Transpo: The Train Dilemma in a City That Refused to Give Up Its Cars

ALPERN AT LARGE--Our city, county and region are filled with individuals who report they want an alternative to their car, but are buying and using cars as much as ever.  And they still predominantly prefer the suburban lifestyle, especially if they want families.

Transportation, inasmuch as many try to simplify and exploit this topic to their own ends, is as complicated a subject as is politics, religion, and the differences between genders.  The subject of transportation involves lifestyle, economics, planning/development, and environmental considerations.

But while some may scream at the majority to give up their cars, and perhaps most of us stuck in daily traffic wish there were better alternatives to our cars, car ownership and usage is going up.  Way up.

It's tempting to dismiss the LA Times for having an anti-train slant, but it's not as if what they're reporting is false, and in opposition to what we experience every day:  the economy is better, and traffic is WORSE.  Far worse. 

Times reporter Laura Nelson notes that Southern Californians are buying cars more, and using transit (particularly buses, with train ridership flat) less; The overall trend is lower ridership, reflective of lower bus ridership as per that article.

Another interesting article quoting a UCLA report, written by Matt Tinoco of LA Curbed, car purchases are FOUR TIMES HIGHER than in the 1990's; Again, this predominantly is occurring on bus lines, but the ridership gains made after the Expo and Gold Line extensions were more than made up by losses on the other lines. 

Yet it's too premature to presume that "trains are bad" or that "cars are good"... or vice versa  It's neither correct nor appropriate to look at these two excellent articles and jump to any long-term conclusions. 

After all, we are: 

1) The same LA County that voted in more funding for transportation/transit, and that screamed (and still does scream) for a rail connection to LAX and to connect the San Fernando Valley to West Los Angeles and the future Wilshire Subway. 

2) The same LA County that wants better train service, but also better roads 

3) The same LA County that wants more trains, and increasingly uses Uber/Lyft to get to/from train stations 

4) The same LA County that wants more access to the carpool lanes, as well as more limousine or vanpool access to/from work to save time and stress (in the same way commuters will buy a beat-up old car to save an hour or more from their daily commutes. 

Meanwhile, as Orange County embarks on its own $1.9 billion project to widen the 405 freeway from the 605 freeway near Rossmoor to the 73 freeway in Costa Mesa after 15 years of planning, the issue of including a toll option for an expanded double-lane carpool portion will also need to be confronted. 

And rail lines will certainly be coming to Orange County, too, particularly those that resemble Metrolink and are predominantly "commuter lines". 

So when Steve Lopez of the Times also weighs in, and notes that transit ridership is down and we'll all have to pay for it, what are we supposed to DO? 

As a car commuter, and as a family-friendly physician, who jumped into the transit/transportation issue because my patients--of all colors, who used both the bus and car--were increasingly miserable accessing my clinic (and everywhere else) back in the year 2000, my conclusions were and still are: 

1) Commuters of all modes aren't bad, stupid, contemptuous of the environment, losers, or any other pejorative names too many of us throw at them.  People use cars, bicycles, trains, and buses (and even walking!) to get from point A to point B--they all deserve respect. 

2) Stop making winners and losers--the acts of helping bicyclists and train/bus commuters while really hurting car commuters create animosity where there need not be any.  Those screaming about losing car lanes to buses or bicyclists, or those screaming about wanting elevated train crossings that don't impede traffic, also voted to pay for Measures M and R.  We're all on the same side. 

3) Listen to the women, darn it all!  Safety and security and convenience are major figures in determining if a commuter--particularly a female commuter, and especially one with children--will use a bus or rail.  Being hit on or harassed, vehicles that smell like urine or feces, an overabundance of homeless who misbehave, and a slow ride all make commuters bail on mass transit. 

4) Stop making lousy, horrible land use decisions based on the establishment of a rail line!  Whether it's Sacramento or Downtown LA, those who enable overdevelopment that is ANYTHING but transit-friendly or affordable (gentrification is gentrification, folks, and the high-paid tech folks love their cars) will make more and more otherwise-pro-transit citizens despise and fear new rail lines. 

5) Gas prices and the lack of key Metro rail connections influence ridership, and people love the buses and Uber/Lyft that gets them to and from the trains (and use the same roads that individual motorists do).   

Need being pro-rail mean being anti-car?  Need being "fix our roads" mean being anti-bus, or anti-bike, or anti-rail? 

No, not really.  In the same way that civil rights means "civil rights for all", we are all the same when trying to get from point A to point B ... but we're just using different ways to do that based on our own personal situations and preferences. 

The best transportation/planners will figure out ways to make just about everyone happy, and not make us fear mass transit, or a new development, when it's done right. 

Let's not decry another person's need.  Let's just give that other person more options, and more dignity, in how he/she chooses to get from point A to point B.


(Kenneth S. Alpern, M.D. is a dermatologist who has served in clinics in Los Angeles, Orange, and Riverside Counties, and is a proud father and husband to two cherished children and a wonderful wife. He is also a Westside Village Zone Director and Board member of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Co-Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee. He was co-chair of the CD11 Transportation Advisory Committee and chaired the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at He also co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at The views expressed in this article are solely those of Dr. Alpern.)