Illustration by Bill Brown
Has there ever been as much chatter about the future of public transit as there is now? We are fed up with traffic. You don’t have to be 80 to say, “It’s so much worse now.” You can be 25 and get away with it. The city has grown up, not out, over the last decade. The U.S. Census Bureau just declared the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim region to be the most densely packed urban area in America; we’ve got up to 7,000 people in each square mile. That’s not going to improve, and our infrastructure has been stretched to its limits keeping up. The mayor is pushing for passage of a transportation bill that could fund his 30/10 plan (squeezing 30 years’ worth of mass transit projects into 10). If the bill doesn’t win approval, we’ll still get a subway to the sea, but the first time I will be able to ride it will be when I am 67 years old: It’s projected to open in 2036.
In the meantime I’ll be hopping on the Expo Line, which is scheduled to kick off phase one from downtown to La Cienega on April 28 and will bring lightrail back to the Westside after a 50-year-plus absence. If all goes as planned, the next phase will reach Santa Monica by 2015, news that Anne Taylor Fleming welcomes in her Open City column this month. Anne has lived on that side of town her entire life and now finds gridlock so paralyzing, she is willing to forsake her car—something she never imagined she’d do—and ride the Expo Line. For me, it won’t be as novel an experience.
I take lightrail on weekend jaunts, and whenever I can, I board the bus to work. I’m fortunate that it’s a choice, not a necessity, for me to ride the bus, and I’m doubly lucky that there’s an express route from my home to my office with no transfers. The trip takes an hour, only a few more minutes than my 13-mile drive. Saving gas money and reducing that dreaded carbon footprint are reasons enough to ride, but the bus fulfills something else: Once inside, I’m overcome with a feeling of surrender. The onus is no longer on me to find a clever shortcut. Whether I arrive early, late, or on time is beyond my control.
Public transit provides one of the few ways to immerse oneself in a collective experience with total strangers. We read one another’s faces, we reconstruct one another’s lives through shreds of overheard conversations. I am not romanticizing bus travel: You will never mistake the seats for overstock at a Relax the Back store, and you will inevitably encounter people who are clearly mentally ill. But that is not the norm. If you’re open, you’ll be more likely to bond over a rad hat or a cute baby. You can’t help but know the city better on the bus, even if you’ve retreated into your iPod or that article you’d hoped to read someday. Every time I ride, I see L.A. differently. It makes me a better editor and a better Angeleno. Definitely a more involved one.