Transit-Oriented Debacle

This full-capacity transit situation is directly related to two factors: declining unemployment and rising gas prices.

This morning things went awry for me, in spite of good intentions and relatively careful planning. I had booked a flight from Los Angeles to Sacramento for a day’s business. Mostly for convenience (and a little for sustainability) I planned to use my usual commute trick: drive 20 miles from my home near Disneyland to a park ‘n ride on the Orange/Los Angeles County border; mount the light-rail system; make one transfer and take the subway to Union Station; then catch the Flyaway Bus to LAX. Simple. (All right, it sounds complicated, but when you subtract the brain damage of stop-and-go freeway traffic—even in the car pool lane—and the costs of parking, it all balances out.)

But, alas, simplicity was not to be the case today. When I arrived at the park ‘n ride, both the main and overflow lots were full, and a steady stream of frustrated drivers were leaving to pursue Plan B. I headed for the next stop along the Green Line, where there was another, if smaller, park ‘n ride, but it was full, too, and I was forced to hop back on the freeway and resign myself to driving to the airport.

Why so much ridership? Why today? It’s only Tuesday, which is never the busiest commute day (that honor belongs to Thursday). Do I have this to look forward to as 2011 progresses, and the economy really starts to climb out of the well into which it tumbled?

There is no doubt in my mind that this full-capacity transit situation is directly related to two factors: declining unemployment and rising gas prices. Yes, here in the sunshine state our main commuting fuel has crossed the $4 per-gallon threshold. At this point, people start getting out of their cars and onto the busses and rail. The last time gas prices spiked, up past the $4.50 mark, my morning Metrolink train became standing room only. Every trip. And that was in 2009, when the economy was hemorrhaging jobs.

I should also note that at the peak unemployment stage, and especially during summer, the freeway traffic was noticeably lighter, which I must say was something of a silver lining in the gloom.

But what does one do, exactly, when one’s reduced car-commuting options just don’t work anymore due to peak demand? I mean, I’m glad to see more people going to work, of course. But it’s hard to make an argument to persuade folks to use transit when it has simply reached capacity. As of this moment, I don’t have a fallback, and really need to engage in some creative planning.

You may know that in L.A. there are a lot of transit projects in the planning stages, both light and heavy rail, above and below ground. Based on this morning’s experience, and the specter of rising employment and $5 gas, they can’t bring it fast enough.