Editorial – Robert Rector: L.A. gets railroaded at last – San Gabriel Valley Tribune

The following editorial appeared in the 5/6/12 edition of the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.

Robert Rector: L.A. gets railroaded at last

IN a scene from that wonderful movie “L.A. Story,” which probed the foibles of life in our merry megalopolis, Steve Martin emerges from his house, gets in his car and drives to his neighbor’s home next door.

Funny? Sure. True? Exaggerated, perhaps, but not far from reality.

Let’s face it, we have always been in love with our cars and are loath to abandon them in favor of public transportation.

There are reasons for that. First, we were blessed with the best freeway system in the world which, on a good day, could whisk us anywhere in Southern California with a minimum of fuss.

Second, we live in a place that defines the word sprawl. It forces us to go to great lengths to go great lengths. People here measure distance in time, not mileage. Mileage is irrelevant on the eastbound 210 at 5 p.m.

Third, for years the alternative to the auto was a fleet of dirty, diesel-belching buses overseen by uncaring bureaucrats whose real purpose seemed to be to alienate the public.

Now, we are on the cusp of change. Our torrid affair with the automobile may be turning cold. And alternatives abound.

To illustrate: I was sitting in an endless traffic jam on the 101 one day when I looked to my right and saw a guy in slick, turbo-powered, six-figure Porsche. He was wearing racing gloves, the kind you’d don to drive in the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring. It looked particularly goofy since this guy never got out of first gear.

The point is that it’s hard to love your car, even a sleek and sexy one, when you spend your days awash in a sea of red taillights. No matter how posh the ride, you’re just wasting a sizable chunk of your life and mental health while sucking up five-dollar gas.

Now, however, we have a bustling, thriving downtown that is home to a state-of-the-art subway/light rail/bus system that can seamlessly and cheaply transport people to where they live or work or play.

Witness the new Expo Line, which runs from downtown past Staples Center, L.A. Live and USC to Culver City and eventually to Santa Monica.

And there’s more to come.

Within the next decade, our very own Gold Line will expand eastward to Azusa. A new subway route through downtown Los Angeles will link the Metro Blue Line, Gold Line and Expo Line. The Purple Line will run from Union Station through MacArthur Park along Wilshire Boulevard to Westwood.

Voila! Access to sporting events, major universities, museums, nightlife, even the beach, without backing your car out of the driveway.

We’re becoming just like New York, London and Paris. We’re just a century late.

Will people use it? The answer appears to be yes. Metro bus and rail ridership has jumped during the first two months of this year, thanks in part to soaring gas prices. The Metro Gold Line from downtown to Pasadena saw the biggest spike: up nearly 22 percent over boardings from a year earlier. Orange Line commuter traffic also carried significantly more passengers than a year ago, up by 18 percent, and the Blue and Green lines also drew more commuters.

From which we can extrapolate that a new generation of commuters are beginning to shun Sig Alerts and budget-busting gas prices in favor of clean, sophisticated public transit.

For those of us of a certain age who have lived in and loved Los Angeles for decades, it is a development both astounding and bittersweet.

Astounding in that a subway/light-rail system was talked about for decades and seemed as remote as time travel. Now, it is actually up and running.

Bittersweet in that we once had a great rail system that served every corner of Southern California. We’ve spent billions just to get us back to where we were almost a century ago.

Back then, we had the Pacific Electric Railroad, the largest such railway in the world, connecting Los Angeles with San Bernardino County, Riverside County and Orange County with 1,000 miles of track. We also had the Yellow Cars which serviced central Los Angeles and surrounding communities.

It didn’t last. It was felled by corporate skullduggery, poor planning and a region that grew so fast it couldn’t keep up with itself.

General Motors and a number of other companies bought and dismantled our streetcars and electric trains, then sold local governments buses which they manufactured.

Following World War II, politicians decided to construct a web of freeways across the region because it was seen as a better solution than a new mass transit system or an upgrade of the Pacific Electric.

Ironically, congestion also helped spell the end to commuter rail. Most of the Red and Yellow cars ran on city streets and the region was becoming so congested because of the post-war population boom, the trains found it impossible to run on time.

It was a sad and costly chapter in our history. Let’s hope we grab on to the future while it is there for the taking.

Robert Rector is a former editor with the Pasadena Star-News and Los Angeles Times.

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