LOS ANGELES — AS thousands of new commuters pack cheek-by-jowl into a spanking new, $1.4 billion subway here, this city of angels and automobiles is once again coming face-to-face with the highly problematic way its citizens get around.
Two decades of political wrangling essentially ended with the Jan. 30 opening of 4.4 miles of underground track downtown, the first of 22 miles to be completed by 2001.
A new era of social, economic, and cultural soul-searching has also opened. Behind the obvious questions of whether people like the red-velvet seats and the sleek Italian cars of Los Angeles's new "Metro Red Line," a drumbeat of additional queries is building.
Is a subway really the cheapest way to get cars off the highways and smog out of the air? What are the incentives for abandoning cars in favor of commuter or subway rails when local, regional, and national policies continue to favor easy parking, cheap gasoline, and "free" streets? Will new patterns of suburb-to-suburb commuting support or undermine the future extensions of the new line?
How Los Angeles answers those questions, national transportation and urban planners say, will have much to say about the way this and other sprawling American cities grow, spread, change, or die.
"As long as we have land-use and tax laws that favor the use of autos, things don't bode well for the future of public transportation," says Ralph Cipriani, chief regional planner for the Southern California Association of Governments. "The subway is not a panacea for congestion.... It's just part of a long-term strategy that could play a positive role."
The addition of more subways and light rail systems here over the next 30 years is expected to cost $183 billion.
But several top transportation experts are telling local authorities that the time for connecting cities by rail has long since come and gone.
"The decentralization of American life is accelerating," claims Peter Gordon, associate dean at the School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Southern California.
He sees an electronic future filled with faxes, modems, and cellular phones that make both residents and industries less tied to location than ever.
"With people and job centers so footloose, the markets for public transit that are merely thin now are going to be very thin in the future," Mr. Gordon says. "What looks wasteful now is going to look incredibly wasteful then."
In a trend reflected in more and more US cities, the majority of Los Angeles commuters are not headed to or from downtown. Here, only 4 percent of the metropolitan area's jobs are located downtown, according to Robert Poole, urban and transportation specialist at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank.
That makes the tiny link of five stations in the city center "one of the biggest boondoggles ever perpetrated on the people of southern California," Mr. Poole says.
STUDIES by the Reason Foundation of the Southern California Rapid Transit District's one-year-old, above-ground Blue Line - also part of the district's 30-year master plan - argue that it is folly to choose rail over other alternatives.
The line was built, Mr. Poole says, "to remove cars from the freeway and pollution from the air." But the cost is roughly $20,000 per car annually, paid for primarily with tax subsidies.
"That is not an effective use of a scarce public resource," Poole says.
He and others say a growing number of experts are beginning to embrace ways to charge drivers for the use of highways and streets. Usage can be measured by electronic scanning techniques now being developed by several companies.
But despite such cries of "boondoggle" and "white elephant," state and local officials are embracing the new subway. And over 50,000 commuters tried out the seven-minute trip between Union Station and MacArthur Park on the new subway's first day. About 25,000 a day continued through last week, paying an introductory 25 cents each, instead of the $1.10 fare that begins March 1.
Most riders gave a thumbs-up to the comfort, speed, and appearance of the subway. The cost, however, received a decidedly mixed opinion.
"No one can really judge the true use of this line for at least six months," says C. Kenneth Orski, a consultant for Urban Mobility Corporation in Washington, D.C.
It will prove its usefulness only when "additional commuter lines are added into outlying neighborhoods" he adds. The next linkups are between three and six years away.
"Subways have unintended and unmeasurable effects," says Mr. Orski, who has watched Washington's Metro system create a noon rush hour of people going to shop or try new restaurants.
"Far from being a white elephant, it could be the idea that unfies Los Angeles like nothing else can," Orski says.