May 7, 2012 By Michael N. Escobar
The new Expo Line has opened in Los Angeles.
The MTA website says it takes the new train 8 minutes to get from USC to the 7th St Metro Center station. By contrast, it takes 10-13 minutes to get from USC to downtown via bus line 81.
To get to the Vermont/Sunset red line station from USC purely by rail, it’s 27 minutes, including a wait of 10 minutes to transfer at 7th St. This is a savings of 5 minutes off the trip that would involve taking bus 200 to MacArthur Park and then taking the Red Line from there.
For that savings of 5 minutes, and the “community development benefits” which come from property owners recognizing the “long term commitment of municipal resources” which are alleged to attend a light-rail line going through your neighborhood, we are looking at how many traffic accidents and fatalities over the next 50 years? How many more than would be caused by buses?
As I see it, the main benefit from rail lines is the increase in passenger throughput made possible. But that involves a dedicated right-of-way: on a Chicago elevated line, or a New York underground line, transit authorities can always add trains to increase capacity, and there is no disruption to the surrounding traffic grid. But light rail that travels on surface streets has to obey traffic signals and basically goes along with the flow of car traffic. It competes only marginally against buses in terms of travel time, and does not pose an attractive option for people who already commute by car. (Although car-parking expenses may tip the balance in favor of the train.)
In this light, the complaints of the L.A. Bus Riders’ union, which won a Federal consent decree to force the MTA to improve service, become more interesting. How much sense does it make to allocate transit dollars towards investing in rail as opposed to bus? Particularly in California, where train systems – particularly underground or elevated lines – have to be engineered to a much higher degree than in New York or Chicago, in order to withstand the inevitable earthquakes. We ought to be investing in what will yield the greatest good for the greatest number, and working towards a system in which public transportation – in any mode – attracts people away from commuting by automobile.