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The Case for Bus Rapid Transit in Los Angeles


Martin Wachs
Head Urban Planning Program
School of Architecture and Urban Planning
University of California, Los Angeles

    Neil Simon, the New York playwright who became an expatriate resident in Los Angeles in June, says he thinks the city is on its way to becoming what London was thought to be in the early sixties - - not a “swinging” city as London was mislabeled, but a city with a fresh intellectual breeze running through it that is stimulating ideas and the arts and attracting young, talented people. Although it’s too soon to pass judgment on the accuracy of his prophecy, Los Angeles is showing signs of change and maturity. The jokes about Southern California clichés still abound: about the smog, the endless freeways, the absence of a sense of city, the rampant materialism, the used-car salesmen in white shoes and the housewives shopping with their hair in curlers, and so forth. Yet, Los Angeles is developing a first-rate theater; it is talking seriously about building a rail rapid transit system; there are the beginnings of an effort to restore the city’s shabby downtown area, and believe it or not, pollution experts say atmospheric conditions are getting better.

    from “What’s Doing in Los Angeles,” by Robert Lindsey, New York Times, Travel Section, Sunday, October 12, 1975. (end indented)

Such quotations show that the choices which we are facing regarding a transportation system for Los Angeles are very basic ones affecting the image and feeling associated with the name of our city. It would appear that to citizens of the world, including many living in Los Angeles, a rail transit system goes along with first-rate theater, a ballet company, major league sports, and skyscrapers as part of the image of a classy and leading city. Freeways and smog, on the other hand, connote used car salesmen in white shoes and shoppers with their hair in curlers. Perhaps this is why so many people who should know better are avid supporters of rail transit for Los Angeles.

Although the technical arguments for building a ten or eleven billion dollar transit system are extremely weak, and the benefits seem to be far outweighed by the costs, our business, intellectual, and civic leaders continue to believe that we should spend the money for such a system. Perhaps those of us who feel we “have a stake” in Los Angeles should finally admit that our major reasons for favoring rail rapid transit stem from a basic sense of cultural inferiority when we compare our city with London, Paris, New York, and especially San Francisco, and that hopes for smog reduction are not really at the heart of our longings for rapid transit.

Our downtown business community steadfastly supported recent referenda for taxes in support of rail transit and, having failed, it continues to support the idea of a smaller “starter rail line” to at least take the first step. Many have claimed that these downtown property owners, bankers, and retailers are supporting a rail system in their own economic self interest. I believe, however, that such alternatives as a bus transit system for Los Angeles could provide downtown with economic advantages equal to those of a rail system, at a much lower cost to the taxpayers. Rather than acting in their self interest, our bankers and real estate magnates, like members of our cultural and intellectual communities, are fighting off the used car salesmen in white shoes by supporting rail transit investments which will cost billions of dollars, but at least we should be honest with ourselves.

It is clear that rail transit offers Los Angeles very little over more mundane systems such as all-bus rapid transit in people-moving ability, attractiveness to riders, smog-reduction, service to the carless, or any other absolute criterion of performance. In considering whether we can really invest billions in rail transit for the sake of creating a new image, we must recognize that financial and fiscal responsibility can be an important part of an image too, and that the Big Apple is now mentioned much less frequently than the Big MAC. We cannot afford the luxury of a rail transit system in Los Angeles primarily because it offers no transportation service advantages over the much less costly options provided by an all-bus transit system.

Reasons for Investing in Transit At All
Recognizing that Los Angeles today has one of the world’s leading transportation networks in its freeway system, and that the Southern California Rapid Transit District (SCRTD) operates the fourth-largest system in this country, there are only a few major reasons for considering significant additions to our current transit network. The first is that we want to get more travelers our of their cars. Automobiles cause smog, consume energy, and, when we all decide to use them at the same time, use up the amazingly large capacity of our freeway network, causing delays and annoyance due to congestion. By providing better transit systems, we hope to get some drivers to shift willingly to public transit, bringing about time savings for those who switch as well as for those who continue to use the freeways. In turn, we hope this shift will cause us to consume less gasoline and will contribute to cleaner air. Another reason for investing in public transportation is that there are many people who have inadequate mobility under our prsent systme. The elderly, the very young, the handicapped, and the very poor may not own cars or have the ability to drive. Current transit service does not reach all of these people, and those it does reach are often ot provided with short waiting times or direct routings.

It is important to recognize that we are only considering new systems to be added to existing ones. No new transit system will cause an immediate abandonment of freeways or current travel patterns. Changes will be small and gradual. After studying the date produced by the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) and the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) and dozens of consulting firms, I have concluded and will demonstrate in this paper that with respect to the objective of shifting people form cars to mass transit, a rail system offers no advantage over buses when added to our currently existing regional network. Although no advantage is to be gained by building rial transit, such a system is much more expensive to build than an all-bust alternative. With respect to the provision of better service to the mobility-limited, an all-buss system has clear advantages in performance over a rail network. The only point on which I would agree that a rail system offers advantages over an all-bus transit system is in the that a rail system is part of an image of a sophisticated and worldly city. Having grown up in New York, I personally feel more comfortable in a subway city than in a freeway city. Nevertheless, the intangible images should be treated openly and not hidden behind half-truths about ridership or service for the mobility-limited.

Changing Ridership Patterns
It has been argued by many community leaders that an all-bus transit system would be inferior to a rail transit system in attracting commuters out of their autos. Analysis conducted here in Los Angeles, plus actual experience here and elsewhere show that a bus system can do as well as a rail system in this regard.

Consultants to SCRTD conducted hundreds of computer simulations to determine what the ridership would be on many different networks. In each test some conditions were varied or population growth assumptions were changed. It is impossible, therefore, to simply cite the results of some specific computer test to conclude that bus patronage would match rail transit patronage. It all depends upon which bus network, which aerial network, which gasoline prices, which population estimates, etc. were employed. Nevertheless, a general pattern emerges showing that bus systems do produce ridership comparable to rail systems. In one important report, for example, consultants to SCRTD compared one possible rail network, called R2A, with one possible bus network, called R1. The rail network, including bus feeder components, was very similar to the ones finally recommended before the bond issue referendum of 1974. It included 150 miles of rail right-of-way plus express busways and feeder buses. The bus alternative included a significant augmentation of existing service to the extent that most major freeways would carry express bus operations. The results of these computer runs, reported in April 1974, showed that the 1990 daily patronage of the transit network which included the rail lines (plus bus feeders and other components) would be 1,317,00. By comparison, the all-bus system would carry 1,230,00 daily passengers. We would agree that these “typical” computer runs show small differences. Furthermore, since the network which included the rail system (R2A) also included an extensive bus network as well, it is instructive to repeat that this ridership comparison is for the entire networks being compared. Of the total patronage being served, only 640,000 of the total cited in the fires (rail) network would be riding on rails; the remained of the 1.3 million would be using only the bus portions of the rail-dominated system for their trips.

A number of other technical reports convey essentially the same message. The difference in ridership between bus and rail transit systems is small in comparison with changes which could be brought about in modal choice by changes in other variables. Parking costs, and differences in walking times from a parking lot or a transit stop to work location, actually have a greater influence upon the decision to ride transit than whether the transit portion the trip is made by bus or train. The consultants to SCRTD reported that the combination of a $2.00 per day tax on parking plus a ten-minute increase in walking time from parking stall to work site could cause a forty percent increase in transti patronage to the CBD. This shift is far greater than can be achieved by any bus or transit network introduced in the absence of such charges or walking constraints. The consultants went on to say that: “If the general level of transit service is poor, transit patronage is very sensitive to changes in headway, speed, and fares. If, however, transit service in already at a relatively good level, such as existing service to the Central Business District (CBD), patronage is less sensitive to system changes.”

In addition, when considering the specifics of travel to the CBD, the consultants also observed that even a 30% or 40% increase in CBD-bound transit trips would not necessitate the higher passenger capacity of a rail system. This occurs because the traffic bound for the CBD is such a small proportion of the total traffic volume in any corridor that a 40% increase in transit use among CBD-bound trips can be achieved with only a 10% or 15% increase in transit trips in any particular corridor or direction. If such observations are correct, the economic viability of downtown is not particularly enhanced by a rail system. A rail system per se does not get more people to leave their cars for CBD-bound trips than a bus system, and buses provide ample capacity because of the multitude of origins from which downtown workers travel.

Consumer Appeal of Buses
Despite the evidence produced by computer models that a bus system in Los Angeles would attract about as many riders as a rail system, many leading citizens continue to resist this conclusion on the grounds of “obvious logic.” They say that an automobile provides comfort, privacy, music, and that Angelenos have a “love affair” with their cars. Thus, the argument goes, we will not be able to attract riders to a smelly old bus. Instead, only sleek, modern trains will be able to appeal to the auto commuter sufficiently to get him out of his car. All of the evidence available would indicate that this is untrue.

With respect to such vehicle comfort and amenity features as seat configuration, carpeting, ride quality, and availability of diversions (e.g., capability for radio listening), respondents to attitudinal surveys considering “ideal” transportation systems and users of real systems have given similar reactions. In general, provided that basic physiological needs are met through the avoidance of excessive vibration, noise, odor, or jerk, it appears that physical luxury while riding a vehicle, or the presence of a wide range of amenities, is less important to the traveler’s decision process than travel time, cost, and service reliability.

While travelers in one study cited protection from inclement weather when waiting for a vehicle, availability of package and baggage space, and ability to listen to the radio as major contributors to the difference between their satisfaction levels with autos and existing transit vehicles, they rated such variables as being significantly less important to modal choice than travel time reliability, cost, avoidance of waiting, etc., for both work and non-work trips. The conclusion to be reached is that while commuters recognize the inherent advantages of the automobile with respect to such factors, they were not critical to the choice between modes. Rather they were seen as “extra bonuses” associated with automobile availability.

While the broad concepts of comfort and amenity are generally less important to traveler modal-choice decisions than other dimensions of service, a few specific elements of comfort and amenity do seem to be more important factors chosen, the presence or absence of air conditioning consistently was rated as more important than other elements of comfort and amenity. In several studies seat assurance emerged as only slightly less important than travel time reliability and often as important as cost differences between modes. An interview study of nearly 200 people who were riding specifically designed “new feature” buses in service on Shirley Highway routes in Washington, D.C. showed that 90% of the respondents rated schedule reliability as having a significant impact on their modal choice, while no feature in the comfort or amenity category was rated nearly as important. From among about a dozen features which were incorporated in the special feature buses, only air conditioning, cited as important by 71% of the respondents, and seat assurance, cited by 62% the respondents, were considered significant in the decision to ride. Other features, including improved leg room, larger windows, carpeting, absence of advertising, etc., were all significantly less important than other travel service variables, including fares, travel time, and schedule reliability.

The conclusion to be reached about developing transit improvements is that commuter reactions have consistently shown that it is not necessary to provide luxurious interiors and plush environments in order to attract riders. Meeting basic physiological requirements, providing for a high probability of seat availability, and incorporating temperature control are the most critical aspects of comfort and amenity which should be addressed in vehicle design. To the extent that additional items of amenity, such as space for packages, might be incorporated in the design, the vehicles can provide greater attractiveness, but such features do not seem most critical in attracting patrons out of their automobiles. If buses provide travel time advantages over other modes, if they provide reliable service, and if they have ample seating capacity, there are no research findings to indicate that they would have less commuter appeal than trains.

Indeed, buses are able to offer superior service to rail systems with respect to one important feature of autos. Buses can provide something much closer to “door-to-door service” than can rail transit. While trains must usually rely upon autos as feeders, or must depend upon bus service and a time consuming mode change as part of a trip, buses can operate on local streets in residential neighborhoods and, after picking up their passengers, enter a freeway or a reserved lane for and “express” trip to downtown at a speed which approximates a rail vehicle. Thus, the time consuming mode change can be eliminated, and the bus can provide travel time advantages over rail transit if we consider an entire trip from door to door.

Results from a few bus systems which include high-speed express operations of the sort which we might have on many freeways indicate that this type of service can attract upper-income, auto-owning commuters who do have a choice. The best example of this is the Shirley Highway Service in Washington, D.C., where buses collect people from many residential neighborhoods, and then travel downtown on reserved freeway lanes at speeds which exceed those of autos moving alongside. Through extensive on-board interview surveys, the upper-income riders of this service indicate that they have been selecting express buses for the journey to work because of high levels of schedule reliability, favorable travel times in comparison with the automobile, and convenient access to the buses without significant waiting and transfer times. Interview studies showed that 82% of those electing to use the buses in this corridor did have a car available for the trip, whereas nearly half the users of conventional pre-existing bus service in the corridor did not have cars available. Three-fourths of the Shirley riders who utilized park-and-ride service had incomes in excess of $15,000, while 56% of those who walked to the bus had such incomes. The Shirley service also attracted more males than conventional service, with 60% of Shirley riders being male versus 45% of the riders of conventional buses in the corridor (sex ratios are important because females are more likely to be captives of transit than males). In summary, it was found that on many socio-economic and demographic dimensions, those electing to use the premium buses-on-freeways were more like the typical auto commuter than the typical bus commuter. Of course, as mentioned earlier, the availability of free or low-cost parking at the work site appeared to be one significant deterrent to use of the premium bus service. The most impressive statistic is that of all the commuters in the Shirley Corridor who lived in areas served by the buses and worked in areas served by the buses, some forty percent have elected to ride the bus transit system rather than driving to work. In interview surveys, it was also found that free or very low-cost parking was available to many of those who continued to drive to work. Thus, express bus transit, possibly in combination with revisions in parking fee structures, can be expected to provide as significant a consumer response as would any rail transit proposals.

But what about closer to home? The San Bernardino (El Monte) Express Bus Experiment offers less service than the Shirley, having fewer routes, and relying upon a larger share of its riders to drive to the bus terminals rather than to be picked up in their neighborhoods. Yet, this busway is now carrying nearly 12,000 daily commuters (one-way) and the bus lanes are already carrying, during the peak two-hour period, a number of passengers roughly equivalent to the same lanes if they were packed with autos during the same hours. The difference, of course, is that the bus lane is not yet operating near its total capacity. Preliminary results from the busway experiment in Los Angeles appear similar to the results from the Shirley Highway. Here, while only 35% of pre-busway transit users in the corridor were male, exactly half the premium service users were male. About 80% of new service users come from households owning one or more autos, and 48% of the new service users previously used automobiles rather than buses for the same trip. Significantly, 80% of the busway users had incomes of over $10,000 per year, while users of pre-busway transit service included only 46% from the income groups above $10,000.

Relationship Between Transit Use, Smog, and Energy
While a bus transit system can provide service equivalent to a rail system at lower total cost, and such a system would attract riders in numbers approximately equal to the ridership attracted by a rail system, it should be clearly stated that neither transit alternative can eliminate smog, significantly reduce energy consumption, or eliminate congestion. We already have several examples which provide clues as to why this is so. First, consider the downtown minibuses. Some people felt that these would reduce auto-trip-making downtown. In fact, interviews show that the vast majority of the minibus riders previously made the same trip by walking rather than driving; or that they are now making trips which they did not make before! By comparison, only about 10% of mini-bus users had formerly made similar trips by driving. Also, the much-publicized “commuter-computer” car pool system in Los Angeles has received as many applications for matching from current transit users as it has received as many applications for matching from current transit users as it has from auto drivers. Those who hope that carpooling will significantly reduce auto travel must recognize that many will switch from transit to autos by virtue of car-pooling programs. Similarly, over the long haul, major transit improvements themselves will not cause a huge decline in auto travel. Surveys of BART users have shown that only 25% of the current users previously made the same trip by driving, while more than 40% were previously bus users. Traffic on the trans-bay bridges is estimated to be only 2% lower than it would now be without BART (4% lower during peak hours).

A region wide commuter transit system relying on either buses or rail service appeals mostly to the markers of longer trips, and the trips made for work or school purposes. During the next twenty years, however, it is expected that non-work and non-school trips will grow at a rate three times the rate of growth in work and school trips. It is not surprising, therefore, that in studies of widely different strategies for meeting air quality and energy objectives, and RAND Corporation concluded that a tripling of bus services would produce less improvement in air quality than significant increase in gasoline prices and parking fees. The latter would cause many trips to be foregone entirely, while the transit options, whether using steel wheels or rubber tires, would cause a smaller number of trips to be diverted. Unless we change our basic system of pricing transportation service, I must agree with SCRTD’s own consultants who wrote, in April 1974:

In considering these impacts on auto travel and gasoline consumption from what is essentially a Los Angeles County transit program, it must be appreciated that the transit program will have only a modest impact on the total five-county regional problems, regardless of the strategies employed or the way in which the assumptions may vary. The impact is much more significant in the central portion of Los Angeles County. The effect of a major transit program will not be so much to reduce freeway congestion as it will be to travel in congested periods and to provide a new level of mobility for those who do not or cannot travel by auto.

Service the Mobility Limited
Earlier, I mentioned that an important objective for transit improvement in Los Angeles is the provision of services for the mobility limited. I believe that an all-bus network can provide service for the mobility limited superior to the service provided by a rail system.

Among the mobility limited I would include the elderly, handicapped, non-drivers, the poor, and the very young. All of these groups are more dependent upon public transportation for all trip purposes than are other groups in our city. For the most part, these groups required local transportation service within communities. The elderly, handicapped, and very young have very little occasion to travel downtown,, but might rather be expected to make shorter trips to the doctor, to local recreation facilities, to shopping centers, etc. Thus, the local collector portions of a transportation network would be of more use to such people than the "line-haul" or trunk lines, an these collector portions would most likely be provided by bus whether or not we elect to use rail transit for the corridors of heaviest movement. However, an all-bus system would involve less capital investment in the fixed-route guide ways, and would, therefore, make more money available for more buses which can provide service to the mobility limited in addition to providing commuter service.

While a train is confined to the tracks to wait for its peak period riders, a bus can be used during the peak hour to take workers downtown or school children to schools, and can then be used off-peak in the provision of door-to-door subscription service enabling the elderly and handicapped to shop or obtain health care. This flexibility provides the mobility limited with significant opportunities which could certainly also be provided in a system which also included rail transit, but it provided these at lower coat and with grater efficiency. Furthermore, if we assign highest priority to a rail commuter network, it will consume so much of our available funding that we will never be able to provide fully for the mobility limited.

Even the spatial pattern of the proposed rail network results in the provision of less service to the poor. For example, both Van Nuys and Watts are connected to the downtown area by the proposed SCRTD rail network. It runs out, however, that 85% of the workers residing in Van Nuys have skills which match those provided by the jobs in downtown, while only 20% of the workers in Watts have such skills. Crosstown service from Watts to the industrial areas is more needed by its working population than is express service to downtown. Buses can provide needed service from and around Watts, and indeed traffic volumes do not warrant crosstown rail service there. But again, by putting a huge amount of money into rail network, we will inevitably elect a slow down our programs of improvement to local and crosstown service which is more needed by blue collar workers.

There are many possible approaches to improving transit services in Los Angeles. BY focusing attention on the building of a rail system we are overlooking many important issues of potentially grater importance than the particular technology which is chosen. Technical analysis has shown that bus service can match rail service in ridership appeal, travel time, and frequency of service. It has many advantages over rail systems in terms of flexibility, and a critical advantage in the area of cost. Rail systems have much larger capital (construction) costs than bus systems, and the promise of lower operating (labor) costs in rail systems are often unrealized because of union demands and because modern rail systems rely heavily upon an extensive network of bus feeders. Observers of BART have confirmed this view.

But the analysis also shows us that parking fees, walking distances, transfer policies and many other characteristics of transit service may actually outweigh the differences between rail and bus transit in the minds of commuters making choices about driving versus public transit. Thus, a carefully designed program of pricing and incentives for transit use, coupled with disincentives for auto use, can bring about a far greater shift of travel to public transit than any rail transit construction program. This is especially true of travel downtown, because the density of destinations there affords opportunities which cannot be matched elsewhere. Express and subscription bus service to downtown, coupled with certain employee benefit programs (e.g., a choice between free transit passes ad free parking as opposed to only the latter), and fiscal programs which combine transit incentives with auto incentives (e.g., parking taxes which are used to finance transit improvements) can bring about dramatic improvements in transit use, and in downtown’s attractiveness. These can be accomplished in much less time than it would take to construct a rail transit system; and at much lower cost. We should abandon our blind adherence to an image of transit which is not relevant to our city and our era, and processed with the consideration of more practical and comprehensive transportation programs for Los Angeles though they may also be less dramatic in the short run.



Morris Pardue
California State University, Northridge

I found Professors Wachs’ paper a very sensible treatment of the topic of buses as a means to improve Los Angeles’ transportation system. The following brief remarks will merely add some emphasis, and additional evidence to support some of the points that he makes.

Professor Wachs principal point is that buses offer as good an alternative to driving as a rail system might to reduce some of the undesirable external effects of automobile usage, at a fraction of the cost. The counter-argument offered by proponents of the Sunset Coast Line is that buses cannot attract fastidious drivers from their cars. Wachs cites evidence which indicates that amenity and opulence are far outweighed by other considerations in computer’s modal choices. Thus, the proposed investments in luxurious rail cars would probably induce a very nominal increase in the demand for ridership at what the experience of other urban rail systems indicates would be an extraordinary increase in cost.

What in fact, are the relative costs of bus versus rail transit? Professor Hilton, in Federal Transit Subsidies, cites a Department of Transportation study which estimates that rail costs (such as those of BART) exceed express bus-way costs by a factor of 6:1 for rights-of-way, 4:1 per seat on rolling stock, and 2:5:1 per seat-mile for operating costs. However, given the probable degree of over-investment projected in the current plans for Los Angeles, the disparity in total costs would probably be much greater. John Kain, in a study on Atlanta, estimated that exclusive bus lanes, automatic metering of right-of-ways, and similar devices would accomplish as much as the proposed rail system for that city, at less than two percent of the cost.

Given this extraordinary profligacy, the issue of the regressiveness of the scheme to finance the Sunset Coast Line merits additional consideration. Studies on the more successful transit lines proudly point to figures which show that most new riders are upper-income, and therefore must have been attracted from their cars. Thus, while most trunk-line rail riders will probably be upper-income commuters, everyone will pay an equal percentage of his expenditures under a sales tax. As a result, we have the prospect of having well-to-do suburban residents riding to work in swivel-chaired coaches, financed by sales-tax dollars paid by everyone who will have little use for the system.

It has also been pointed out that long-haul rail lines tend to compete with the same type of bus lines (as a Wilshire subway would compete with the Wilshire bus). These more patronized, and more profitable lines have in the past been used to cross-subsidize less intensively used cross-town lines which tend to serve more low-income people. A rather telling feature of the Sunset Coast Line plan is that tax receipts could be used only for rail service and not to surplant the more successful bus routes, it might be difficult for bus authorities to continue providing bus service to less profitable low-income areas.

A final comment on the cost of the proposed system reflects the apparent appreciation that some public officials have of the concept of opportunity cost. I was privy to a conversation with Supervisor Ward’s representative after his talk, in which he revealed the reasoning behind his perplexing statement that the goal of the plan was to find the best way to exhaust an additional one-cent sales tax. Apparently, the feeling is that the state plans to levy an additional expenditures according to the Serrano decision, and if this is approved, it will be very difficult to pass an additional cent for transit in the future. Thus, the impression is left that the fear exists that assuming but one cent can be approved, if we don’t use it on these highly questionable transit investments, it might be wasted on something like education.

Given that buses might be used to deal with some of our transportation problems at a much lower cost than rail, how might they best be used? I was pleased that Professor Wachs’ paper did not advocate massive additional expenditures on buses or contend that they could solve all of our problems. Apparently, the most successful use of buses has been achieved on express lines with preferential lanes along freeways such as the Shirley Highway system into Washington, D.C. However, even this acclaimed project has run at a deficit. Such a deficit might be justified on the basis that all benefits do not accrue to users, and that the use of the bus system tends to mitigate some of the undesirable external effects of driving. The external effects generally considered are congestion and air pollution.

To what extent can we expect buses or other forms of transit to reduce these problems? In general, it has been shown that transit systems have little effect on congestion. The experience of other cities has shown that most of the increase in rail or express bus ridership is attracted not from drivers, but from car passengers, other transit, and previous non-trip-makers. Even a survey on the celebrated Shirley Highway system showed that only twenty-three percent of riders were previously drivers, and the Skokie, Illinois railway found that only twelve percent of riders to Chicago’s Loop had previously driven downtown. Professor Wachs’ figures seem consistent with these findings, showing that of the projected 640,000 riders on a given rail system in Los Angeles, all but 87,000, (or about fourteen percent ex-drivers) would be attracted not from cars, but from a bus system.

Professor Hilton, in Federal Transit Subsidies, noted that the effect on a new transit system paralleling existing auto routes is generally a once-and-for-all delay in the growth of auto use of that which would occur over six months to one year’s time. This amount of growth is usually indistinguishable from the ordinary variation in traffic. To apply this result to a local example, an additional lane for express buses is planned on the San Diego freeway to the San Fernando Valley. Assuming the service is attractive to some, there may be a temporary switch of some drivers to buses on this route. This would reduce traffic on the freeway, make commuting appear a less arduous prospect, and attract a greater population to the Valley. If, in the long run, more commuting residents are attracted to the Valley, auto congestion on the freeway won’t be reduced. And, in terms of air pollution, if these additional residents use their cars for local trips, the extra car-owning population may, if anything, have the perverse effect of aggravating air pollution in the Valley.

Given this gloomy assessment, what policies might make buses or other forms of transit more effective in combating congestion and air pollution? As Professor Wachs points out, disincentives for auto usage (such as higher gas prices) appear to most effective in this regard. Of course, it is not the goal to discourage driving for its own sake. Rather, the purpose of such disincentives would be to make drivers bear the cost that they individually impose in terms of additional congestion and air pollution, so that the cost to society of additional trips won’t exceed the benefits imputed by drivers. If drivers bear this cost and alternatives exist, they will substitute other modes for driving. Thus, if we are going to provide these alternative modes, some form of disincentive will make them more effective.

What types of disincentives might be employed? Let us consider two types: One common type is different forms of pecuniary disincentives such as tolls, parking fees, and so on. An alternative type, one which I feel is much less desirable, is a disincentive in real terms, involving waiting time or inconvenience.

The current “Diamond Lane” experiment on the Santa Monica Freeway may be an example of such a disincentive service. The Diamond Lane offers car-pooling drivers the prospect of faster travel while on the freeway, with an implicit toll in terms of the cost of finding two colleagues with similar interests, loss of independence, and so on. Although I won’t prejudge the final outcome, it may be the case that this cost is too high for most individuals, and few people will avail themselves of its use. Thus, with already existing residential and employment patterns, the ultimate result would be to reduce the capacity of the freeway. The resulting slowed times and aggravation may cause some people to switch to buses or to surface streets. But unlike pecuniary disincentives, the lost time and inconvenience expanded in inducing them to do so can never be recovered.

By contrast, pecuniary disincentives like tolls and parking fees might (however imperfect) be rebatable to users. For instance, proceeds might be used in lieu of property tax increases in areas served by freeways. In addition, these payments would not ordinarily be regressive in that they would usually fall on upper-income long-haul commuters. In fact, they might be regarded as progressive if used to subsidize less profitable transit service in low-income areas where justified.

Of course, one of the dangers of imposing disentives to driving, whether real or pecuniary, is that one might make the disincentive so great as to reduce the general welfare. If the narrow goal of having one sparsely-used Diamond Lane is to reduce the number of cars on the freeway, certainly permanent barriers at the freeway entrances would be more effective in this regard. In the Bay Area, making drivers along routes paralleling BART deflate one tire, or having those who traverse the Bay Ridge drive across in reverse, would surely an increase rapid transit ridership and make BART appear a much greater success. However, it is clear that the goal of such disincentives should not be to encourage carpooling as a virtuous activity, or to justify the sunk costs of transit investments, but rather to increase the general well-being.

The well-being of the Los Angeles citizenry will surely be affected by the outcome of the vote on the current rail transit proposal. Hopefully, more modest and prudent approaches, such as Professor Wachs’ advocacy of buses as a transit alternative, will ultimately be implemented.

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