Wednesday, April 27, 2005

LA Public Transit Meets Its Own Enemy: Its Ridership

Having come from a background in light rail systems, one interesting thing is to view the process of control through the eyes of others. The Skunks of Los Feliz, one of my favorite LA bloggers, passes on a Daily News article about how the Bus Riders Union is stymieing attempts by LAMTA to extend their light rail system.

Not least, this is because the Bus Riders Union (BRU hereafter) believes its mission includes freezing spending on rail. Rail is the natural enemy of the bus rider, says the Union, but that's no surprise; like all such single-issue organizations, the Union has one purpose, and over time, it's shifted from pushing for the rights of bus riders (with all the tedious shrillness of a Che Guevara rally) to providing a sinecure to the people running it. Populated with the sort of hacks who can, with a straight face, make the comment that "there is always a need for experienced, consistent leaders, who have been with the organization for many years", its leaders busy themselves pouring cement into the foundation and adding even more stories to the ediface.

Aside from their shopworn polemics citing their wishlists as unnegotiable human rights, and anyone opposing their demands racists, the BRU has become a boulder in the road to a more nuanced and comprehensive transit solution. Next year, a 10-year-old consent decree resulting from a lawsuit against the MTA expires, and the BRU isn't happy about it. From the Daily News article:

Former MTA board member Nick Patsaouras, who has been involved in local transit issues for more than 20 years, believes the consent decree has gotten in the way of developing coherent policies.

"They (the Bus Riders Union) are on a crusade and they don't look at the ramifications of what more buses means and I don't hear an articulate voice from the MTA side (saying), what are the implications five years from now?"


"Clearly we had to improve the bus system, and that's a given," said MTA spokesman Marc Littman. "[The consent decree] straitjacketed us to other solutions we could have done to deal with mounting traffic problems."

Which in part means fixed commuter rail. However, the MTA doesn't help matters by making its own idiotic and unintentionally hilarious comments. Consider:
But MTA officials say the consent decree limits their ability to adequately address the region's transportation needs because so much of their resources are going to buses used by fewer than 10 percent of Los Angeles County residents.
That's laughable, for two reasons: first, by the MTA's own numbers, bus ridership dwarfs rail ridership. Second, the number of passenger-miles driven by private vehicles (PDF) is roughly two orders of magnitude smaller than those used by public transit generally. In other words, public transit in Los Angeles is but little used in the first place, and the MTA's willing to score points for rail (the solution it prefers) even at the expense of public transit generally.

All this posturing is really about control. The BRU rightly sees its influence slipping with the consent decree's expiration, and minus that, the MTA winds blow toward more rail construction. Whether that rail goes anywhere potential users actually want is another story; consider the history of the now-defunct plans to install light rail from downtown to Santa Monica. As Skunks observed,

The MTA, rather unsurprisingly, is not in favor of an extension of the decree. They want to build rail, damn it, miles and miles of it, with hundreds of half-empty train cars ferrying people to everywhere in the city except where people want to go: malls, beaches, Dodger Stadium, and the airport.
If, as the MTA says, rail costs less to operate once going, and buses continue to consume ever-more expensive diesel, the BRU stands in the way of a more comprehensive and efficient mass transit solution. What they need to do is to change the title of their organization; they know who they represent now, but aren't especially interested in their future. The mortgage payment can wait if you can't meet the grocery bills.