by Chris Quilter
The City Council’s decision to spend $50,000 on a transportation consultant to scrutinize our local transit system could not have come at a better time for me personally. I am one of those people who believes passionately in public transportation, and I fully intend to try it some day.
To find out where I’ve gone wrong, I’ve been online cultivating my inner wonk by researching mass transit. Imagine my surprise to come across this headline: “98 percent of Americans support the use of mass transit by others.” The good news: it’s a quote from a story in the satirical paper “The Onion.” The bad news is that it took me a moment to get the joke.
In Laguna, where we pride ourselves on being environmentally progressive, we have been spectacularly unsuccessful in talking ourselves out of our cars. It will take more than more sidewalks and bike racks to do that, as important as they are. It will take a popular public transit system. If only we had one.
Actually, we do. For the tourists. The free summer trolley program is a mass transit success story: almost 600,000 rides last summer at a cost to taxpayers of about $2 per ride. (The real cost of a ride on our year-round transit system is—gulp—700% more.) The trolleys meet tourists where they are and take them where they want to go, when they want to go there. And they’re fun! Are they value for money? I’d say so. Our only real industry is tourism and, much like San Francisco’s cable cars, our free summer trolleys function as a kind of loss leader—an enticing way to get visitors to places where no effort will be spared to separate them from their money.
Like the cable cars, our trolleys are of limited use to locals. That’s the job of our regular bus system, which unfortunately is also of limited use to locals. If you live near a bus stop, as I do but most of us don’t, you know how often they run and how often they go where you’re going. (Hint: not very.) In transit-speak, “frequency” and “convenience” are known to increase ridership, as is “affordability.” It’s hard to see how raising fares—one of the cost-cutting options under consideration—is going to make local transit more appealing. Eliminating fares would be a more interesting and not all that expensive experiment in boosting ridership. Yet we’d still be stuck with a fixed-route, limited service system that feels like a poor fit for the way we live—especially as we live longer.
The policy wonks at AARP predict that people my age (I’m pushing 70) are going to outlive the ability to drive safely by seven to 10 years. What are my options besides driving on anyway? I could add a chauffeur to my extensive household staff here at Myrtle Abbey. Or I could hitch a lot of rides, take a lot of taxis, and walk more. I could even make my peace with the blue-and-whites. But here’s what I’d rather do.
I’d rather whip out my smart phone, launch an app, punch in a few entries, and hop into the hybrid minibus that pulls up in front of my house a few minutes later, right on time. I know a couple of the passengers who are going in my general direction, and we commiserate about the decline of civilization and ravages of time while the van drops off and picks up people en route. It’s mildly inconvenient to transfer from my north-south coastal route to an east-west van heading uphill, but I don’t wait long for the connection which then drops me at the cross street nearest my destination. (I could go door-to-door for an extra charge, but it’s an easy walk.) My smartphone works like a transponder, and my bill—which includes a senior discount as well as a surcharge to subsidize low-income and special-needs riders—is on AutoPay, which the very young consider a terrifically funny play on words.
What would a high-priced consultant say about this pipe dream? Beats me. But one thing is certain: $50,000 will be way less expensive than the artfully disguised, hotly debated, still-controversial, car-enabling, hopefully necessary parking structure we will be building across the street from the Festival of Arts. It may also prove to be the better investment.
Laguna local Chris Quilter is on the board of Laguna Beach Seniors, which promotes and lists the current transportation options for seniors on its website thesusiq.org.