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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Los Angelenos Get out of their Cars, Into the Streets ...and Onto the Trains

Air Date: Week of

Stephanie O'Neill reports on how the earthquake's destruction of Los Angeles highways has car owners turning to public transportation in record numbers. Cynics say the trend will last only until the roads are rebuilt, but proponents of the city's new Metrolink rail system are more optimistic.


CURWOOD: The major earthquake that rocked the Los Angeles region last month has forced a change that many believed was impossible. It got Angelinos out of their cars. Broken highways and agonizingly long commutes have made many city residents more receptive to official calls for carpooling and riding mass transit. But as Stephanie O'Neill reports from LA, it may not last.

O'NEILL: Here at the California Transportation Agency's Traffic Management Center in downtown Los Angeles, the slow crawl of freeway traffic shows up on a huge lighted map of the region. The congestion has grown worse over the years. The transportation officials have had little success in their long-term attempt to change LA's solo commuting habit. The more than $2 billion spent so far for a new light rail and subway service had attracted few riders. An effort to encourage ridesharing had fallen flat, and carpool lanes were ditched long ago. But the violent earthquake that knocked out portions of the central roadways may be changing that. Within days of the quake officials, with the support of grateful commuters, brought back carpool lanes, added new bus lines, and rerouted traffic around broken freeways. But the drive is still bad. Along the most heavily-traveled routes, commutes that used to take a half hour are taking three, and those who can get off the roads are doing so in record numbers. Franklin White is the Metropolitan Transportation Authority chief.

WHITE: The most important change that has occurred is that the commuters from long distances on the affected routes have decided, if they can't get there on the highway, will get there on the train.

O'NEILL: The new Metrolink commuter rail line is just over a year old. Two days after the quake, White implemented a $100 million crash program that extended the line 75 miles north of Los Angeles, added 4 new stations with 3 more on slate for February, and created new parking spaces for the glut of commuters. The Antelope Valley Freeway collapse affected some 200,000 drivers from the Santa Clarita area, making that Metrolink station among the most popular places in town.

WHITE: They have gone from a ridership of 1,000 a day before the earthquake, on that line alone, to in excess of 20,000 in a period of about 10 days. I am advised that it is the greatest single increase in rail ridership in the history of the country.

(Train pulling into station)

O'NEILL: Here at the Burbank Metrolink station, dozens of private shuttles, taxis, and municipal buses are parked every which way around the small outdoor station. As the shiny, blue and white double-decker train pulls in, well-heeled commuters begin scanning the crowd of placard-carrying drivers who will deliver most of them to work. New rider Sue Kucluck says she's been pleasantly surprised by the Metrolink and plans to become a permanent rider, even though the train takes longer than a normal car commute.

KUCLUCK: I think everybody should start doing it, and get all the traffic off the freeways. It's convenient just having to sit there, it adds about an hour each way to my commute, but I just feel better about doing it.

O'NEILL: But others, such as Toni Serelli, miss the convenience of their car. Serelli says her train commute also takes her longer each way than her pre-quake commute. But, she admits, the train has made life easier since the earthquake.

SERELLI: Well it's more relaxing. I drove it one day, it took me three hours to get in and three hours to get home, so it's definitely more relaxing than that drive. If the drive starts to ease up, like I said I'll probably start driving again.

O'NEILL: And despite the best efforts of transportation planners, many believe that's what most commuters will do.

MOORE: They'll behave pretty much the same way after the freeway facilities are repaired.

O'NEILL: Jim Moore is an associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Southern California. He expects Angelinos who have stepped out of their cars for now will eagerly climb back in when the roads are back to normal. He says that's because the rail and buses simply aren't as flexible as the automobile. Low gasoline prices and often faster commutes add to the car's attraction. Still, he believes the disaster can bring about more desirable car-based alternatives. The reintroduction of the carpooling is one example. Already, the newly-opened rideshare lanes are stealing some of the train commuters. What's more, he believes it's possible the disaster could breed support for more radical ideas, including private alternatives to public transportation.

MOORE: If we were to introduce additional competition into the market for urban transit, then we would see a number of innovations that are currently absent from the landscape. We would see low-cost, demand-responsive transit. We would see jitney operators. We would see more owner-operators out there.

(Commuter rail sounds)

O'NEILL: But LA area planners haven't given these kinds of ideas much thought in the past, and so far it doesn't appear the earthquake is changing that. In fact, while the quake has, at least temporarily, caused LA commuters to think differently about how they'll get around the city, it's only reinforced what planners have been thinking for years. That the solution to LA's highway congestion will come with more public transit and more high-tech traffic management. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.



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