Sunday, May 16, 2010

Angelenos' Aversion to Public Transit


I love hockey and taking public transportation. Some people have a strong aversion to both. I don't understand why.

I have talked to friends, family members and strangers alike and the knee-jerk reaction is the same. And when asked to give a reason, there either is none or it is some lame excuse.

I just don't get it.

It is beyond me why many sports fans put baseball, basketball and football on a pedestal but dislike in my view the most exciting sport in the world. But that discussion is more appropriate for my other blog  The Hockey Stop on SportsFanLive.

Since this blog is about green issues and clean modes of transportation, I'm going to focus on the confounding cultural aversion to taking public transportation in Los Angeles and Southern California in general.

There are many sociological and psychological reasons why this mentality is so pervasive amongst the middle class and wealthy sectors of the region. But I won't get too academic in this story. I just want to stick to my own experiences as a transplant from Washington, D.C.

Now I'll admit, when I was in high school, college, and even the first few years of living in Southern California I preferred to drive and wouldn't even consider taking public transit. I remember how my father, who walked a mile every day from our home in Falls Church City, Virginia to the West Falls Church Orange Line Metro Station for his commute into downtown D.C., would always say how ridiculous it was that I thought I was "too good" for the bus. Now looking back I realize he was absolutely right, and I was being a spoiled elitist brat for looking down upon taking the bus or subway.

Eventually as I started spending more time in D.C. taking the Metro, and then traveling around Europe on trains and buses, and then later moving to the middle of Los Angeles and taking the buses and subway system, I became more comfortable with mass transit.

So now I'm at the point where I have a car but choose not to use it most of the time in favor of walking, biking and taking public transit.

Now when I hear family members, friends and strangers talk the way I did when I was in high school about taking public transit, I always prod them as to why they feel this way.

And what really gets me about some people I encounter are the places they were from before moving to Tinseltown. For example, last night I met a girl from New York City who when she is back in Manhattan rides the subway and buses and doesn't think twice about it. But of course in Los Angeles she wouldn't think of stepping foot on a bus or subway car.

And that is really the conundrum facing the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority here. The challenge is getting people more comfortable and feeling safe and knowing the transit is reliable. But in order to do that, as messed up as this sounds, they are going to have to see people that look like them and dress like them.

This isn't racist. It is just human nature. Yes, L.A. has the third busiest transit system behind New York and Chicago. But the majority of riders are working-class people who have no alternative but to take the bus or subway. Thankfully these hard-working immigrants from Mexico and Korea and other places have transit options.

But when there are few men in business suits or 30-something women from New York City riding the rails and buses in L.A., then it creates an unhealthy cultural divide between the "haves" (i.e. those in leased luxury cars) and the "have-nots" (i.e. those poor souls waiting at the filthy bus stop). It isn't healthy for this city and region.

But if more people like me, and bloggers Green LA Girl and Snob On a Bus, are seen comfortably riding the rails and bus lines at all hours, then hopefully other skeptics will hop on board, and Metro will take notice and make L.A. transit cleaner, more efficient and safer.

Right now it's always an adventure taking L.A. transit, and not in the good way. For example, I went to the Silver Lake neighborhood to see a show at the Spaceland music venue last Friday night and Google Maps gave me the wrong bus line. So I ended up downtown and was the only white guy on the bus at that point. On to the bus walked a couple who obviously had just smoked a crack pipe. The guy carried a vacuum cleaner onto the bus. Yes, a vacuum cleaner. I felt like I was on a bad episode of "Chappelle's Show."

Those experiences will not endear your average Brentwood resident to trying out L.A. public transit.

But at least history is on the side of public transit in L.A. Sixty years ago the City of Angels had one of the best public transit systems in the world. The richest prospectors and filmmakers sat next to the dirt-poorest Okie and Mexican immigrant on the Red and Yellow street car lines that criss-crossed the city from Santa Monica to Hollywood to Downtown to Burbank and everywhere in between.

Of course many of us know about the Great American Streetcar Scandal. The systematic dismantling and destruction of the clean electric streetcars in favor of polluting buses and polluting automobiles in every driveway was one of the greatest tragedies in the history of this country.

Now sixty years later we are starting to realize this grave error, and how it is destroying the environment and our communities. My hope is that one day, as the history books prove can be done, the thousands of hard-working blue collar rail and bus riders will be joined by tourists, business people, college students, suburban families and every other type of person you see in any other city's mass transit system except Los Angeles.

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