Policy

Politicians Love Transit, Just Not For Themselves

Transit system is good enough for you, but the mayor's too busy.

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“You’ve got to use public transit,” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa declared. “You can't keep on pointing to someone else and saying it's their responsibility.”

Imagine the credibility and public relations points Villaraigosa could have racked up uttering those words while commuting on a bus to City Hall. But instead of being the “eco-friendly transit-riding mayor” Villaraigosa rides an SUV to work.

Yet many Angelinos probably sympathize with the mayor. “Give me a first-rate transit system, and I’ll use it,” they might say. Until that system arrives, they support new transit proposals, like the $5 billion “subway to the sea,” while continuing to drive everywhere.

But what would it say about the practicality of mass transit if the mayor of the city with the nation’s best subway system also took an SUV to work?

After Michael Bloomberg became mayor of New York City, he invited reporters to follow him to work. The billionaire mayor didn’t slip into a limoâ€"he piled into a subway car like a “regular Joe mayor.” Positive press gushed forth. Bloomberg was the real-deal, a green leader and blue-collar populist. One transit group dubbed him “the MetroCard Mayor.” Bloomberg bragged about taking transit, and urged others to follow.

Yet, after a five-week stakeout, New York Times reporters discovered that Bloomberg’s enthusiasm for transit has since fizzled. These days he only takes the subway to work about twice a week. That’s more transit travel than Villaraigosa, but not enough to meet the federal government’s definition of a transit commuter.

Even during transit days, Bloomberg doesn’t schlep to the nearest subway stop. Staffers drive him 22 blocks so he can hop aboard an express train, avoiding the hassle of making a transfer and shrinking his commute time by about a third. Avoiding transit is commonplace for those who run some of our nation’s other top-tier transit systems.

The Philadelphia Inquirer discovered that only four of 14 transit board members interviewed used that city’s system at least twice a week. And when asked by the Washington Post, only five out of 10 local transit board members said they rode their rail system even occasionally (two others refused to talk, so it’s probably safe to file them under “infrequent transit user”).

Villaraigosa’s actions make the obvious point that his words never would: Public transit doesn’t work for the vast majority of Angelinos, 95 percent of whom find another way to get to work. Still he and other public officials fuel a double fantasy.

First, they claim our existing public transit system is a better choice for motorists, at least those who aren’t serving as mayor.

Villaraigosa says he’d use transit more often, “But my problem is I have to go all over the city … It’s very tough because of my schedule.”

City Councilman Herb Wesson, a transportation committee member, says the same thing, "Given the type of work I do, it just doesn't work for me to take public transportation."

Don’t the rest of us also have busy schedules - jobs to get to, kids to pick up, and errands to run?

Why are we being urged to ditch our cars for a transit system that is ill-suited to serve city officials?

The second fantasy is that each new rail transit project represents a step toward building a New York-style transit system. New York’s subway system boasts 468 stations; LA’s 78 (if you generously count light rail stations too). The current piecemeal transit approach should get LA to New York’s level sometime in the middle of the next millennium, and the “build it all at once” strategy made fashionable by Denver is really just a replay of LA in 1980, when Prop A was supposed to fund 11 rail transit lines. What committing to rail really did was soak up funds that could have gone toward more sensible fixes: mainly improving and expanding bus service for the transit dependent poor

Bloomberg’s falling out with transit adds another disturbing wrinkle: Maybe even a system as extensive as New York’s couldn’t transform Villaraigosa into a transit-riding mayor. In Metro New York, 25 percent of commuters rely on transit, much more than LA’s 5 percent, but not in step with the popular view that “everyone” takes transit in New York.

Back when workers traveled in beelines from homes in the suburbs to offices in a city center, it was relatively easy to design successful transit systems. Today, old fixed-route systems don’t serve most travelers. Yet officials still prefer to fund snazzy rail lines over buses because for them transit’s primary use isn’t transportation but a backdrop for photo ops: Cut the ribbon, huddle around the others who fought for funding, smile, and then jump back into your SUV

Imagine how much transit might improve if public officials actually had to ride the systems they tout.

Ted Balaker is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation and author of The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think and What We Can Do About It (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006). This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News.