Is The MTA All That And A Bag Of Chips? (Part 1)

Unfortunately, I’m not in L.A. to comment on what’s actually happening back home. I’m writing this from my parental units’ in Victoria, BC. Which is not far from Vancouver. But, while I can’t go out and comment on L.A. today, I finally have time to put together some more commentary on the WaPo article saying that L.A. has one of the top transit systems in the nation.

Victoria is not far from Vancouver, which does have one of the most outstanding transit systems in North America. Translink is the reason that many of my friends in Vancouver choose not to buy cars. Victoria is also close to Seattle, who, despite the monorail, have always had great public transit as well. I’ve lived on and off in both cities in the years before I came to L.A., and L.A.’s transit system is a little lacking in comparison. Here’s some of the differences I’ve personally observed between the MTA and the systems back up North that I think contribute to my perception of the MTA being a little misrepresented in the WaPo article:

1. We have huge parts of the city with virtual transit blackouts – mostly on the Westside. The MTA partially relies on the Big Blue Bus and Culver Citybus to cover that area. I had a conversation with a bus driver on Hallowe’en where he told me that the MTA would actually like to rely completely on those city systems, and have passengers actually change buses when they hit, say, Sepulveda. In other West Coast cities, the metro area is the metro area, and it encompasses everything. Separate Antelope Valley and San Gabriel transit systems should fall under the domain of the MTA.

2. We’re trying to build a subway. Why? Ray Bradbury even said, L.A. needs a monorail, not a subway. The other three biggest cities on the West Coast – Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco – all have monorails or above ground trains as their rapid transit (SkyTrain, the Seattle Monorail, BART). These may go underground when necessary, but the majority of the tracks are above ground – far cheaper to build. And far nicer to look at – the Gold Line scenery is absolutely gorgeous. As Bradbury said, we’re used to traveling above ground, in the sunshine.

3. The planned extensions do not seem to be prioritized to follow the worst of the traffic patterns. The “Subway to the Sea” is more a myth than a reality, and may yet get hijacked. (CurbedLA suggests that a Gold Line extension to Ontario may fight for that funding.) And that’s the route that would cover Wilshire, where, in rush hour, it can take twenty minutes to cover one mile. It’s been suggested by the L.A. Weekly that racism was behind the reluctance to expand past Western in the original Red Line – just in case anyone from Watts came up on the Blue Line, changed trains downtown, and then came out to rob people in Hancock Park.

4. Transit in the true core of the city – downtown L.A. – is reliant on the DASH system. Which I’ve heard runs consistently late, and certainly isn’t well publicized. Despite carrying eight million people on six lines, at a quarter fare, it doesn’t show up as part of the MTA trip planners, and seems to have poor integration with the other transit lines that enter downtown. And it would be really helpful if it covered some of the immediate neighborhoods outside downtown, too – I remember waiting half an hour for a bus in Echo Park one year at the Lotus Festival – because the bus I needed to Union Station was late.

So those are some of the reasons that come to mind when I think of why the MTA, while it may be one of the busiest systems in the country, doesn’t quite deserve the title of “best”. I’m probably totally biased on this, of course, because I’ve been a Westsider since I got to L.A. almost three years ago. Maybe my perception will change once my transition to SiFi is complete, and I’ll be talking about how awesome Metro is because it will meet my needs once I’m in that neighborhood. But shouldn’t it come a little closer to meeting my needs even now?

Next: Part Two, in which I compare and contrast the differences in the MTA’s publicity – and the regional report card which gives transit in the area a “D”

15 thoughts on “Is The MTA All That And A Bag Of Chips? (Part 1)”

  1. I guess it depends what you consider the Westside. It’s been a while since I’ve taken it, so it might have changed, but the BBB only goes east of UCLA, and only roughly on Pico and Olympic. If you are like I was when I went to UCLA and lived in West LA and didn’t go east all that much, the BBB was a godsend. But even for a short trip down Wilshire not even east of La Cienega, you needed the MTA.

    Something I noticed is that so many of the bus lines on the Westside run east/west, and there aren’t many running north/south–this goes for both the MTA and the BBB.

  2. as of 2000

    population of Seattle’s King County: 1,793,583 size: 2,300 sq miles
    population of Los Angeles County: 9,935,475 size : 4,084 sq miles

    The greater Vancouver area has a population of about 2 million.

    It’s not only the system causing problems here.

    Here are some interesting facts; we need about 3 billion dollars to build the Purple line. Bush’s tax cut for the rich cost the federal government 6 TRILLION dollars a year. The Interstate Hghway System was paid for with 90% federal dollars

    Known cost of war in Iraq to federal government: $354 billion

    Eisenhower proposed the Interstate System as a national defense priority. How smart was that? We need more Republicans (and Democrats) who think that way.

  3. In all cities with successful and extensive transit systems, the systems serve a downtown core, to which the majority of workers travel each day, and for whom the system was designed to serve. Los Angeles has such a system, and it caries 1.5 million people a day, which makes it the second largest system in the country. The major difference is that most employment in Los Angeles is not centralized, so the transit system does not serve the majority of workers outside of downtown.

    It’s strange to me to hear people on the Westside complaining about the lack of transit to that area, especially considering that until recently, every proposal to extend decent transit to the Westside has been rejected by the people of that area. It’s even stranger to hear criticism of a system by someone who doesn’t even ride it. Who would move to a part of the city with no transit and then complain that there isn’t any? Move downtown, where there is abundant transit.

    FYI, the DASH system is NOT the primary service for Downtown, it is an ancillary service that works as a small, local circulator during the day only. The eight million riders you quote is an ANNUAL figure, while the MTA’s 1.5 million riders is a DAILY figure. Downtown is the MTA’s central service core.

    The MTA is a county-wide transit agency. The smaller, municipal systems such as Culver City and Big Blue Bus are run by the cities, the same as the DASH. County transit decisions are made according to demand for service. Westside demand is very small, therefore no service. That is beginning to change, but the suburban layout of the Westside will be a formidable challenge.

  4. Ray Bradbury even said, L.A. needs a monorail, not a subway

    Why does everyone reference this as if Ray Bradbury is some sort of municipal transportation guru? Seriously.

  5. OK, OK, good points, Bert. I’ll make note of those as corrections to my post when I write the next part. As a note, I AM moving to a more central neighborhood – and transit access was one of the factors that helped my boyfriend and I choose our new home.

    Doug, we reference Bradbury because he’s awesome ;-) And because monorails ARE cheaper, he has a point, and he’s just the biggest name to get that point in the Times recently.

  6. Just a note about a monorail: Capacity of a monorail train is about 200 passengers. Capacity of a heavy rail train is about 1500 passengers. If you really want good, dependable, quality transit, a monorail is not the way to go. Heavy Rail, either above ground or underground, is the only efficient option in a city of this size.

    Sure, monorail is cheaper. But you get what you pay for. There’s this notion floating around that we don’t deserve a quality system, and that cheaper is better. I am sure that this idea is mainly being advocated by those who wouldn’t dare take transit.

    Many of the newer lines are light rail, which is lower capacity and cost than heavy rail, but now the Blue line is near capacity (it averages 85,000 people per day). What happens when it runs out of room? The demand is there. We need to build for the next 100 years, not just to save a few bucks to mollify conservative critics.

  7. I’m with Doug on the Bradbury thing. Someone who can have written Farenheit 451 but then publicly support President Bush and his administration probably shouldn’t be taken as an expert on much.

  8. I got the impression that Bradbury’s support had to do more with Bush’s revival of the space program – like he still holds out hope for his Martian Chronicles.

  9. Jillian, I’ll take your word for it, but a person who holds missions to Mars as a higher priority than basic civil liberties is still not someone I’m interested in getting advice from.

  10. Bert–yes, systems serve a downtown core, but in LA, downtown is not the only core. There is more auto traffic going to the Westside in the morning by people working there than people leaving for jobs elsewhere. It needs better public transportation.

  11. Counterpoints:

    1. Metro is a completely separate organization from the Santa Monica, Culver City and the four dozen other municipal bus carriers in Los Angeles County. Apart from disbursing money, Metro has no planning or operational control of any of those agencies. And it is true that Metro ultimately wants to end its bus routes to be completely within the ghetto and force riders to transfer to other lines. Metro Connections will make sure this happens, as well as adding two bus trips to every existing trip.
    2. Monorail is a fundamentally flawed mode of transportation, and not even Ray Bradbury can change that fact. It offers no improvement over conventional dual rails. And excising a sound engineering decision to build a subway because we’re, like, in the sunshine all the time and stuff, you know, is Los Angeles-thinking in the worst possible way. The kind of way that only cements to the rest of the world that L.A. is a thrown-together society of beautiful dunces.
    3. The racism angle is right, and led to the stopping of the Red Line extension. Think about the fact that the added apartment complexes in Park La Brea have underground garages and would also be explosion-prone, and the methane argument is a flimsy excuse for the Hancock Park bluenoses keeping the darkies in the ghetto. And transit projects are prioritized around the political support they receive. Considering that the politicians Westsiders have elected have done more to keep trains out of where they’re needed, that’s why the Westside’s only transit solutions have been very frequent east-west buses, which are ironically less useful as their services are increased.
    4. DASH is all over the city. Look at and see the many neighborhood routes available. And DASH is primarily a traffic reduction mechanism downtown to keep people from making extra car trips, especially around the lunch hour. Today’s DASH was the old RTD’s MiniBus/MiniRide system in the 1970s and 1980s. LADOT expanded it when it took over the service, along with several rush-hour lines that are today’s Commuter Express.

  12. In response to Wad’s comment #2 (anti-monorail).

    Have you ever ridden the red line? It’s like 7 stories underground! I don’t care if you want to put a hood over the monorail so we ride in complete artificial light, I just don’t want to hike 7 stories up and down escalators. When I bring my bike I have to hike up all those stairs because (reasonably) bikes aren’t allowed on the escalator. I don’t ride the elevators because they’re full and you have to transfer halfway anyway. And the elevators are usually the dirtiest part of the LA train system.

    LA uses tunnel boring equipment to dig the subway tubes so the tunnels far underground. Monorail could be just 2 or 3 stories above ground.

    So why not just put in elevated light rail tracks? Because monorail is quiet (keep the neighbors happy). Monorail uses high pressure pneumatic tires on a cement rail instead of steel wheels on steel tracks which get loud as the system ages.

    Monorail can also be easier to build than a subway. Track segments can be manufactured off site and installed atop pillars poured quickly on site. Cranes and cement mixers are common tools in construction. Tunnel boring machines, ventilation equipment and relevant expertise, a bit more specialized.

    So, what’s monorail’s fundamental flaw?

    But yeah, the only reason LA’s public transit sucks so bad is because the people of LA have been fighting it for years saying “but we like our cars.”

  13. Josh, you do not want to go here.

    I have ridden the Red Line constantly since it was extended to Koreatown in 1996. It has improved my transit commute hundredfold.

    It’s like 7 stories underground!

    And you’re, like, healthy, right? If you are wheelchair-bound or suffer from an ambulatory disorder and have to lengthen your commute because the elevators or escalators are broken, then you have every right to complain. If you are healthy and able-bodied, what is all the whining about?

    The fundamental flaw of monorail is that a single rail (which is what it is) offers no economic, physical or design improvements over conventional two-track rail. None. And monorail has been the technology of the future for 100 years. What looks gosh darn cool in sci-fi novels and comic books has never penciled out where it has been tried.

    For one thing, elevated transport of any kind is visually blighting. Especially monorail. No homeowners or businesses want any kind of elevated transport. A one-rail train will not make much of a difference.

    Also, monorails are not just skinny tracks. They require large support columns, and in an earthquake-prone region like ours, they need to be extra-wide for seismic support. Also, for safety reasons, monorail trackage needs to be wide for emergency walkways.

    As for noise and comfort, present conventional rail used for urban transportation is very quiet. The trains are electric, so there’s no motor growling. Trains do not rumble, except at switches, because tracks are continuously welded. This can be a safety downside, as a big problem of the Blue Line-involved accidents is that the train is too quiet.

    Monorail can also be easier to build than a subway.

    If monorail were easier to build, more would have been built.

    It goes back to the fundamental flaw: monorail offers no advantages over conventional two-track rail. Monorail does not make movement faster or more energy-efficient. It does not make construction cheaper. Also, monorail is a very specialized technology that has a very limited knowledge tree. Two-track rail, on the other hand, has the advantage of the network effect: the more users, the more cost-efficient and better-running the system is for every user.

  14. Jillian, you forget Victoria, which probably
    has the best bus service in North America for
    a city of its size – 250,000. It has about 60 bus
    lines, which makes for about 4,000 people per line, and most buses run every 20 minutes or better until 12 AM seven days a week.

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