LOS ANGELES — Chalk one up for inner-city America's working class.
After decades of trying to solve its public-transit problems by building trains to the suburbs, America's second largest transit authority is riding into civil rights history by bus.
In a watershed ruling that observers say will become a model for poor and minority commuters in cities coast to coast, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) this month begins rolling out 152 more buses on Los Angeles County streets. They will provide cheaper, safer rides to places where poorer riders need to go, and off-peak discounts to ease the cost of getting there outside rush hour.
"This is a major victory for America's urban poor and people of color," says Eric Mann, director of the Labor Community Strategies Center and author of a book on transit policy. "By forcing the MTA against its will to make them the centerpiece of their transit policy, they have gone against 25 years of US urban transportation policy for megacities."
The center four years ago drew together a disparate union from the 81 percent of L.A.'s MTA riders who are black, Latino, Asian, and native American. Uniting immigrants, welfare mothers, handicapped, and elderly, the group picketed the MTA to protest repeated fare increases and policies they viewed as unfair and racially discriminatory.
Two years ago, the riders won a temporary court injunction, and last October a federal judge ruled that the MTA had a statutory obligation to transit patrons "without regard to race, color, or national origin." All, the judge ruled, should "have equal and equitable access to a fully integrated mass transportation...."
The case not only sets a legal precedent, but also punctuates decades of cultural clashing among diverse residents over the relative merits of train versus bus public transit.
"This is potentially the most important civil rights ruling since 1954's Brown v. Topeka [ending US school segregation]," says Robin Kelley, an urban history professor at New York University.
He notes that dozens of American towns and cities suffer from urban flight exacerbated by transit policies that favor middle-income, downtown commuters. Moreover, he adds, the same grass-roots action that sprouted here could spread to Detroit, Washington, Seattle, Mobile, Ala., and other cities.
The suburban connection
Urban transit policy for decades has focused on attracting big capital in high-rise financial districts, to create direct routes from suburbs to downtown.
"It has left out working people trying to get around the city and downtown. This ruling means government can't do that anymore," Mr. Kelley says.
Under the settlement reached in October, the MTA will freeze the cash fare at $1.35 for two years, offer a new $11 weekly pass, and put at least 152 more buses on the streets. More officers will be assigned to patrol the bus system in a series of improvements estimated to cost about $1 billion over five years.
The action comes after 20 years of federal, state, and city investment in rail transportation that critics say may not be suited to Los Angeles suburban sprawl. Billions in cost overruns have forced the MTA to cut bus routes and raise fares, decimating reliance on buses, which are used 9-to-1 over trains.
Besides being a landmark turning point for Los Angeles, the deal comes amid the backdrop of a decline in Americans' use of public transit during the 1990s. Between 1989 and 1993, annual ridership in the nation's 10 largest urban transit systems declined by 680 million, about 10 percent.
Other growing American cities in recent years have built train systems that have not lived up to predictions of ridership, says Brian Taylor, an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles. Among them are Miami, Atlanta, Detroit, St. Louis, San Diego, Sacramento, Calif., and Portland, Ore.
Because transit funding is allocated to taxpayers, not necessarily riders, political pressure is high to spread service to outlying suburbs, often at the expense of the inner city.
"We are seeing transit service expanded to areas where demand is uneven, while there has been a general decline in big-city transit, which carries the bulk of riders," says Mr. Taylor.
That process has long raised serious issues of political fairness in public policy.
"Trains are sexier than buses, and politicians who support them can get backing from the companies who will eventually build them," says James Moore, a transportation theorist at the University of Southern California here. "Minorities, poor, elderly, disabled - those who use and need public transportation the most - don't have political clout. No successful politician rides into office saying, 'I'm for buses.'"
MTA at a crossroads
After building several train lines, which are slowly growing in usage but which still lack significant ridership, the Los Angeles MTA is in fact at the biggest crossroads in its history. Congress has threatened to withdraw funding for new lines, the state legislature is proposing a massive reorganization, and mass transit has become a key issue in the April mayoral campaign.
"The lesson here seems to be, 'Don't follow the allure of grandiose train plans that don't suit the needs of a sprawling city like Los Angeles,'" says state Sen. Quentin Kopp (I), who is holding hearings to reconfigure the MTA.
The transit authority was formed in 1993 by a merger of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission and the Southern California Rapid Transit District.
The agency has been widely attacked for cronyism and pork-barrel politics ever since.
"We've learned that planning and programming should be the responsibility of a separate agency from the one that operates the system," Senator Kopp says.
But MTA chairman Larry Zarian says the local transit problems will be solved only when citizens challenge their own dependence on the car. City planners predict 800,000 more residents to join L.A.'s population of 3.5 million by 2010, exacerbating current gridlock and air-quality problems.
"We need a diverse plan that includes trains, buses, and vans," says Mr. Zarian. "I am bothered by those who say you have to have one or the other. The future will be multi-modal."