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January 08, 2006

The Lessons of California

While we all love to mock what passes for traffic in California, the Golden State is making progress in improving its transportation mess and may even give us a few ideas. Consider the following, which I recently observed on a trip west:

1) Commuter Rail & Amtrak: The trains are full, schedules are frequent and ridership is still climbing. Clean, modern, low-cost commuter trains in the LA area are so popular the operating agency is scouring the country looking for used rail cars to add to their fleet. Maybe they’d like some of our used Virginia cars, still sitting idle on a siding in New Haven?

2) Trolleys: You can now get from Long Beach to Pasadena by trolley, not to mention the subway from downtown to Hollywood. The trains are fast and gaining in ridership. In San Diego, the trolley now has three lines, including the popular run to the Mexico border. Cars crossing back into the US wait up to two hours to clear Customs while pedestrians cross in ten minutes.

3) Freeways: Yes, they’re crowded, but they’re well signed and drivers obey the traffic rules. Best of all, there are few trucks in rush hour as they are offered incentives to move their goods at night.

4) Electric Cars: No longer are big muscle cars or exotic foreign sports cars the prestige ride. Now, its electric cars. Not only is the gas mileage better but they get priority parking spaces and can travel in car pool lanes with only one passenger.

5) Traffic Information: In the San Francisco Bay area, you can dial 511 on any cellphone and get instant traffic information. Tell the automated system your starting point, destination and desired route and you’ll get the latest information on travel times and any delays. Connecticut lawmakers have been calling for a similar system here for years, to no avail.

6) Reversible Lanes: San Diego has had reversible rush-hour lanes on some freeways for more than a decade… in-bound in the AM, outbound in the PM. We have nothing similar in Connecticut.

7) Toll Roads: Not all freeways are free. Some of the most heavily traveled roads in LA are private toll-roads, by-passing the free interstates. Fares are collected electronically without stopping and can be changed, depending on demand. While “value pricing” is already in effect in New Jersey and on the George Washington Bridge, we in Connecticut don’t yet have the political will to embrace this solution to our highway mess.

8) Air Quality: Despite the immense number of cars on the roads, stiff environmental regulations, in place for many years, California has significantly reduced air pollution. Many days the air is cleaner in LA than along I-95 in Stamford.

All is not perfect in the Golden State. And their 12 lane freeways are not a solution I’d suggest we consider. But next time you joke about “LA style traffic”, think twice. Pretty soon they’ll be joking about us!

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at or . For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see

1 comment:

The Jackal said...

Good points on #s 3-8, but 1 and 2 are only partially accurate.

Ridership may be climbing and public transportation options may be improving in California (especially Los Angeles), but I highly doubt it will ever be as useful or as used as public transit on the East Coast is. Why? Because Los Angeles isn't a real city: it's a collection of suburbs. With no centralization, the car is the only real means of transportation.

So unless you live within walking distance (hah!) of the Gold Line trolley in Pasadena and have a lunch appointment within walking distance (hah!) of the Blue Line light rail in Long Beach, there's really not much use you can get out of L.A.'s mass transit system.

The L.A. Metro system (one subway, two light rail systems and a trolley) covers a couple of thin corridors plus the core of downtown L.A. That leaves hundreds--maybe even thousands--of square miles of city that's not connected to any mass transit. From Santa Monica to Palos Verdes, from Northridge to Santa Ana, millions of people are out of reach of the system.

The So Cal Metrolink commuter rail system is slightly more useful for those who live in the suburban mass and work in downtown (although they still need cars, as they need to drive to the Metrolink stations--walking distance is a thing unheard of in Los Angeles). But since only a couple percent of the population of Los Angeles works in downtown, the maximum potential use of this system is quite limited. Most people live in a suburb and work in another suburb, whether it's living in SimiValley and working in Pasadena or living in Riverside and working in Anaheim.

People who've never been to Los Angeles or haven't really spent time exploring it don't realize how spread out it is. And the mass transit system is almost completely useless for tourists. Unless you're staying at a hotel located close to a transit station (highly unlikely, as there aren't many hotels downtown) and all you want to see is Hollywood, maybe Universal Studios, and downtown, you're going to need a car. Everything from the Getty Center to the two presidential libraries, the La Brea Tar Pits, Knott's Berry Farm, Magic Mountain, and Disneyland are all well off the transit system.

For more discussion on this, see this thread on FlyerTalk: