Anti-Mass Transit Crowd has It Wrong, Mass Transit Makes LA a Better Place to Live

MASS TRANSIT DEBATE-The war on transit has launched a new salvo with accusations that subways, light rail, and trolleys are financial weapons of destruction out to destroy LA, using poor and working mothers as cannon fodder. 

Metro operates subway lines, the Red and Purple, and light rail lines, the Blue, Green, Gold and Expo. Metro does not own nor operate trolley lines which are lighter grade than subways and light rail, and carry fewer people at slower speeds. There are no publicly funded trolley lines in Los Angeles.  

Los Angeles once had a very extensive trolley system, dismantled and laid waste by government neglect. Some say this was encouraged by General Motors, Firestone Tires, and Chevron Oil so their buses, tires and fuels would be used. It has been downhill ever since. 

The money spent, being spent, and about to be spent on the extension of subway and light rail lines will not destroy Los Angeles. A transit rider since 1992, I believe we will can reverse our City’s unhealthful mechanization resulting from our over-dependence on vehicles and driving all the time.  

Money spent on subways, light rail and buses will benefit all, especially the poor. Using the poor as cannon fodder in attacking the funding for transit, particularly rail, shows the same lack of understanding of transit as calling trolleys a “mode of rail transit” in Los Angeles.  

Anyone who has lived in Southern California for any length of time knows air pollution is with us, and despite tremendous strides since the 1960s in reducing the poisons from vehicle exhaust, the ugly specter of increasing air pollution is threatening us again. Air pollution causes cancer, heart disease and lung disease. By driving less and taking mass transit -- buses and subways and light rail -- air pollution will be reduced, making for a healthier environment.  

But a more ominous threat is no longer just on the horizon and shaking the world: global warming from the burning of fossil fuels. Records for heat, cold, wind, rain, snow and fires are being broken on a regular basis. The earth is warming, and each day portends new ominous, expensive calamities unless we cut back on throwing carbon gases into the atmosphere. One of the quickest ways to do this is to drive less, and in the sprawl of Los Angeles, the best way is to use mass transit; the fastest way to travel through the sprawl is on subways and light rails.  

The poor and many of the middle class will be hit hardest from increased air pollution and global warming, especially since many live near pollution hotspots such as freeways. There is no vehicle exhaust from subways and light rails. And although they are powered by electricity, Los Angeles is moving away from coal-based power plants to further reduce the carbon footprint of subways and light rail.  

The lower and middle class also live near oil refineries that convert oil to gas, regular and diesel, to run vehicles; the ports are filled with diesel burning trucks, as well as diesel/electric powered freight train yards used to carry goods from the ports to Southern California and the rest of the nation.  

Many, especially the poor, cannot afford topnotch medical plans, or even any medical plan, so medical care needed due to the harmful effects of air pollution will go unheeded. If they get caught up in the medical system seeking treatment, the costs can bankrupt them. If they are on Medicaid the costs are shifted to us as taxpayers, adding to the overwhelming medical costs incurred by governments on the local, state and national levels. 

Subways and light rail help the poor and all of us by having a much lower carbon footprint, giving all of us a better chance to live a healthy life. This is a financial benefit, not a financial disaster. 

Buses in the SoCal sprawl will always be with us, but as a regular transit rider I know with certainty that subways and light rail offer faster travel times, as well as a better riding experience from the boarding to the exiting to the ride itself. 

If some are so concerned about the poor, wouldn’t they want to give them better riding experiences with subways and light rail, a chance to lift their lives a little as they try to survive and get around the city? This is a financial benefit, not a financial disaster.  

Supporters of the war on transit say the poor are being given cars, resulting for some in a $7,000 boost in income. But owning a car in Los Angeles is expensive: “The costs of owning and operating a brand new car in the United States can cost on average $8,469 annually, or $706 a month, according to a new study from the American Automobile Association.”   

If the poor are not able to purchase a new car, they purchase an older one which breaks down, adding costs to ownership, trips to the mechanics, and missed time at work. Then there is the cost of insurance; many do without it just to keep their vehicle. Driving without insurance is a grave threat to society and raises the costs for everyone when the uninsured have accidents.  

If one ditches the car, riding transit removes the need to buy car insurance; riding transit can reduce the rates since people will be driving fewer miles. This is a benefit of mass transit, not a financial disaster.  

Since I’ve been riding transit in Los Angeles, I have seen all types of riders and not all of them are poor. 

Yes, there are the poorest of the poor who are the homeless. But there are also construction workers who, despite comments about the difficulties that they supposed have getting to construction sites, do travel on buses and trains. With their hard hats and work clothes, they are hard to miss. 

There are students from junior high to universities. I just had a curious and exciting discussion on the Expo Train with some junior high students on the existential question of whether water is, in of itself, wet, or if you can make water wet by throwing more water on it? I was asked this question and am still amused at the thinking behind it. An exchange like this would never happen while driving in gridlock.  

More and more senior citizens, matching the demographics of that aging population, no longer drive because it would be a threat to others. By taking buses and trains, they make the roads safer for all; by walking in combination with riding transit, they are getting exercise. This is a benefit of mass transit, not a financial disaster. 

There are office workers, maintenance workers, and, also, many tourists on buses, subways and light rails. With tourism helping to drive the economy of the Los Angeles region, having an efficient transit system is a boon. “The region is on track to greet 50 million visitors a year; these visitors spent more than $18 billion in our economy this year. At the same time, the hospitality and tourism industry also serve our 10 million local residents.” 

According to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation:  

“Hospitality and tourism are at the heart of the Los Angeles economy – with the storybook history of Hollywood, and the bright future of the many restaurants and shopping venues popping up throughout the county. The industry includes hotels, amusement parks, passenger car rental, travel arrangement services and more.” 

Key Facts About LA County’s Hospitality & Tourism Industry 

Hospitality and tourism supported 678,400 jobs in LA, including direct, indirect and induced jobs across a broad spectrum of industries (533,940 from direct employment). 

Total economic activity in 2013 attributable to the hospitality and tourism industry cluster, including direct, indirect and induced activity, reached $8.9 billion. 

The 2014 LAEDC Report, Growing Together: China and LA County, found that the #1 origin of international tourists to LA County is China, creating various opportunities for businesses that serve tourists. According to the report, “some local economies in LA County didn’t feel the impact of the last recession because local spending was buoyed by Chinese tourists.”      

Tourists using mass transit is a benefit, not a financial disaster. 

The number of working mothers who need to take transit or drive is a serious issue. Even though these women are mothers, they do not escape gridlock and the negative health issues from it, including the effects of air pollution and global warming that affect their children. 

For those who are concerned about mothers working at home or out of the home and their children, they should be doing all they can to reduce gridlock for them. They should stop driving so much and take transit; they should give up their vehicle space for those mothers. I do this when I take transit. 

Working mothers driving to work is not an end-all cure to happiness. Due to gridlock they can be late to pick up their children from daycare, or late even to just check out daycare centers and their rates for late pick-ups. PTA meetings are missed because mothers are delayed getting home due to gridlock. 

According to the LAEDC, “L.A. County is the entertainment, manufacturing, and international trade capital of the U.S. With more than $700 billion in annual output, Los Angeles County ranks among the world’s largest economies. Its GDP is larger than Sweden, Norway, Poland or Belgium. The County’s population of nearly 10.2 million would make it the 9th largest state in the U.S.” 

A healthy and thriving mass transit system of buses, subways, and light rails (and trolleys if they are ever built), is a crucial necessity to keep Los Angeles moving, reduce pollution and global warming carbon gases, and to make Los Angeles a more humane place for all. 


(Matthew Hetz is a Los Angeles native. He is a transit rider and advocate, a composer, music instructor, and member and president and executive director of the Culver City Symphony Orchestra.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.