From rail to auto and back again

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Author: Lena Smith

The Legacy of LA Public Transit:

There is a touch of thrill to the 1.5-mile Waterfront Red Car Line in San Pedro, California. The cherry-red trolley-style restored car is the last token left of Los Angeles’ largely forgotten original public transportation system, which was in its heyday during the first half of the 20th century. Running between San Pedro and Long Beach, this car and two nearly identical replica cars glide up and down a small part of the once 1,100-mile rail system that connected LA with surrounding communities.

Now, the Waterfront Red Car Line acts as a historical reminder of days when LA was tied together by more than congestion. The once strong, industrious Red Car system faded, ultimately seeing its last run in 1961, and has never truly been replaced. Once covering more ground than the current New York Subway, the Pacific Electric rail line was literally a ground-breaking system. Henry Huntington, of Huntington Beach and Huntington Gardens, bought up small electric lines connecting the small neighborhoods around LA. In 1901, Pacific Electric came into being as a company. According to Urban and Environmental Policy professor Mark Vallianatos, the idea was to connect all of LA and create a customer base for mass transportation in the process. Huntington and his fellow transportation developers also purchased farmland and open space on which they simultaneously created new neighborhoods and connected them to the rest of LA with Pacific Electric lines, according to Vallianatos.

Despite their convenience, the Red Cars could not compete with personal cars after their popularity was solidified in the 1920s. Around that time, car ownership was increasing rapidly, according to Vallianatos. He added that the rail lines, which operated on the same streets as automobiles, began to be seen by drivers as a nuisance, holding up traffic and taking up space. The region lent itself to spread-out communities, where everyone could have their own yard to enjoy the sunshine. This stood in direct contrast to cities like Chicago and New York, where cold winters led people to prioritize expedient transportation, leading to dense, urban communities, according to University of California Los Angeles economics professor George W. Hilton. The resulting sprawl encouraged people to buy cars that got them around at faster speeds. And thus, car ownership led to the demise of the city-connecting tracks.

Taking the Bus, or Not, From Oxy:

Slow and often crowded, though a near-comprehensive bus and rail system, Metro — LA’s bus and rail network — currently connects the neighborhoods of LA and the surrounding cities. Occidental students range from those who know the bus system’s quirks inside and out to those who, whether from a preference for leather interiors or for hanging out on campus, have never set foot on one. For some, like Laurel Cheever (junior), there is little incentive to leave Occidental’s rosebushes and park benches, especially if it means sitting for hours with no activity. For others, like Ashley Rivera (sophomore), the four-hour round trip to sit on the Santa Monica beach with a book is worth it.

As an employee of Occidental’s Bike Share, Cheever prefers to peddle around LA rather than traverse the city by bus. In her opinion, riding bikes makes people happier and healthier. Learning a few basics, like how and when to signal, would allow most people to move around LA under their own power, according to Cheever.

Bike Share began as two bikes parked in front of the Academic Commons that students could borrow, according to Robin Bruns, former manager of Bike Share. It is now a student service, with funding awarded to it at the beginning of each semester, according to Bike Share employee William Chen (sophomore). It has taken up different temporary spots on campus in the last two years — using the Bengal Room last year and now setting up a tent in the Academic Quad on Fridays.

Bike Share’s permanent location is in the garage under Berkus Hall, a less-than-visible location, according to Cheever. It is open in the afternoons Monday through Friday.

In Cheever’s opinion, biking takes up less time than figuring out bus schedules and routes. Bikes are also environmentally friendly.

“Bikes help with changing the idea that transportation is only possible through carbon-emitting machines,” Cheever said.

Coming from New York City, Rivera has no qualms about using public transportation, including in LA. She has made the two-hour trip to Santa Monica — which requires transfers and takes riders through various neighborhoods — multiple times.

People-watching on the buses is an attraction all in itself, in Rivera’s opinion. She said that the same people generally ride the buses and often know those who ride with them. As a newcomer, Rivera was greeted by certain regulars, calling her out as a fresh face on the routes.

The Metro Rail lines, which are run by the same government agency as the buses, tend to be inconvenient, according to Vallianatos. Though it is only a seven-minute bike ride to the Highland Park station, it is inconvenient by many other means of transport, such as bussing or walking, according to Cheever. The rail lines snake in and out of downtown’s Union Station, but are currently not otherwise connected to each other. Though a faster-moving alternative, their inconvenience limits use by Occidental students and most Angelenos.

Measure R, passed in 2005, was a significant win for the development of Metro. It created a half-cent sales tax that would go toward building new transportation projects. Measure R was used largely to fund the new Expo Line, which speeds up travel from downtown to Santa Monica. A major benefit resulting from Measure R is the planned addition of more rail lines which, like the Expo Line, will shorten the travel time on popular routes. Many of these, such as the route between East and West LA, are currently covered only by buses, according to Vallianatos.

As more Angelenos move into central cities and the adverse effects of greenhouse gases become better-known, public transportation has become a growing need. Through policies like Measure R, the local government is trying to fill that gap; however, routes remain inconvenient for many potential riders.

Equity in Transportation:

Today’s bus riders are primarily low-income workers who depend on the bus system to get to work, according to Vallianatos. The Red Cars were more universally accessible than the rails are today — while there were once 1,100 miles of publicly-used rails, Metro now offers 842. They connected high-, low- and middle-income neighborhoods, so that it was possible to live nearly anywhere and easily ride to one’s workplace.

Today, the income gap distinguishing car owners from most bus riders is an indication of the social inequality of LA. According to Vallianatos, as neighborhoods experience gentrification, those who depend most on public transportation are being pushed farther and farther away from stations and, thus, their places of work.

A report on equity in LA commissioned by the California Endowment calls for “Just Growth,” referring to improvements in the city that value inclusion throughout society. The report argues that, as LA moves to develop its infrastructure, all forms of affordable transportation — walking, biking and public transportation included — should be accessible to Angelenos. A map included in the report presents one particular problem that exists today: low-wage jobs and affordable housing are generally located far away from one another.

The report states that non-white individuals use public transportation more than white people and that ridership is primarily made up of people of color in low-income households. It ultimately calls for future developments in public transportation to consider the people it serves most.

According to Vallianatos, recent initiatives to improve public transportation have gained momentum as Angelenos become more conscious of the pollution created on the web-like LA freeway system, more frustrated by the snail-paced, horn-honking, turn-signal-free battle ground at rush hour and more aware of the inefficiency of the current system for low-income workers, whose only means of transportation are the buses and rail lines.

Metro is an agency run by LA County, with some city-specific systems filling in the gaps. For example, DASH, a bus system serving only LA city proper, runs on certain popular routes that Metro does not cover, including taking riders over the 51st Street hill, which runs just past Occidental. However, systemic changes, not just supplemental ones, are needed for public transportation to effectively serve LA, according to Vallianatos.

Looking forward, however, Vallianatos believes that changes like marking off city street lanes for buses, which would allow them to move more people more quickly, and connecting the outer branches of the Metro Rail lines, would greatly increase the utility of the system.

The low cost of Metro fare, less than $2 per single trip, allows for widespread use, but the inconvenience and sluggishness that some riders experience work against it. Though Occidental students can easily access Bike Share as an alternative, in its future, like its past, the public transit system may become a more appealing alternative to personal vehicles.

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