TRANSIT TRAVELER-Ridership for Metro is down ten percent, causing an onslaught of debates, advice, admonishments and calls for change to the transit network. This collective outburst is rather strange considering that, only seven to ten percent of the people use transit, and the rest don’t. This means everyone else is a driver.
As a regular transit rider, I find it odd to see such an outburst on an issue that only affects a small percentage of the population.
True, most transit funding comes from tax money and fares do not fully cover purchasing, operating and maintenance costs. But driving is also hugely subsidized with tax money. Transit is not the only thing sucking up transportation tax dollars, as some suggest.
Billions are spent on road projects with questionable results: we remain stuck in gridlock on the city streets. Money spent on widening the 405 Sepulveda Pass has resulted in a commute that’s a couple of minutes faster and gridlocked Sepulveda Boulevard in Westchester that carries traffic for LAX and Silicon Beach shows no signs of decreasing. And so it goes.
Do you see the 7% to 10% who are transit riders complaining in newspapers, digital-blogs and airwaves, bemoaning the waste of money thrown into the rabbit hole of increasing gridlock? No, you do not. Perhaps some people should mind their own business.
But as a transit rider I have a solution for not only reversing the ten percent drop in transit ridership, but for increasing its use. It’s very simple: The ninety to ninety-three percent who are drivers should leave their cars at home and start using the bus, light rail and subway.
As a transit rider since 1992, I have some tips. Wherever you drive, take note of the buses on the street. See which transit agency it is -- Metro, Santa Monica, Culver City, etc. -- and make a note of the route number posted on the bus marquees. Look for the light rail and subway stops near your destinations.
Then, go to the websites for the transit agencies and download the schedules for all the transit possibilities. You may end up taking only buses or be lucky enough to take only light rail or subways. I take buses the vast majority of the time; they are the backbone of the transit network, but not the only answer.
Find the stops closest to your beginning and ending destinations and work backwards. To make sure you arrive on time, take into consideration the walking time from your stop to the destination. There may be transfers. And don’t complain about walking because when you drive you still have to walk from the parking lot or structure to your final destination. Anyway, walking is good for you. Just make sure you have decent walking shoes.
You will need to dress for the weather because transit travel is different than just going from your residence to an enclosed garage to an enclosed vehicle to a covered parking structure to an enclosed building. Here in Southern California the weather this February has been unbelievably warm, but you can still identify the transit riders on the street – they are carrying a jacket in the heat. Remember, it’s still winter, and once the sun sets, the temperature drops and you’ll be out in the elements. This truly creates a greater seasonal sense. And now you can wear all those winter clothes wasting away in the closet.
Does using transit take longer? Absolutely, but not always. I know five different routes to travel to downtown Los Angeles. I now use the Expo Line as much as possible. In the evening I drive to the Culver City Expo Station, take the Expo Train to the 7th Street Station and transfer to the subway to get to the Civic Center Station. It’s as fast as driving and I don’t have to spend time and money for parking. In addition, I’m not amped-up from fighting traffic.
“Fighting traffic”…what an odd concept. I think this fighting mentality makes Los Angeles a less than attractive place. Instead being citizens who are all in this together, we become commuters who are battling with each other using lethal machines as weapons.
Riding transit will change your perspective of the city. The overhead sky is rediscovered. Trees become friendly and welcomed. The city opens up. It can be a shock, but a good shock. You will also see how ugly the city can be with its litter, graffiti, broken sidewalks and ugly buildings. You will be in the open among other people; this has been a slowly evolving transcendental experience which, for me, has been for the good.
Increasingly, studies show that just the physical act of driving is a health hazard. Heart disease increases due to regular driving, particularly driving in gridlock. I still drive, and I know it makes my blood pressure rise and this could lead to potential health and heart problems. Driving is very stressful, requiring constant vigilance to avoid hitting other cars, bicyclists and pedestrians. You must drive defensively, making sure to avoid the all the mobile-phone-in-hand, distracted, rude, obnoxious and aggressive drivers.
A driver is locked into one position, with blood pooling in the feet and ankles to work the pedals; the knees get stiff and worn, backs tighten from being stuck in one sitting position. On transit, while the seats are not luxurious, ergonomics are incorporated to an extent. I can easily shift and move my feet while sitting, changing posture and positions. On a bus, train or subway, I read, daydream, look out the windows (although subways are not the best for that!) I answer emails and surf the web on my mobile. Easily, a half to three-quarters of transit riders are busy with mobile devices.
One of the greatest benefits of being a transit rider – and the reason I started and continue to use transit – is it helps reduce air pollution and global warming gases. Plus, it reduces the amount of urban waste going into the Pacific Ocean from all that oil and chemicals dripping from vehicles onto the roads. Parking lots and roads are covered with oil stains – you see that everywhere.
Becoming a transit rider doesn’t have to be a sudden, major change for you -- although that is pretty much how I did it. I began with the idea of riding the bus twice or three times a week and the found it was so much better than being stuck in gridlock. Now transit is my first option.
So try it a few times a week going to work. It may not be completely care-free at first – there is a learning curve. But after a while, a routine sets in, you learn the ropes, and it gets easier. Try going out to eat using transit. You’ll see we live in a city of people and not a city of machines that keeps people isolated from their surroundings. You don’t have to worry about parking and you can walk off some of those unwanted pounds. Try shopping with no worries about parking…although shopping for groceries is tricky due to food spoilage. I do drive to grocery shop, but for clothes and other items I take the bus. There are so many possibilities.
Here’s a case in point: I recently went to the NUART Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles to see the Academy Nominated Short Action Films. I am not an academy member but love movies. I went to the 4:45 pm show since the other showing that night was too late. This was a frustrating trip but I used the transit network to its fullest. I was supposed to ride the Culver City No. 6, Regular on Sepulveda Boulevard, but it was late arriving, and I worried I would be too late for the films. You must always allow yourself extra time in taking transit because of gridlock.
While I waited, three Culver City No. 6 Rapids passed within twenty minutes. They should have been spaced out every 15 to 20 minutes within the hour. The Regular No. 6 finally arrived, and by my estimate, I would most likely be late. These days one can easily arrive late for events when driving, so this problem is not exclusive to transit. Once I boarded the Regular No. 6, I took it for about a mile down the route to the next Rapid 6 Route. I got off at the closest No. 6 Rapid stop for me, waited, and then took the next Rapid 6 to Sepulveda and Santa Monica Boulevards. Then I got off and walked to the NUART Theater. But here’s the trick: I made it in time by bypassing the Regular for the Rapid No. 6. That’s called using the network to its fullest!
After the movies, Santa Monica Boulevard was in gridlock. Cars were stuck in intersections blocking crosswalks. Drivers were encroaching into the crosswalks. I decided to eat out and wanted to get to Westwood Village to a favorite Japanese restaurant, Onkei. So I took the Santa Monica Bus No. 1 from the stop one block west of the theater and was taken directly into the village. After years of transit riding I know these bus routes. When the bus came, I boarded, bypassing the aggravation of driving in gridlock. I was able to find a seat, check emails, read and once in Westwood Village, I got off and walked to the restaurant. After a very fine dinner, I walked to Westwood Boulevard where the Culver City No. 6 was at the stop, ready to take me home. Good timing.
Improving the ten percent decline of transit use is easy. It just takes a willingness to try something new -- the ability to get out of engrained mindsets, embrace a sense of adventure, study the transit network and timetables and make sure you have walking shoes and appropriate clothing. It can be done!
(Matthew Hetz is a Los Angeles native. He is a transit rider and advocate, a composer, music instructor, and member and president and executive director of the Culver City Symphony Orchestra.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.