Recently, in print and on-line, a slew of articles, blogs, comments and what-not have been bashing the proposed subway, the Purple Line, the “Subway to the Sea,” moving west down Wilshire from its current terminus at Wilshire and Western. James Moore, USC transportation professor has a hard spot in his heart for the subway. In a recent LA Weekly article, Moore is quoted, “Instead of rail, "Road capacity is always a good buy." What does that buy? More roads? Where in Los Angeles would they go? The streets and freeways are built out to capacity.
Of buy road capacity would require either widening streets more. If Wilshire were to be widened, how exactly would that be done? High rises line the boulevard from downtown to West Los Angeles? Take out the lobbies of the buildings and pass an additional lane or two through them? The cannot be knocked down to make expand Wilshire sideways. So how could additional capacity be bought along Wilshire Boulevard, one of busiest streets in Los Angeles County.
Double deck? How would that work? How would it look? The great Southern California open sky is continually being blocked by a greater number of tall buildings lining the major boulevards. Consider a solid, horizontal, concrete apron approximately twenty to thirty feet, up to six lanes wide, in the air atop Wilshire Boulevard. In my book, that is plain and simple ugly, and dehumanizing. It would buy capacity, but at what price.
The second deck of a boulevard, or freeway, cannot just be attached to the existing road. It must be supported on concrete columns. Since Los Angeles is earthquake country, the footings for the columns must be put deep into the ground. For the now being constructed Expo Line, they extend sixty feet into the earth. How many concrete, steel rebarb reinforced columns would be needed to double deck Wilshire from Wilshire and Western to Wilshire and Bundy? Besides the tremendous cost to quality of life issues, such as visual blight, what would be the construction costs? Besides the road apron, on and off ramps would have to be constructed. And those take space for safely engineered curves and ramps.
In the 1989 Loma Prieta/San Francisco earthquake, a double decked freeway pancaked. There was loss of life. Would a Wilshire doubledecker be able to withstand the next big temblor?
Subways in earthquakes have shown to be curiously, but tremendously pliable and continue to function shortly after the quake while above ground buildings, bridges, overpasses, houses, and freeways lay in rubble. In the 1994 Northridge earthquake, portions of the Santa Monica Freeway collapsed. The costs to return it to capacity were huge. Yet, the poor, much maligned Los Angeles Metro subway was running in a day or two, with little damage. In the Loma Prieta quake, the Oakland Bay Bridge lost capacity when portions fell off. It is now being replaced, at a huge financial cost for capacity. The initial cost was $1.4Billion, and as of July, 2005, costs are up to $6.2Billion (Wikipedia). That is a lot of money for capacity. BART, the Bay Area’s subway, which runs under the San Francisco Bay, was operational within days after the 1989 quake.
The 1985 Mexico City earthquake killed and estimated 10,000. Their subway for the most part remained operational, and the stations closed were due to above ground devastation.
The oil and methane fields of Los Angeles basin are facts of life, but along what is probably the highest methane concentrations along Wilshire at the La Brea Tar Pits (La Brea means “tar pits,” but stating only “tar pits” is inconclusive.) are numerous underground parking structures with equipment to deal with the methane.
Some have proposed that the billions projected for the subway would be better spent buying people hybrid cars. This could not be a more wasteful use of tax money for transit. When a car is driven off the lot, it looses value, so this would be an immediate loss to the value of the transit funds. Then, if the vehicles are not properly maintained, they will loose their value even sooner, and soon stop running.
Moreover, there is a $9Billion figure tossed around for the costs of the Wilshire Subway. That would be the cost if it went through various detours, but if it is a straight shot down Wilshire to the V.A., the costs are around $2Billion, which leaves a lot of money for other transit projects.
Those other transit projects are worthy, but why is there opposition to spending transit money for a subway in the most densely populated area of Los Angeles? It would be put to good use for existing and new transit riders. Some estimates have 80,000 daily bus riders on Wilshire. The Red Line subway currently has around 120,000 daily passengers.
When given a choice between riding a bus down Wilshire in which going from Westwood to Downtown Los Angeles can easily take fifty to sixty minutes, opposed to projected subway time twenty-five minutes, what is the problem in making a decision? A thirty minute difference each way equals an hour daily of saved time. That is priceless.
I ride buses, a lot of buses. I live near LAX, so I don’t have a light rail, though I hope the Crenshaw and Green Line light rails open before this new decade is over. I’ve ridden buses on Wilshire, the local and the Rapid. Both are stuck in traffic along with the other vehicles during the ever extending commuter hours. At midday, and in the evenings when traffic is lighter, Wilshire, and many other streets, are so beat-up, that when in the stiff suspension Rapid Bus, it is like being on a blend on the chop cycle. I have been lifted out of my seat after particularly nasty pot holes waylaid the bus.
Subways are also tremendously more efficient for the rider, and easier to use. Board on buses is laborious, slow and tedious. Each rider goes through a single door, the front, to flash a pass, give over a transfer, or pay the fare into the fare box. With bus fares now $1 dollar and above, bills are used. They are to be fed into slots, similar to vending machines, but it is an art to properly insert the bill so the machine takes it at first try. Even experienced riders such as myself have problems. I use dollar coins as much as possible, it is a quick drop into the slot with other coins and it’s done.
Subway fares are paid before boarding, so the process is to let the departing rider leave and step straight on to the train. This even-level step from station platform to the train is a highly engineered and time intensive construction project, but when operational, the movement of riders is seamless. Buses can be a complete pain to board. If they are not close to the curb, and the Rapid Buses with their external sliding doors must park away from hight curbs so the door don’t get stuck, then the rider either leaps across the chasm from curb to bus, or steps off the curb into the street then steps up into the bus, which can be a rather high step. If it’s raining, then it’s stepping into puddles before boarding the bus.
The handicapped in wheel chairs ride mass transit. I encourage it, I’m glad to see these people using transit. But on the bus, everything stops while a ramp is lowered from the bus to the sidewalk for the wheelchair. Then, people in the front get up from their seats which are then folded up for the wheelchair. Then, the driver straps them in. When they get off, it’s the reverse of procedures. This takes a lot of time out the trip.
On subways, elevators are installed for wheelchairs, and the riders, once they are on the platform, can smoothly ride onto the train. Without doubt, subway platforms are part of the costs, but the years of use from the platforms are certainly paid for over time. Consider London started an underground in the late 19th Century. New York’s subways, and its platforms have been in use since 1904. The Berlin Subway began service in 1902. Once the tunnels are bored and the platforms built, the years of service provided are certainly cost efficient. I do not believe that along Wilshire there is any continuously used bus stop since 1904, the beginning service of New York’s subway.
The subway is the prayer answered for bus riders. Why would people not want to have the fastest travel times and the greatest ease of use? The Wilshire subway is needed, and for some, demanded, to keep congestion down-either the constant stream of new transit riders will either ride transit or drive. If they choose to drive, how many additional tens-of-thousands of vehicles will clog the already gridlocked streets? The subway will take tens-of-thousands of vehicle trips out of the streets. Is that wrong?
To paraphrase Vice President candidate Lloyd Benson in his debate with Dan Quale: “I know subways, and buses are no subways.”