. Not that they've done her much good. There aren't any carpool lanes on the 10, our local freeway, courtesy of indignant Westsiders who forced Caltrans to discontinue its diamond lane experiment 30 years ago.

But there are car pool lanes on the 405. So whenever I could, for these trips to the Valley, I borrowed the Honda.

Not that I got much bang for the buck of my hypocrisy (gas mileage was good, though, and I didn't have to worry that my old Peugeot would break down). The traffic in the carpool lanes rarely was faster than the traffic in the regular lanes, and never for very long.

Given that a driver only needs one passenger to become a "high occupancy vehicle," and since when there is a lot of traffic there are a lot of vehicles with at least two people in them, not to mention hybrids with only one, the carpool lanes fill up nearly as fast as the regular lanes. When traffic is light, all the lanes go fast, so there's no benefit either.

I'm not the only one who has noticed this. According to an article in the June 23 L.A. Times, Caltrans is under the gun, because during evening rush hour traffic slows to less than 45 MPH, the minimum for federally-funded carpool lanes, on nearly a third of the carpool lanes. Caltrans is developing a plan to improve carpool lane flow, which is a good thing, because sooner or later Caltrans is going to have to increase the minimum number of occupants in a high occupancy vehicle to three.

This will cause howls of outrage because this will cause "empty lane syndrome" that leads to "carpool lane envy," the psychological state that killed the diamond lanes in the 70s. A three-occupant minimum, however, is going to be essential because the only way that carpool lanes -- for which billions have been spent -- are going to help solve our mobility problems is if they become the free-flowing domain of buses and minibuses.

Of course, Caltrans might go another route. There's a bad idea floating around to charge tolls to allow even more cars to use carpool lanes. The so-called "Lexus Lanes" would mix a good idea -- congestion pricing -- with a bad idea -- using the carpool lanes for moving anything other than vehicles with a lot of people in them.

Sitting in traffic on the 405 does focus the mind. I had time to contemplate all the recent press about growth and traffic in Southern California. The L.A. Weekly ran several stories by David Zahniser challenging whether "smart growth" development policies improve traffic as promised. The Times ran a similar story on Saturday, questioning whether residents of "transit oriented developments" actually drive less.

Meanwhile, there have been stories about affluent residents resisting further widening of the 405 (to complete the carpool lanes) and about the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Board ordering the Metro's staff to study implementing tolls. Metro has also begun a formal study of a Wilshire subway extension. And of course in May there was the whole brouhaha about raising Metro's fares. (Higher fares went into effect yesterday.)

Congratulatory digression: Santa Monica City Council Member and former Mayor Pam O'Connor just became Chair of the Metro Board, effective yesterday. Metro and the rest of the County are lucky to have her.

What has to be obvious at the moment is that nothing being considered now, let alone anything in process, is going to fix our immobility. This goes for all the incremental road building Caltrans may fantasize about, all the rail lines Metro planners may fantasize about, or all the "elegant density" Antonio Villaraigosa and smart growthers like me fantasize about.

The region is too big, bustling and growing for any local solutions to do any good. Even a project as big and as needed as the Subway to the Sea would be, essentially, a local project. By itself, for instance, it would not reduce traffic on the 405, which will continue to feel the impact of every new subdivision in the Antelope Valley and every condo project in Orange County.

Smart growth is great for creating desirable communities that are more convenient for the people who live in them, but anyone who markets density as a "solution" to traffic is overselling it just as much as your typical road builder oversells another lane of freeway.

Dense development may generate less traffic than conventional suburban development, but unless it replaces existing sprawl -- not what is happening in a growing region like ours -- it won't reduce the absolute number of drivers. (It does, however, reduce how much those drivers drive -- a point missed in the recent Weekly and Times articles skeptical of smart growth and transit-oriented development.)

What we need is a radical revision to the way we think about transportation, particularly commuting, and an even more radical reallocation of the money we as a society are spending on transportation away from capital projects that on one hand support private automobile use (roads and parking for the most part) and, on the other, subsidized yet substandard transportation for poor, working-class, elderly and disabled people, and towards the operating costs of new transit systems that could provide a real alternative for middle-class, car-driving commuters locked into our polycentric 60-mile long, 50-mile deep region.

These systems are not cheap, but they're not expensive either, when you consider the economy-wide savings.

For instance, back in May I wrote about the transportation system that Google provides free to workers at its headquarters in the sprawl of Silicon Valley, and which, according to the New York Times article on which I based my column, 25 percent of them use. (see column)

This is the kind of goal we should have for our transportation system. If 25 percent of the middle-class commuters on the Westside commuted by minibus instead of by car, the 405 would flow smoothly and so would the surface streets on the Westside.

The Google minibuses have comfortable seats and Internet access. Their routes reflect the complex living patterns of Google employees, rather than the existing grid of streets. They travel point-to-point, so they can efficiently use freeways and, where available, carpool lanes.

Google didn't tell the New York Times how much it was spending on the system, which serves about 1,200 employees each day, but a friend of mine who works for a transit agency estimated the costs for me at between $3 million and $5 million per year. How much per employee is that?

Let's take the high figure, $5 million, and divide it successively by 250 workdays a year and 1,200 employees. That works out to about $17 per employee, per day.

That's a lot more than what Metro charges for two bus or subway rides, and at about $365 it's a lot more per month than a Metro monthly pass (now $62). But viewed as the cost of moving middle-income workers from home to job and back, it's not out of line compared to similar costs in other First World metropolises. In fact, since Metro fares only cover about 25 percent of operating costs, it's not out of line with the cost of providing slow bus service on the grid, if you multiply $62 by four.

Consider that the typical Westside employer now provides parking that can cost $150 a month. Add that to the employee's cost of driving, and $365 a month doesn't look so bad.

Also factor in the cost benefits that all other drivers on the roads will receive if 25 percent of commuters were not driving. For their easier commutes, they should be willing to pay more -- in parking taxes or congestion pricing -- to subsidize the minibuses, too.

The money is there -- it just needs to be redirected.

It would be great if the manufacturers of minibuses were as powerful a lobby as the road builders are. In the meantime, what we need is for Metro and other transit providers like the Big Blue Bus to step up, get imaginative, and start organizing and providing the kind of services that, with minimal capital outlays, could actually do something about traffic congestion soon.

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