The cold and the dark

Art Leahy, the boss of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is a very nice guy. He'd remind you, if you had one, of that sunny uncle who always talks sports and says complementary things to waitresses in restaurants. Leahy even rides Metro himself. He likes to kid with the riders, asking where they're from. He always introduces himself to Metro employees.

I've seen Leahy in action. He's the Captain Kangaroo of public transit.

If Art Leahy were to meet you at the Blue Line station or at one of the Rapid bus stops, introduce you to the Metro driver, and get a conversation among the passengers started, you might even consider putting your car aside once in a while and taking Metro. He's that good

Unfortunately, apart for his own singular performance, Art Leahy doesn't know how to get more of you - and specifically more women - to ride his buses and trains.

He's counting on external forces to drive up ridership. He hopes that higher gas prices in the future will compel some of you to give up your driving, but he expects higher fare costs for transit riders soon. He thinks state legislation pushing greater residential density will have a significant effect on driving habits, but his current attitude is "wait and see." "It's an experiment," he says.

It's an experiment that mixes big money politics, development hardball, and social uplift in ways that would remind the historically minded of turn-of-the-20th century Los Angeles. We have long believed that you would be a better person if only you chose to live in the kind of house (and on the kind of street) that some of us think is better for you. You will more content and altogether more useful there. In your place.

Leahy is doing his best to complete his part of the experiment as quickly as possible. Sadly, his part - the public transit part - isn't anything like a system. It's more a collection of enthusiasms driven by gusts of federal funding and what Los Angeles drivers think is best to get other people off the freeway. Public transit isn't for them, it's for other people.

Maybe we shouldn't even think in terms of transit but of mobility. I'm standing at my front door. I want to go somewhere. I want to go there now. Afterwards, I want to go somewhere else. Later, I want to come home. Can I, using Metro and its regional partners? Or should I rescript the premises: Where I want to go should be determined by how I'll get there. When I want to go should be determined by a schedule. Where else I might go afterwards should be constrained by the means I'll take to get there. And where home is should be decided on grounds other than what will make me happy.

(There are many who would agree that the premises of mobility long ago changed for drivers, too.)

It's a rainy mid-November afternoon. It's cold. It will be dark around 4:45 p.m. I think of the mile walk I'll have to take to get the bus that runs more often than once an hour and takes less than 90 minutes to get to my destination. I think of waiting at a deserted transit stop late at night nowhere near the consoling presence of other people. I think of the physical humiliations of using Art Leahy's buses and trains. If only he were there, I would feel less alone in the cold and the dark.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user Christopher Charles. It is used under a Creative Commons License.