California and Its Broken Public Transit


The California Department of Finances estimates that by 2055, about 11.5 million people will be living in Los Angeles County alone. These people will need to get around. The state is well known for creating dependence on cars, with a dearth of buses in many suburban areas and almost endless highways linking everything together. Even existing services have often proven unreliable or unsafe. There are several plans to create new bus or tram lines, but lack of funding and local politics often get in the way. Needless to say, the future of California and its broken public transit system does not look very promising.

A recent UCLA study asked some 2000 individuals what they valued most about public transit. Safety and on-time performance were shown to be the most significant, while stop amenities, adequate information or cleanliness were not nearly as big of a deal, particularly when the wait time was pretty short. But aside from the most busy areas and city centers, the wait time can easily go up to an hour or two, especially in the evenings. If the bus does not break down on the way, that is.

The San Francisco Muni trains are in a deplorable condition, breaking down often due to inadequate maintenance and lack of proper funding. Similarly in Los Angeles, the red line connecting Hollywood and downtown frequently runs on a slower maintenance schedule. The purple line, extending from downtown into Koreatown, does not always run its full length. Somehow, these kind of service disruptions seem to always happen on a Friday or Saturday night when the lines are most popular, with passengers looking to spend the evening out in the city.

The few brave bikers of California don’t have it easy, either, The traffic is known for being especially dangerous to cyclists in busy areas, with frequent accidents and deaths. Worse yet, many of the bike lanes about which the city of Pasadena proudly boasts conveniently double as parking spots, rendering them virtually unusable by cyclists.

Even many of the workers are displeased. The famous San Francisco cable cars have only just resumed their service after a three day sick-out, leaving some 700,000 passengers waiting in vain. The protest intended to show the workers’ dissatisfaction with the contract officer from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Similarly, Los Angeles bus drivers also went on strike back in September 2010, after the transit management and the worker union failed to agree on the contract terms. Regardless of which side was right, it was the passengers that truly suffered.

There is some hope for the future of California’s broken public transit system, however. The Los Angeles County mayor ,Eric Garcetti, has now embraced a plan to take some of the revenue generated by the state’s cap-and-trade and pour it into mass transit and housing. The newest Expo line is planned to be expanded all the way to Santa Monica in 2015, giving a better connection between downtown and the beaches for which the city is so famous. Lastly, the state has been planning a high-speed rail to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco since 2008.

However, these plans and promises seem like just a small drop in a bucket of problems, and all too far off into the future. The whole state of California and many of its cities are simply so spread out and fractured that creating a reliable public transportation system between them seems like a Sisyphean task. It might be possible to create dependable connections in the more metropolitan areas; a full ride on the Expo line from downtown to Santa Monica is expected to take just 46 minutes, for instance, but it is hard to imagine a convenient network that could efficiently link all the scattered express lines together. While it might be possible to switch between rails, buses, and metro to get anywhere, the differing schedules and line changes can easily inflate the travel time to several hours.

Looking at all of these factors, it is clear that the future of the broken public transit system in California is uncertain. The problem once again goes back to the mentality of the people and the heavy focus on cars. With so many dependent on and used to driving their own vehicles, it would be difficult to encourage them to switch to the much less convenient buses. Without the demand, however, there will never be enough funding to expand and improve the existing services, and even if there were more demand, the sheer distances between many key areas and the city layouts would make it difficult to add new, faster lines. Improving California’s public transit is not impossible, of course, but it is something that would take many decades and a lot more planning to truly blossom. Perhaps not buses or trains, but services such as Lyft or Uber will prove the next true evolution of public transportation.

Opinion by Jakub Kasztalski

Los Angeles Times
ABC News
California Department of Finance
Streets Blog SF
California High-Speed Rail Authority

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