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Frank Gruber

Showing Respect to Transit Heroes

By Frank Gruber

This Saturday, October 6, the City's Planning Department will host another workshop as part of the update process for the land use and circulation elements of the City's general plan. This workshop is different. Up until now, nearly all the activity in the LUCE process has focused on land use. The topic of Saturday's workshop, however, is circulation.

One thing I like about the circulation element is its very name. "Circulation," rather than "traffic" or "streets" or "transit," implies a broad view of mobility. People don't merely travel from place to place in straight lines, they circulate. The word is neutral. It neither emphasizes nor excludes any form of locomotion.

I also like the circulation element because it implies that government can approach circulation as an independent object of concerted action. So often people who are frustrated about traffic, for instance, focus on development or land use when what they need to focus on are the modes of circulation themselves.

If you don't believe this, reflect on the fact that places with wildly different landscapes of buildings often suffer from the same level of bad traffic; often, in fact, the worst traffic is associated with the most low-lying, horizontal form of development.

While the City's recent LUCE process has been going on for two years or so, the City in fact started to work on an update to the circulation element about ten years ago. I was on the Planning Commission then, and I still have a thick notebook of materials. That start, and it was good one, came to naught, however, when there was a complete turnover at the Commission between 1999 and 2000.

What with the new, anti-everything commission, the Planning Department pretty much abandoned long-range planning for several years. People who complain these days that the City has no updated strategy to deal with traffic shouldn't blame the Planning Department.

In any case, I would like to contribute a modest proposal to Saturday's meeting.

My idea won't "solve" traffic on its own, as if traffic is solvable, but it would ultimately contribute both to more mobility and to better quality of life. That's more than one can say about most proposed solutions to traffic congestion, which typically call for subjugating the interests of everyone who isn't driving a car at a given moment to the interests of those who are.

My idea is to take just a few bucks from the tens of millions of dollars that the City spends, or intends to spend, on building parking structures, and use the money to build the best bus shelters in the world.

We need to treat transit customers like the traffic-busting heroes they are.

As anyone will tell you, most middle and upper-class people in L.A. do not consider taking the bus, even in Santa Monica, where we have an extremely congenial bus system. It's a class thing.

There are a lot of unfortunate reasons for that, but what bothers me is that our so-called sustainable city with its purported progressive government perpetuates this. Yes, the City supports the operations of the Big Blue Bus, but it treats bus riders like dirt. Outside of downtown there are no bus shelters, and downtown only got its shelters recently, as part of the "Transit Mall."

I know some of my readers ride the bus, so I know they know what it's like to sit or stand at a bus stop while cars whizz by. For those who don't ride the bus, let me tell you, it's not fun. Sometimes it's humiliating. You're exposed to the world, typically on a skimpy sidewalk, with litter blowing around your feet.

Take the corner of Pico and Lincoln, one of the busiest transit centers in Santa Monica. This is where Santa Monica's two busiest bus lines -- the #3 and the #7 -- cross. Every morning dozens of people wait at the mini-mall next to Tommy's to connect from one bus to the other. Many have to rush across Pico from the even more unappealing bus stop at the Shell station to make their connection.

Waiting for the bus at Pico and Lincoln (Photo by Frank Gruber)

Why can't the City, which spends tens of thousands for each parking space it builds, buy two spaces from the mini-mall -- use eminent domain if it has to -- and build a decent shelter that will treat these transit users with respect?

The problem is that public transit in the L.A. region, even in enlightened Santa Monica, is trapped in a welfare mentality. Voters and politicians see it as a burden we must shoulder for "them," not something that benefits us.

When it comes to bus shelters, the situation in Santa Monica is especially egregious. If you complain to planners at the M.T.A. about the lack of decent shelters in Los Angeles, they will tell you it's not their fault, because the cities, not Metro, control the sidewalks. But in Santa Monica, the City owns both the buses and the sidewalks.

Middle-class people will take transit, but not if they are embarrassed about doing so. Attitudes need to change, but they won't unless the providers of public transit do something to show that they respect their customers. Since increasing the percentage of commuters who are transit riders is crucial for the mobility of everyone, this is an issue that everyone should care about.

To link to more information about Saturday's workshop, which will take place from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. at John Adams Middle School, go to:

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