L.A., Long Ruled by Cars, Becoming a Transit Leader

Workers watch in 1997 as a machine carves away the last bit of earth between subway tunnels linking Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley.
Workers watch in 1997 as a machine carves away the last bit of earth between subway tunnels linking Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley. (By Susan Sterner -- Associated Press)
By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 17, 2006

LOS ANGELES -- Demeaned as a car-crazed megalopolis where people drive two blocks to valet-park at the dry cleaners, Los Angeles is on the road to fashioning one of the best public transit systems in the nation.

Los Angeles is No. 2 in the nation in bus ridership and No. 3 in light rail, according to industry statistics. Since 1993, it and Detroit are the only major metropolitan regions in the nation that have succeeded in lowering the annual hours of delay per traveler. In October, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) named Los Angeles County's Mass Transportation Authority the best public transportation system in the country -- truly a man-bites-dog turnaround for an agency that for years was known for incompetence and shady deals. Other cities interested in expanding their public transit systems, notably Atlanta and Tampa, are even studying Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, the District's Metro system recently lured the MTA's highly respected second-in-command, John B. Catoe Jr., to Washington to run that agency. And in November, voters in California approved the biggest infrastructure bond package in U.S. history, which will provide the MTA at least $2 billion to continue to build the system, thanks to lobbying from Los Angeles's determined mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa (D).

"The untold secret about L.A. is while it's known for its freeways and for the attitude that the highway is king, it has -- in fits and starts -- begun to piece together a world-class mass transit system," said APTA President William W. Millar. "This is an enormous change."

To be sure, the car still rules in Los Angeles, and the APTA's award appears to be not so much for the system that is -- a motley collection of buses, subways and light rail -- than for what will be. (It took this reporter two hours to travel 20 miles on three buses to interview the mayor on a recent Friday.)

Only 6.6 percent of the workforce in this region uses public transit to get to work. Each day, automobiles on Los Angeles's freeways travel 136 million miles -- tops in the nation and four times as many as in the Washington region, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. Commuters here spend more time caught in traffic jams than those in any other city in the country -- almost four days and nights per person per year, burning 407 million excess gallons of gas in delays that cost $11 billion, 50 percent more than in the runner-up, New York.

Los Angeles is known throughout the world as 100 suburbs looking for a city. But although it lacks the downtown core of a Manhattan or a Washington, it is hemmed in by mountains and the Pacific Ocean, and it has evolved into the most densely populated urban region in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

This "dense sprawl," as it is known in the argot of urban planners, has helped shift public opinion toward support for public transportation. Roger Moliere, who heads the MTA's real estate development business, speaks of a "paradigm shift" in the way Angelenos view mass transit. Real estate ads now regularly use proximity to transit as a selling point. Developers are eager to build near transit stops; currently there are 25 such projects, involving more than $4 billion, across the region, Moliere said.

"Places that 10 to 20 years ago said they didn't want mass transit are now clamoring for it yesterday," said Jaime de la Vega, the city's deputy mayor in charge of transportation.

Work is continuing on a six-mile extension of the Yellow Line -- a light-rail route running from Pasadena to downtown -- into East Los Angeles, a predominantly Latino area. Construction has just begun on the Exposition Line, which will link downtown with the University of Southern California and Culver City on the Westside. Also on the books is a downtown subway system that will connect two light-rail systems and the city's lone subway line, which were never joined because of shoddy planning.

"When this thing was planned out, it wasn't planned out in a way that allowed people to connect between lines," Villaraigosa said. "We're going to fix that."

But the Holy Grail for Villaraigosa and others in the city administration is what he calls a "subway to the sea" that would run under Wilshire Boulevard, one of the most heavily traveled avenues in the nation, and bond the Westside with the rest of the region.

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