Writing under the label of Here and Now, Times media columnist Tim Rutten rants in today's Calendar about traffic and the pointlessness of building our way out of this mess. As he sees it, "at any given moment, the Westside is just a Lexus, two BMW SUVs and a Hummer away from total gridlock." L.A. driving began going to hell, he figures, about 1990: "Those of us who remember when you could leave downtown at 7 and easily make dinner in Santa Monica by 7:30 want that back because we're Southern Californians, and we're entitled to it."
This great civilization whose grand processional boulevard — Wilshire — was the first ever designed specifically to accommodate the automobile is in full decline-and-fall mode and we're all in denial. We're strangling on traffic, and the best people can do is trade "surface street routes" to the Westside as if they were atomic secrets or try to convince themselves that they don't actually mind their hideous commute because it gives them more time to spend with "All Things Considered."
Worse yet, people once again have started nodding their heads when one or another dough-faced urban planner from the Institute for a Joyless Future or some pol with lots of contractor friends starts talking up another public transit project.
Well, I've been to that dance before and this time count me out.
Not the real me, but the archetypal me — the native Southern Californian and nearly lifelong Angeleno, who believes that when Jefferson wrote the words "pursuit of happiness" he had in mind something with leather seats and a little snap. What this archetypal me objects to is that transit projects never seem to accomplish what really needs to be done, which is to get other people out of their cars so that mine can take me where I want to go — fast.
Public transit could cure all this, if only other people would use it.
Actually, Los Angeles already has two public transit systems, one of them full and one of them pretty much empty. The one that's full is the bus system. Its riders are mostly people who can't afford a car or — for one reason or another — can't operate one. They're people with no choice. Now, lots of smart people will tell you that modern, high-tech buses are the only form of public transportation that makes sense in a sprawling city like Los Angeles. The fact is, though, that buses are transit's equivalent of the Toyota Corolla. They may be functional wonders, but the only hearts that race at the sight of them are covered by pocket protectors.
The other transit system looks like public transportation should — light, heavy or subterranean, it runs on rails. It has stations and not just "stops." It's really expensive, so it should appeal to people with a choice, but the problem is that most of them still don't choose to use it.
Ignore the MTA's ridership numbers. When it comes to fiddling the books, those guys are the WorldCom of public agencies. The subway cost billions, but — so far — its major achievement has been to save Langer's Deli by putting America's best pastrami within convenient reach of the downtown lunch crowd.