Sunday, February 29, 2004

A busy weekend in Hollywood 

On Friday, I reserved a Flexcar so I could take care of some work errands. When I got to the car, the battery was exhausted, and the card entry system didn't work. Luckily, the was another car about two blocks away which I was able to use.

Unfortunately, this isn't the first time that it's happened. It turns out that because of the added electronics to run all the high-tech stuff Flexcar adds to the cars, the car battery is gets drained if the car isn't driven on a regular basis. Hopefully, this problem will be solved naturally as more members join and/or better locations are found for cars. In the meantime, it means the Flexcar folks have to go around to each car on a regular basis to check that the battery is charged.

I spent Saturday working all day. Livable Places sponsored a one day design charrette as a way to bring some talented architects and designers together to develop some cool ideas for building new joint-use schools. On the way home that evening, the Subway was packed (I'm finding that it often is on weekends). When came out of the Hollywood/Highland, I was greeted to a big crowd gathered around the red carpet set up along Hollywood Blvd for the Academy Awards.

Now, I know most people think that a limousine is the preferred way of travel to the Oscars, but I think it would make quite a statement to arrive via Subway. Unfortunately, that's not even an option. The station is closed on the day of the awards (I assume for security reasons), with the Red Line trains bypassing station.

Here's a very bad quality photo from my camera phone of the red carpet area on Saturday night. This is all literally steps from the subway portal.


Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Tut, tut, it looks like rain 

A storm moved in this afternoon and began dumping rain all over Southern California. Suffice it to say, I got rather wet on my commute home. I did have an umbrella (albeit a small one) to shield me from the falling rain, but the real problems were at my feet. You see, because Los Angeles is so built up and paved over, a heavy downpour turns streets, gutters and even some sidewalks into mini rivers and lakes. Therefore, a pedestrian on a very rainy day in Los Angeles has to contend with trying to walk around all the water, while being extra careful around cars (since many L.A. drivers are inexperienced when it comes to wet road conditions). Hopefully the rain will let up for my morning commute.

In other news, the March 2004 issue of Los Angeles Magazine contains small column about Flexcar as part of its "ultimate driver's manual" where I'm mentioned as a user who gave up their car as a result of the service. I'm curious if people who are interested in reading a survival guide for car owners are looking for something like Flexcar, but nonetheless, it's good publicity for them.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

A little morning commute cheer 

For the last two mornings, I've caught the 9:20a.m. train leaving from Hollywood/Highland to Downtown. It turns out that the operator for that particular train is very spirited, and greets riders at every stop with "good morning, good morning, good morning!." He announces the upcoming stops with a lot a gusto and personality, adding extra information about transfers and such. As the train pulls into the next station, he thanks everyone for riding Metro Rail and sends riders off with inspirational suggestions like "Make sure to make it a great day!" Now normally I might think this would be annoying -- and some people might very well feel that way -- but I actually have found it to be cheering and entertaining. A nice personal touch to what is typically a very routine experience.

After work, I needed to get to meeting at Wilshire/Bundy in West L.A. by 7:00p.m. I typed my origin and destination points into the trip planner, thinking that it would suggest that I take the #720 Wilshire Rapid Bus all the way down, but instead it suggested that I take the #10 Santa Monica Big Blue Bus, which offered an express route to West L.A./Santa Monica via the 10 freeway. Though I was a little hesitant at first, I left work at 6:00pm, grabbed a sandwich to go for dinner, and caught the bus at around 6:13 leaving Downtown. The traffic on the freeway, while not what you would call free-flowing, was not bumper-to-bumper, and I was at Santa Monica Blvd and Bundy at 6:42. I could have walked the last five blocks to my destination, but instead I was able to catch a #14 Blue Bus up to Wilshire, and I was walking into the building at 6:50. My regional transit pass covered the fare on the municipal line, though I had to pay an extra dollar for the express bus (the same goes on MTA express buses). On the way home, I hopped on #720 bus east to Santa Monica Blvd, and then took the #4 bus home, which took about 45 minutes door to door.

One thing I'll say about express buses (or at least the one I rode) is that though they get you to your destination much faster than local service, the ride they offer is not as smooth as a car or train. On city streets at slower speeds the buses' suspension isn't an issue -- but at 60 mph on the rough pavement of the 10 freeway, it can be less than comfortable. But all in all, no complaints.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Can you believe how much the price of gas has gone up? 

This has been the topic of conversation around L.A. in the past few days. Apparently, gas prices have risen almost 20 cents in the past week, and are now averaging $1.93, according to the local newscasts.

Well, to be honest, I hadn't noticed. I mean why would I notice, right? I haven't bought gas in months. And even the last time I did, I didn't look at the price (Flexcar was paying the tab).

But come to think of it, I was never one of those people who bitched about the price of gasoline, or the price of most anything frankly (though I do get a little steamed at the price of bottled water at some places). Usually, I either consider the good or service I'm buying to be worth the price, or I just don't buy it.

What I'm guessing the reason that most people get upset about high gas prices is that they don't feel they have a choice. They're forced to buy gas, right? Of course I know this is not really the case for most people. There are discretionary trips that people can cut out, or carpools that can be arranged, or even buses and trains that can stretch people's transportation dollars farther. So far though, I haven't heard anyone say they were considering any of these alternatives, so I'm thinking the price of gas isn't really that painful for most people. Now you might say that lower income people are challenged by the increasing gas costs, and granted some may be facing financial hardship, but I have a hunch that most people with low income aren't really able to cover all the other (and much higher) costs of owning and driving even a late model car -- like insurance, taxes and license, and maintenance. No, my guess is most of them sharing rides or are already on the bus.

Growing up in Orlando, FL, I got to see the price of a one-day admission to Walt Disney World rise from about $21 when my family arrived in 1986 to about $42 when I left for college in 1999. I seem to recall that during one period when the ticket price was being increased, an article came out quoting some honcho at Disney saying that the company's pricing policy was to raise the price of admission up until the point where something like five or ten percent of the visitors who saw the price at the ticket window turned around and decided not to buy a ticket (with the idea in mind that most people traveling to Orlando are prepared to spend what it takes to get into Disney, even if it means not going to Universal Studios)

I wonder what the price of gasoline would need to be to start making people seriously consider alternatives to driving everywhere, anywhere, all the time?

Of course, our government has added fuel to the fire, by releasing a report supporting a six cent increase in state gas taxes to pay for transportation improvements (read roads). While I personally support more money for transportation improvements (read transit), now is probably not the best time politically to start stumping for support for higher gas taxes. Though if we're going to bit the bullet, let's just raise the price of gas enough so that people stop driving so much and relieve ourselves of the need to build all those new roads that the legislature (read auto, oil, concrete lobbyists) want.

In a shocking development, both all escalators at the Hollywood and Highland Red Line station were fully operational by the time of my afternoon commute.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Today I had a meeting in Highland Park, so instead of getting off at Pershing Square, I took the Red Line to its final stop at Union Station, and then climbed up to the Gold Line platform to catch a train out. By the time I came out of the station and onto the platform, it had begun to rain. When I left my apartment, I had noticed the cloudy sky but for some reason did not consider the possibility of rain (I guess because its not a common occurrence here). Fortunately, by the time I arrived at my stop, it had all but ceased. On the way back to the office, my co-worker and I stopped for lunch in Chinatown, and upon leaving, we did have to contest with some raindrops.

Riding the Gold Line this morning made realize that while the subway is fast, it sure doesn't offer much of a view. Above ground on the train, I neglected the book I had been reading on the Red Line and entertained myself by just looking out the window. Of course, it probably gets old if you ride the train to work and back every day. But for me, it was a welcomed change of scenery.

And continuing yesterday's theme, two escalators at the Hollywood and Highland station were not working today. You might be tempted to say because this was because of the rain, but both of these particular escalators are not exposed to the outside elements, and are in fact well inside the station. I'll see how long it takes for them to be repaired.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

I'm not sure of what exactly is involved in escalator maintenance, but the MTA needs to get a hold of what is the continuing problem of out of service escalators in the Red Line stations. While I could be exaggerating somewhat, it seems that one of the four escalators at the Hollywood/Highland station is not functioning for some period every week. The Pershing Square station has less of a problem, but even there it seems to happen more often than I would expect. I remember reading an article about escalators leading to the Washington D.C. Metro breaking down often, but the culprit turned out to be exposure to rain. Well, it rarely rains here in Los Angeles -- so that can't be it.

Now, this isn't a major issue for me. I try to make it a point to take the stairs as exercise -- and this just helps keep me honest. But sometimes, when I'm feeling lazy, it would be nice to be able to skip the long flight of stairs leading out of the subway and take a ride on the escalators.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

When I talk to other people about riding transit, one of the excuses I often hear is that using transit makes it difficult and slow to travel to multiple destinations throughout the day. I'll admit that this is generally the case -- if you need to make several trips to different places each day, the bus is usually not going to cut it. But I'm curious to know where everyone is traveling? I mean if you're a salesperson or something, sure it makes sense to drive everywhere. But it seems to me that a lot of the people I know basically travel from home to work and back again. It's only on occasion that they need a car to make a business trip or run a few errands (and sometimes you can even get to that meeting using transit and save your company the mileage and parking expense).

Granted, moms and dads often have to drop-off and pick-up their children, but again, my feeling is that in quite a few instances those trips are not necessary. Once upon a time, kids actually walked or rode their bikes to school (I know I did). Of course, that was before people, rightly or wrongly, felt the world was too dangerous a place to give children freedom to roam around in the world.

As for people who pickup the dry cleaning and some food for dinner on the way home -- well, I can't help you there. You'd have to be disciplined enough to make it home via transit and then go out again in your car if need be. Of course, this should ideally be solved by living in a neighborhood where those sorts of daily needs and services are on the walk home from the bus or train station.

My point in all this is that by planning their schedules to determine when they'll actually need a car, people could ride transit to work on a more regular basis, and only drive in on the days they have too (or they could use a Flexcar instead). But in the end it really comes down to whether people are motivated (or incentivized) enough to make a change for the better and drive less. Unfortunately not many of us are there yet.

Saturday, February 07, 2004

This morning I had to travel to Redondo Beach for a meeting. For those of you not familiar with the L.A. area, it's about 25 miles from my apartment in Hollywood. In most other places, this would be really far, but in Los Angeles, this is not that uncommon of a traveling distance for a lot of people.

Because of the distance, and the fact that it was a Saturday morning, the trip was out of my usual transit riding routine, but I thought I'd give it a shot to see how it would work. I plotted out a trip using transit that would take me most of the way there, and then planned on using my bike to arrive at my destination. I caught a southbound #212 bus on La Brea Ave, loaded by bike on the rack, and road it for about 50 minutes to the Metro Green Line station at Hawthorne Blvd and the 105 Freeway. From there I boarded a eastbound train for a short 10 minute trip to the last stop at Marine Avenue, the northern most edge of Redondo Beach. From there I rode a little over 4 miles south to the center of the city to get to where I needed to go.

The entire trip down ended up taking me about one and a half hours. This is about twice the time it would have taken to drive, but considering that I also got a morning workout on my bike (and there were a few inclines to spice up the ride), I figured it wasn't too bad.

I don't think I'd want to do it everyday though.

On the way back, I checked the trip planner and decided to catch a bus going up P.C.H. to the Mariposa Green Line station, and then head back to the Hawthorne station to catch a #212 bus to Hollywood. I had made good time all the way back to the Hawthorne station, but then things stopped going as planned. I ended up waiting 45 minutes for a #212 bus to show up (2 were supposed to have come in that time period). Of course, there were a lot of other people waiting (I was surprised with how many people were on the buses and trains all day) and we were all pretty frustrated with the situation. I went ahead and put in a call to the MTA info line to complain and see what was going on when a bus finally arrived. I told the bus driver that we'd been waiting for a long time, and asked if she knew why no buses had come by as scheduled.

It turns out that the police had blocked off a large section of La Brea through the Baldwin Hills. According to my driver, she suspected that some of the other bus drivers, when confronted with the street closure, simply turned around. She had made a large detour to get around the closure and continue the route. Sure enough, driving north, we hit the police barricade, which pretty much brought traffic to a halt while drivers figured out which way they wanted to go. The trip home ended up taking almost 3 hours with all the delays.

I'm not sure how much I can blame the MTA for this. There clearly should have been some better communication with the drivers regarding the street closure (so they didn't just abandon their route), and perhaps the agency could have dispatched some additional buses to pickup the slack, but in the end, this was an unforeseen issue that impacted all travel at that time along La Brea. I just happened to have the bad fortune to be stuck in it.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

For those of you who've never taken a ride on a Metro Rail train here in L.A., there are no turnstiles to prevent anyone from getting on a train without paying. What there is are roaming sheriff's deputies who randoming check for proof of payment or valid fare and passes. Get caught riding the train without paying and you're stuck with a $250 fine.

Today on my way into downtown, a couple of officers boarded the train car and started asking to see everyone's tickets or passes. A man and woman with two toddlers who had just boarded at the last stop turned out not to have purchased tickets. At the next stop, the officer asked the man to get off and wrote him a ticket, but not the woman and kids. I guess he was just being nice.

In unrelated news, thanks to Heidi Schallberg, a blogger from Kansas City who is also car-free, for suggesting that I syndicate my blog. As of today, you can now get an Atom feed at http://ridingtransit.blogspot.com/atom.xml

Monday, February 02, 2004

On my trip home this afternoon it started raining. After emerging from the subway portal, I waited for about 5 minutes under a bus shelter for a southbound #156 bus on Highland. Due to the rain, the traffic was very bad, and as the bus came down the street, the cars swerving in and out of lanes prevented the driver from merging into the right lane. The driver, presumably frustrated by the traffic, just decided to skip the stop as I was waving to him. I chased him down a block, which wasn't too hard because the traffic is moving so slow. I was about ready to ask him why he skipped the stop as I got on the bus, but I was just glad to be out of the rain, and didn't feel like giving him a hard time while he was trying to navigate the congested street.

I sure am glad that it doesn't rain in Los Angeles very much, let alone snow.

Though I'm willing to cut some slack to the drivers now and then, it is clear to me that the bus and train operators (and Metro in general) behave as if they are doing you a favor, and ignore the fact the you and every rider on a Metro bus or train is in fact a paying customer. Unfortunately, this type of service doesn't do much to pull more people out of their cars. While Metro (like all transit agencies in the U.S.) loses money with each rider it carries (which may be one explanation for its lack of enthusiasm), it doesn't have to be this way. There are several transit systems around the world that make a profit and provide good service to their riders (Tokyo, Japan and Bogota, Columbia are some examples).

Some critics of modern day public transit propose taking away the transit agencies' monopoly on service in most cities and introducing competition to improve both service quality and operation efficiency. I'm not sure if that's the right solution, but I do think that there does need to be some greater accountability regarding the quality of service and where and when service is provided to obtain the biggest bang for the buck. In my opinion, this largely comes down to leadership making this an organizational priority.

While I do see Metro making some slow improvements, I can still see a lot of need for some creative problem solving to make more rapid progress on creating a transit system that can make a dent in the region's traffic congestion and air quality problems.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

This afternoon I was going to get a Flexcar and go do some major grocery shopping, but when I went to reserve the car closest to me here in Hollywood, it was already booked. That being the case, I decided to ride my bike instead and just pick up a few things. Coincidently, when I was leaving the supermarket with my purchases, I noticed the Flexcar pull into the parking lot (or at least I assume it was the Hollywood car). The folks at the L.A. office told me that the car in Hollywood was getting good use, but I was just glad to see it for myself.

In other news, Metro (formerly known as the MTA) launches a new Metro Rapid line tomorrow. Line 710 runs along Crenshaw/Rossmore from the South Bay Galleria to the Hollywood/Vine Metro station. The only downside is that the line is not scheduled to run on late evenings or weekends.

Also, for any Sierra Club members in Southern California, I wrote a brief article about my car-free experience for the February issue of the Southern Sierran, which is devoted to transportation issues. There's also an article on transit-oriented development by my boss, Beth Steckler, who is the Policy Director at Livable Places.

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