Fed Up at the Pump? Take the Bus

Los Angeles is notorious for its car culture. Most people would rather sit in traffic than get on a bus or the subway. But high gas prices are changing those attitudes. For a look at some transportation alternatives, Farai Chideya talks with Dave Sotero, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Association.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And now we conclude our Road Trippin' series with a look at alternatives to using four wheels. Dave Sotero joins us now. He's a spokesperson for the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Association. How are you?

Mr. DAVE SOTERO (Spokesperson, Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Association): I'm good, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So L.A. is notorious for its car culture. People love cars, people hate traffic. A lot of people don't like the bus and the subway. Are those attitudes changing in part because of the fuel issues?

Mr. SOTERO: Yes, I think that out of necessity those opinions are changing. We're seeing a lot more ridership on our rail lines. And it follows a national trend in fact. Rail ridership is up all over the country, and it's up more than bus ridership is. So it's clear that people are looking for an alternative to driving alone that's not only less expensive but faster as well.

CHIDEYA: I talked to some people - because we're based in Culver City, which is part of the L.A. metro area - and I've talked to some people who love bus commuting. They're like, I've got my iPod, I've got my newspaper, nobody's cutting me off. Do you try to sell people on the experience as well as the cost?

Mr. SOTERO: Well absolutely. The cost for public transit here in Los Angeles is very inexpensive. On a yearly basis, it only costs 744 dollars for riding both metro bus and rail. So that's definitely an advantage. In terms of convenience, we offer a lot of bus service, a lot of different kinds of bus service. They're not just local lines that stop every block. We offer express buses as well as rapid buses to get people faster on the bus system.

CHIDEYA: L.A. has not necessarily been known as one of the great public transit capitals of the world. You know, you've got places like Boston and San Francisco, Oakland, New York City of course, that have very extensive infrastructure. How are things going to expand, do you think, over the coming years?

Mr. SOTERO: Well, I think that what may not be well-known is the fact that in the Los Angeles area, our agency is the largest transit - third largest transit agency in the country. We have a very large bus fleet and a very - an expanding rail system as well. We currently have about 73 miles of rail. So in the future, we are looking to expand the system. Just this week, we introduced six new metro rapid lines in the L.A. County area. In the next year to three years, we're going to be expanding the rail system as well, from downtown L.A. to East Los Angeles and from downtown L.A. to Culver City.

CHIDEYA: So let's broaden this out a little bit. How has public transportation been faring since the '70s? I mean, in the '70s, another time of high gas prices and economic instability, we saw a lot of people really calling for public transportation. Can you give us a sense of the cycle that's gone on since the '70s to the present?

Mr. SOTERO: Well, I'm not as familiar with what was going in the '70s, I'm relatively new with the agency. But just looking at recent history, gas prices have never been this high and there's clearly a tipping point that we're seeing. People are desperate. They're looking for a way to save on their transportation costs. If you look at it, you know, it costs one-fifth of an American's income to own and operate a car, compared with public transit, and not just public transit, carpooling and vanpooling. These solutions are a much better, more cost-effective alternative.

CHIDEYA: Now, when you think about the whole issue of public transportation, one of the issues that gets folded into it is air quality. L.A. is not known for its air quality. And so how are your buses structured? I mean, what are they running on? Are they fuel efficient?

Mr. SOTERO: Yes. In Los Angeles, we made a commitment a number of years ago to only purchase any new buses into our fleet that would operate on alternative fuels. And what we have today is the largest compressed natural gas bus fleet in the country. And that's doing a lot to help improve our air quality here.

CHIDEYA: What's the difference between compressed natural gas and regular gasoline in terms of, you know, how it affects the environment?

Mr. SOTERO: Well compressed natural gas is a much cleaner fuel.

CHIDEYA: You know, let's just take a look at Los Angeles' demographics. You have people from incredibly wealthy to incredibly poor. You have immigrants, native-born people who've come here from other parts of the U.S., people, of course, who were born here. How do you think L.A.'s demographics affect the need for public transportation?

Mr. SOTERO: Well, clearly there is a very serious need here in the region. We are very geographically dispersed in other words. We have suburbs that extend for miles in every direction. So the need for a broad-based transportation system that depends on a lot of bus service is particularly important in our region. Here in the downtown area, we do have a more extensive rail network that starts in the downtown region and then extends outwards.

But again, that's only the metro services. There are also Metrolink services and Amtrak services that serve more of the Southern California region. So there are lots of transportation choices here, and it would do people that are trying to save money well to look into these services.

CHIDEYA: Finally, is the federal government supporting the system at all?

Mr. SOTERO: Well, currently we're looking at ways to bring in more local funding for transportation projects here in Los Angeles. We can't really depend on the fed at this time to completely fund all of the critically needed transportation projects. You know, we're looking out 25 years into the future, and we've identified 152 billion dollars worth of needed transportation investments. The only problem is, we're 60 billion dollars short. So we're looking at very creative and innovative ways to get money into the L.A. area for transportation and keep it here.

CHIDEYA: All right. Dave, thanks.

Mr. SOTERO: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: That was Dave Sotero. He's a spokesperson for the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Association.

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