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California’s mass transit answer is the automobile

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POSTED November 13, 2012 11:05 p.m.

In the coming days I will get in my Escape and drive 457 miles to Death Valley.

I will do so without leaving what is essentially a continuous ribbon of pavement until I pull into the dirt parking lot at Stovepipe Wells.

I will pass countless thousands of other people driving and riding in other vehicles. Some may be going a few miles. Others may be in their vehicles a few hours. Still others could be on a travel odyssey that may make mine seem like a jaunt to the corner store.

Despite the never-ending assault on the automobiles along with highways and freeways as somehow being the scourge of modern day living, we should embrace then for what they are - the only truly only mass transit system man has ever known.

That may give high speed rail boosters a good laugh. But as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once uttered, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own set of facts.”

The term “mass transit” is too often used interchangeably with “public transit.”

More of the masses by far move by vehicle, especially in dense urban areas such as San Francisco and New York. It is also amazingly universal. California, for example, had a 2012 population of 37.2 million people. Last year the state Department of Motor Vehicles reported that there were 31.8 million registered vehicles in California. Now ponder the number of buses and trains in this state and how many people they move. While they do move more people per vehicle it is not how most of us get around.

Simply putting more buses or trains into play outside of crowded urban corridors won’t work to dilute the effectiveness and need for the automobile. Public transit in most of the state is an unsustainable model based on cost per mile and per passenger due to the fact there are not a whole lot of people who want to move between downtown Delano and a farmhouse outside of Firebaugh, or from a cul-de-sac in Irvine to a relative’s house in Canyon Country outside Santa Clarita at 11 o’clock at night.

There is a smug indifference to reality that many transit planners who push a “mass transit” agenda especially once they venture outside of their urban cocoons. The Gold Standard for such smugness was set by the late Adriana Gianturco, who Jerry Brown imported from Boston during his first go around as governor to run Caltrans for seven years. She froze highway construction money - some $15.7 billion - an fought what would prove to be a losing battle to have it all converted to mass transit. By the time her reign ended and the money started flowing again, inflation had eaten the number of road projects that could be built by 60 percent.

Gianturco was insistent that mass transit and not highways would best serve all of California, period. When asked at a press conference during the time period Manteca was battling for funding for the 120 Bypass, she responded to a question about how would cannery workers living in Delano get to employment in Tulare if all highway funds paid for public transit. She tartly replied, “They can learn to take a bus.”

Good luck putting in a public transit system that can do that effectively in terms of frequency and cost.

The automobile has done more than make many Americans mobile in a literal sense. It has also enhanced our economic mobility.

There is nothing wrong with high speed rail per se. It’s just where it is running to and from. High speed rail should run along high traveled and congested commute corridors that are east-west in California tying the Inland Empire to Los Angeles and the Northern San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento to the Bay Area. Or, better yet, the money could be invested in light rail to essentially resurrect old trolley lines in sprawling suburban areas in the LA Basin and elsewhere as well as expand and upgrade traditional heavy rail tracks for passenger service corridors similar to the Altamont Commuter Express service.

For the most part, though, the flexibility of the automobile as a means to move the masses is unmatched.

Smart car technology combined with smart roadway technology is one way congestion can be reduced, air quality improved, and safety enhanced. Building upon the vanpool system the state helped put in place, it is possible to do the same thing to encourage the sharing of car ownership and use to make mobility more affordable for the poor, reduce costs for others, and combat congestion.

California needs mass transit that goes where it is needed and does not simply serve a few elite travelers who want to zip between Los Angeles and San Francisco on an $80 billion transit system with a $220 round-trip fare.

 

This column is the opinion of managing editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209-249-3519.

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