Overselling Transit


A recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times eloquently illustrated the limits of mass transit in modern societies. This is not to imply that that transit does not have its place, nor that it does not provide a most useful service where it can. The problem has been the overselling of a mode that has very serious limitations. This has led to misallocations of financial resources that could be more efficiently used for the roadway expansions that would relieve traffic congestion and reduce both air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions while encouraging greater job creation and economic growth.

The op-ed in question was by Karen Leonard, a professor at the University of California, Irvine and Sarah Hays, a Los Angeles architect. The article noted the neighborhood opposition to the "Expo" Line (Exposition Boulevard line) and efforts by the authors to gain support for the line. The neighborhood in question is Cheviot Hills, a tony neighborhood with a median house price of $850,000 in the city of Los Angeles and located between Beverly Hills and Culver City.

What is significant about the op-ed, however, is not so much the neighborhood as the concluding line and the author credits.

"So we continue to walk our neighborhoods talking with our neighbors, hoping that this time the quiet majority will finally prevail and we will all gain the choice of leaving our cars at home.

Karen Leonard is an anthropology professor at UC Irvine. Sarah Hays is a Los Angeles architect. They are co-chairs of Light Rail for Cheviot Hills (lightrailforcheviot.org)."

UC Irvine? It is doubtful that the Expo line will make it possible for anyone in the foreseeable future who lives in Cheviot Hills to "leave their car at home." The University of California, Irvine is located in the middle of Orange County, approximately 50 miles from Cheviot Hills.

It is useful to consider what leaving the car at home in Cheviot Hills would mean for a mythical professor at the University of California, Irvine once the Expo line is fully operational.

On Monday*, the professor needs to be in class at 8:00 am, which requires arrival on campus by 7:45 a.m. On the assumption that the mythical professor lives in the middle of Cheviot Hills, the trip would involve leaving the house at 3:45 a.m. and walking 20 minutes to the transit stop. The favored Expo light rail line would likely not be available that early, so the first leg of the trip would be on a bus. (If the Expo line is operating early enough for the trip, the professor could leave home approximately 25 minutes later).

Three transfers later, the mythical professor arrives at the campus, at 7:20 a.m., in plenty of time to have coffee and get to the classroom before 8:00. While the professor requires four hours from leaving his or her car at home to the necessary arrival time at campus, a neighbor could have driven nearly all the way to Las Vegas for breakfast.

If it is assumed that the mythical professor is able to get out of a staff meeting at 3:00 pm, the return trip would take more than 3 hours, part of it on the Expo line.

Tuesday would be little better, assuming a 10:00 a.m. class start and that the professor gets away by 5:15 p.m. The trip to Irvine would have the advantage of starting on the Expo line, but would still take more than 3 hours, door to door. The return trip, including bus rides, a Green Line ride, a Harbor Freeway Busway ride and an Expo light rail ride would be about 4 hours and 30 minutes, with little wait in Irvine for service.

These transit commutes would hardly be comfortable or productive, though they would include all conventional forms of transit available in Los Angeles (there are no trolley buses, inclined planes or ferries in Los Angeles). The total door-to-door time would be up to 7.5 hours for a work day of 7 hours. Needless to say, it is unlikely that with this schedule, any professor would ever leave his or her car at home.

Finally, there is a myth people cannot leave their cars at home and walk or take transit to work. In fact, there are probably no work locations in urban America where people cannot choose to live close enough to work to walk or take transit. But choosing to leave the car at home is not as important as other choices, even for advocates for transit improvements. Otherwise they would live close enough to leave their cars at home. Of course, most people value other things more than leaving the car at home, such as a nice neighborhood, a nice car, a low crime rate and a host of other considerations. Otherwise no professor would live in Cheviot Hills and work at UC Irvine. Indeed, they would probably live in the faculty housing made available by UC Irvine.

All of this illustrates what transit cannot do; provide automobile competitive service for most of the trips that are taken in the modern American (and even European) urban area.

It is also worth recognizing that transit has been substantially improved in Los Angeles over the past 20 years (whether it has grown cost effectively is dealt with in another article). Spending aside, these improvements have made it possible to make any one-way trip in the Los Angeles urban area in less than four hours, at least during the middle of the day. This is to the credit of the Metrolink commuter rail system, the subway, rapid busways and the more rapid of the light rail lines. But this is hardly tempting to Angelenos whose median commute time by car is 24 minutes. As elsewhere in the nation (and as in Western Europe, Canada and Australia), transit can sometimes compete with the automobile to core (principally downtown) locations. The suburban to suburban trips, however, largely are simply beyond transit's capability.

Of course, some drivers commute much longer, as in the case of the mythical professor at UC Irvine, whose trip would be between one and one and one-half hours each way. In Los Angeles, 8 percent of people in cars have commutes that are more than one hour. And virtually all of them find this commute, however maddening, is far shorter and more comfortable than a similar trip taken by transit.


*Correction: The Monday trip from Cheviot Hills to UC-Irvine has been corrected to reflect a subsequently identified better itinerary. The article has been revised to assume this trip.


Photograph: Interstate 5 (on the way to Irvine) in Orange County

Wendell Cox trained on the Exposition corridor between the University of Southern California (USC) and Culver City (near Cheviot Hills) as a member of the USC cross country team. He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (one of two agencies merged later to form the MTA) and participated in decisions to authorize the Green Line light rail line, the Harbor Freeway Busway, the Red Line Subway and Interstate 105, all used by the mythical professor commuting to UC Irvine.

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but the point

but the point he makes is still true. Nobody, and I mean nobody is going to take the transit when you can drive it in a fraction of the time.

That's the main reason people won't be getting out of their cars anytime soon.

In my area, some of the "transit" is so slow, a person on a bike has a shorter commute time then a bus. I had a friend who couldn't drive, he took a bus (if he couldn't get a ride or bike) that took 2 1/2 hours to get him to his job. I took him by car a few times, total time 7 minutes!! In the summer he biked and it only took 25 minutes. I still can't figure out why that bus is so slow. But few ride it. My friend got his driver license.

what is "the point" exactly?

"but the point he makes is still true. Nobody, and I mean nobody is going to take the transit when you can drive it in a fraction of the time"

Not exactly a groundbreaking point. Instead of seriously considering the transportation problems our urbanized areas face, this article does nothing more than make a trite argument that "transit sucks." Fine... taking transit from Cheviot Hills to Irvine doesn't make much sense. Neither does living in Cheviot Hills if you work in Irvine. And neither does attempting to build enough highway capacity to accommodate people that want to be able to live 40 miles from where the work without paying for the cost of the infrastructure necessary for such a car-oriented pattern. We don't have the money to pay for that.

There are more solutions than you mention

Many companies are working on advanced transportation that will obsolete traditional transit with its snail-like performance. We have a dual mode solution that uses cars from your door to a network of elevated guideways that take you very quickly to the network node nearest your destination and then the car takes you to the door on the other end. Transit using fixed routes is not going to ever be good as you point out with crude wording. Rather than limit your solutions to the unworkable perhaps you might want to explore ideas that can solve traffic and not choke the planet. Ours is TriTrack but there are competitors Monomobile, MicroWay and RUF to name a few cars that drive on the street then convert and go up onto a petite monorail. 5 cents a mile energy cost is our performance with zero pollution as we do not use power grid power. At around $200K per mile it is something "we" can pay for. By we I mean you. ;-) No need for you to move your home based on the husband's job to avoid mobility. Transform mobility and life is sweet and affordable.