We had a bus strike out here last week, but you'd have to look hard to notice. Johnny Carson summed up the prevailing attitude of us southern Californians: "All our bus drivers just went out on strike pause for effect . . . one guy named Al."
Since they tore up the streetcar lines decades ago -- still deemed by many a plot by the auto industry to enslave L.A. commuters -- public transportation here has been little more than a joke. The five-county Southern California Rapid Transit District tries hard, but even before the strike only 6.3 percent of the area's 3.4 million workers used buses or other public transport, compared with 43 percent in New York, 18 percent in Chicago and 16 percent in the Washington area.
By the time I put my Chevy Citation on the Pasadena Freeway the first morning of the strike, I could see that southern California would be about as bothered by the bus strike as by a heavy frost on the Florida orange crop.
Traffic moved a bit slower than usual as we passed that wonder of Los Angeles architecture, the four-level interchange near downtown, but cars on the Santa Monica Freeway rumbled along like Patton's army through Germany. We rejoiced at the absence of slow-moving, exhaust-belching buses slicing into the entrance lanes; our own automotive hydrocarbons emitted a more delicate aroma.
I felt a touch of the guilt that, resist as we might, sometimes descends on us Angelenos who commute in lonely splendor. About 80 percent of the people who drive cars, vans or trucks to work in the Los Angeles area do so alone, the 1980 census says. In Washington, that solo-rider figure is 69 percent.
I could hear on the radio about bus commuters flooding the switchboards of car-pool agencies and sticking their thumbs out at bus stops. The Los Angeles Times ran a picture of a few immigrants sitting stoically on a bus-stop bench, waiting for the transportation that would not come and not knowing enough of the language to find out why.
I expressed some of my unease at being a solitary commuter to the young Los Angeles native who works with me. Her blue Mustang breaks down rather often, but she would not be caught dead on a bus. The higher rate of car pooling and public transit use back in Washington did not impress her a bit.
"Those people can get around downtown during the day without a car. We can't do that here," she said. She had earlier voiced resentment that our sales tax money was going to subsidize bus fares in an attempt to encourage ridership.
We agreed that we southern Californians had made our choice, and everyone will have to learn to live with it. And when the environmentalists of the world make nasty remarks about Los Angeles, we can always shift the blame to neighboring Orange County. There, after all, more people actually walk to work (2.5 percent) than take public transportation (1.8 percent).
As the bus strike continued, a local television reporter followed a blind man who usually took a bus to visit his doctor. The man stood on a corner with a cane and a sign, and a motorist who knew him stopped right away and gave him a ride.
That's the spirit, I thought. But if I picked someone up, would they object to my choice of radio station? Would they think it silly that I listen to recorded Ring Lardner stories on my tape player to relieve commuter's boredom?
Would they insist on having a conversation?
Fortunately, there weren't any hitchhikers on the Santa Monica Freeway, and I escaped.
I did worry a little, however, about a neighbor of mine, an editor at the same newspaper that employs my wife. Often I would pass him at our local corner bus stop as I headed for the freeway entrance. Usually, of course, he was alone -- a solitary holdout against our sacred way of life. I wondered how he might be getting to work during the strike, but did I really want to get involved with such a person?
My wife inquired, and found out he did need a ride home the other day. Since her car was in the shop I picked them both up. Of course, he turned out to be a very nice fellow. We had a lively conversation about our mutual business and his recent bout with jury duty, and some of that old solo-rider guilt returned. After the strike, I imagine I can find a way to get to the freeway without passing his bus stop.