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Los Angeles marked Transportation Freedom Day last week. What's that? It's the day when the typical median-income family has earned enough money to cover transportation costs for the entire year.
Your basic middle-class L.A. household spends about $8,600 a year on gas, insurance, parking and vehicle maintenance, according to the California Public Interest Research Group, a watchdog organization.
That compares with about $8,000 for the average U.S. family and represents more than 20% of most people's annual expenditures.
"It's an eye-opener how burdensome transportation is for most families," said Erin Steva, transportation advocate for CalPIRG. "People are spending more for this than they do for food, clothing and healthcare."
Yet what are we doing to make public transportation a more convenient and practical alternative for people?
My car was in the shop last week, and I rode public transit around town. I don't mind going by bus or rail -- it's a nice change from playing road warrior. In fact, I'd willingly ride public transportation every day if the system were more user-friendly.
But it's not. And it's almost as if the dozens of entities that constitute the region's public-transit network are conspiring to make the system as unwelcoming as possible.
For example, transfers. Switching from one transit provider to another is often a necessity in an area this vast. Some, such as Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus, make it relatively easy. Others do not.
The L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the leading provider of bus and rail service in Southern California, charges $1.25 per trip (it'll go up to $1.50 in July). You can pay an extra 30 cents to transfer to another provider.
But you can't get a transfer to switch from one Metro route to another, or from a bus to a subway. Switching from a Metro rapid bus line, say, to a Metro local line will require you to pay the full fare twice.
You can buy a daily Metro pass for $5 or a weekly pass for $17, but that won't let you switch providers. Nor will you be allowed to use the Commuter Express buses that are often the quickest way to get across town during rush hour.
An EZ Pass will allow you to switch providers and use Commuter Express lines, but they're only sold on a monthly basis for $70. You can't buy a daily or weekly EZ Pass.
Moreover, depending on the length of your commute, riding Commuter Express lines with an EZ Pass can entail an additional charge of $18 or more per month.
"It can all be a little confusing," acknowledged Dave Sotero, an MTA spokesman.
I'm guessing that more than a few Angelenos would be willing to give public transportation a try for a week or so here and there, if it were convenient and cost-effective. So why aren't EZ Passes sold on a weekly basis for, I don't know, about $25?
"That's a good idea," Sotero said. "We should look at the pros and cons of that."
The pros are obvious. What are the cons?
"I don't have that information," Sotero replied.
The only obstacle I can see is that with so many agencies competing for riders and revenue, it might be difficult to get everyone on the same page.
Seems to me that if the overall goal is to get more people out of their cars throughout Southern California, a little cooperation among system operators shouldn't be so tough.
Look at the alternative: Sotero said the MTA alone faces a $181-million deficit because of a reduction in state funding. Its response is to cut jobs and possibly service.
"It's a very dire situation," Sotero said.
It doesn't have to be. The trick is getting more people to use the regional public-transit network, and to do so on a regular basis. Here are some suggestions:
* Make daily and weekly EZ Passes available. And make it easier for employers to offer discounted passes to workers. This should be a standard benefit for every Southern California business.
* Offer discounted EZ Passes to college and high school students.
* Issue transfers that are good for all local bus and rail services. The system should encourage people to use it as frequently and extensively as possible.
* Create rush-hour bus lanes on major thoroughfares. If it were faster to take the bus, more people would do it.
* Make it easier to find transit passes. Why they aren't readily available at all post offices, banks and supermarkets is beyond me.
Funding is the main obstacle to improving our public-transportation alternatives. Measure R, overwhelmingly approved by L.A. County voters in 2008, levied a half-cent sales tax over 30 years to pay for a limited number of transit projects.
CalPIRG's Steva said that if the transit tax were made permanent, and if it were raised to a penny for every dollar spent, "you'd be talking about serious revenue -- tens of billions of dollars a year."
"We've spent decades investing in our highways," she said. "We need to shift that priority to public transit."
And we need to do it now. Traffic conditions are only going to get worse as the region's population grows.
Just let me know when that weekly EZ Pass is available.
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