Los Angeles has the third largest transit system in the country, and virtually no one uses it. Despite the investment of billions of dollars to expand bus and light rail service, ridership is at historic lows. For most Angelenos, Metro has always been a punchline. Likewise, relative to its size San Francisco has a huge and hugely well-funded transit system, yet it is perpetually on the brink of disaster. Complaining about Muni is a Frisco pastime on par with bragging about the city’s restaurant scene and hating on Los Angeles. Meanwhile communities from Sonoma to Marin to San Diego continue to invest heavily in transit regardless of actual demand.
It’s entirely possible, indeed likely, that these investments will fail to pay dividends in the form of reduced traffic or emissions. Trying to force people onto transit simply goes against nature. Human beings have been wandering since the epoch of hunter gatherers, and are hard-wired to move around as much as possible as quickly as possible. We domesticated horses 6,000 years ago because some ancient genius realized how much farther and faster a horse moved compared to a person. What’s more, over the millennia human beings have demonstrated consistently that we’re willing to put up with a lot of danger and inconvenience in exchange for rapid mobility. Riding a horse long distances is a hazardous and exhausting business, but it sure beats walking. For thousands of years the average city or town was an infectious cesspool of manure, urine, cud, and other noxious equine and bovine byproducts that occasionally contributed to public health crises that killed millions. But people kept breeding and buying horses and draught animals because they were worth the risks and the unpleasantness. The desire for distance and speed horses offered proved universal. First domesticated on the Eurasian steppe, Equus ferus quickly was adapted across Asia, the subcontinent, and Europe. Colonists brought horses to the Americas, where the rapidity of adoption by native peoples was particularly striking. Tribes including the Apache and Comanche became better riders than the Europeans. Mobility knows no race, creed, or color.
In the modern era private automobiles offer more freedom than any other mode of transit. Like riding a horse driving a car is dangerous and creates environmental side effects. Yet in the overwhelming majority of places is isn’t even a close call: People simply can access a far greater diversity of destinations in cars, and do more once they get there. Suffice it to say it would be a significant hassle to transport your daughter and her soccer teammates – not to mention their equipment – to and from practice on a bus. You can’t take your dogs to the dog park on light rail (for that matter unless they’re service dogs you can’t take them anywhere on transit). It’s a safe bet that most of your friends don’t live on the same transit lines you do.
As with the domestic horse in ages past desire for automobile ownership knows no class or race barriers: A 2018 UCLA study commissioned by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) notes that over the last 15 years in the region “vehicle ownership has grown particularly sharply among subgroups most likely to use transit, such as the low-income and the foreign born from Latin America.” Moreover, “compared to Americans at large, the poor use transit more but like it less. The typical low-income rider wants to graduate to automobiles, while the typical driver might view transit positively but have little interest in using it.” And, “With very few exceptions, acquiring an automobile in Southern California makes life easier along multiple dimensions, dramatically increasing access to jobs, educational institutions and other opportunities.“
Southern California’s experience is far from unique nationally and even globally. As China’s economic fortunes blossomed over the last 30 years car ownership in that country has exploded. While there are a few places around the world where transit makes sense for many daily trips, such as Manhattan, in the overwhelming majority of places a car is the optimal form of personal transportation, and always will be.
Yet California lawmakers continue to throw billions at failing systems. They’re imposing road diets and other congestion increasing policies on thousands of miles of streets and roads. Thousands of empty and nearly empty buses, streetcars, trolleys, and light rail cars ply our gridlocked streets while average folks just try to get to work or school. It’s the ultimate example of supply side economics: Build it, and they still won’t come.
The last standing justification for this misguided activity is, of course, climate change. We’re told that king car is the scourge of Mother Nature, that if we don’t surrender our Hyundais the Himalayas are doomed.
Yet imagine if all those billions spent on vacant light rail, empty buses, desolate streetcars, and bullet trains to nowhere instead went to support and expand truly promising clean technologies, many of which already are proven or close to it. The most advanced economy in the world needs to think bigger than 18th and 19th century solutions like trains and bikes. We need to start thinking in terms of Manhattan Projects for fuel cell cars, electrified roads, autonomous electric drones, hyperloops, biofuels, synthetic fuels, and EV charging points everywhere. The state that gave birth to the aerospace industry should be investing in the incredibly exciting electric aircraft start-ups such as Zunum. Even the scaled back version of the state’s high speed rail project – a 117 mile stretch from Merced to Bakersfield that makes little economic sense – will run upward of $30 billion. We should invest that money in clean technologies people actually will use and that fit the modern built environment.
On a simpler level, instead of bus and carpool lanes how about dedicated ride share lanes?
Certainly, transit will continue to have a role, albeit a substantially scaled back one. The oft discussed high speed rail connection between L.A. and Las Vegas, for example, makes eminent sense. Street level trolleys covering short hops in urban cores likewise deserve study.
Overall, though, instead of trying to foist transit on people who have shown for decades they don’t want it, policymakers should be paving the way for a new era. Alas, as long as they remain focused on outdated technologies average Californians will continue to spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars stranded in gridlock that’s completely avoidable. Our pocketbooks and our environment will continue to suffer.