A subway may ride to the rescue of Los Angeles's vast urban sprawl

A subway in Los Angeles? This has never been considered that kind of city. It's an urban suburb, loose and stretched thin along its gray web of freeways. People drive here, and the old dream - every man in his own car - still holds sway.

But Los Angeles is getting closer every day to building its first subway.

It's all part of growing up, some here think. If Los Angeles is going to become the New York of the Pacific, as many hope, it is going to have to - in some degree - look a little more like New York.

Freeways and streets, nearing their capacity now, just won't be enough to circulate this city's still-exploding population in coming decades.

And growth here no longer means just sprawl -at least civic leaders don't want it to. Growth also means density, as new skyscrapers go up downtown and high-rise condominiums thicken along Wilshire Boulevard.

Average traffic speeds get slower by the year; the 1980 average was 37 miles per hour. Not even Los Angeles can live by car alone.

The Metro Rail project is just a starter segment, running 18.6 miles (probably) from the San Fernando Valley in the north, down through Hollywood, and under Wilshire Boulevard to downtown.

In the eyes of its planners, the line could multiply into a whole rail gridwork, including a light-rail line from downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach and possibly even a bullet train from Los Angeles to San Diego.

All this may affect the shape of L.A., the proverbial ''100 suburbs in search of a city.''

''I think the effect of this thing will be to centralize the city, and I think that's good,'' says Thomas Hines, an architectural historian at the University of California at Los Angeles.

A strong, urbanized downtown, he adds, ''is an important counterpoise for the wonderful suburban side of Los Angeles, the palm-trees-and-swimming-pools side.''

The surest thing among these mass-transit plans is the light rail south to adjacent Long Beach. In 1980, local voters levied a one-half-percent county sales tax to go toward a rail-transit system. These funds will pay for the light rail, which will run on rights of way established by Los Angeles's old ''red line,'' a local rail system that shut down in 1961. The new line's doors are scheduled to open in 1989.

The Metro Rail, too, has passed its toughest tests. It won $117 million from Congress this summer to start up. Now a bill sits on California Gov. George Deukmejian's desk that will provide for the local funding of the $3.4 billion project.

''We are 95 percent there,'' says a spokeswoman for the Southern California Rapid Transit District. The last step will be to collect a letter of intent from Congress to fund the project to completion. If the schedules hold, the subway will open in 1990.

It has strong business support. Ted Bruinsma, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, foresees average speeds of 5 miles per hour on the freeways if the pressure is not relieved. Meanwhile, the downtown community is building up.

''I see the shape of the city changing,'' he says. ''Los Angeles is going to be growing up, becoming a real first-class city and an international city.'' But good transportation, he adds, is critical.

The city's streets are nearing their limits, according to Selwyn Enzer, associate director of the Center for Futures Research at the University of Southern California (USC). ''If we don't start repackaging (the city's settlement patterns), we're going to lose a lot of L.A.'s suburban character.''

The city needs to develop centers, says Dr. Enzer, rather than spreading out evenly as it has historically. Otherwise, growth will create a medium-density, three-story sprawl of ''wall-to-wall rooftops.''

Mass transit won't work in such a city, Enzer says. But a transit system that's put in soon enough can help concentrate density and traffic in centers, freeing the regions in between to maintain their loose, relaxed character.

Peter Gordon, director of planning at USC's Planning Institute, is a Metro Rail skeptic from start to finish. He says he's astounded by the ''gullibility'' of the local press and public in swallowing the claims the subway's proponents have made for ridership and cost.

Dr. Gordon chalks it up to both a romance for trains and a bias for big-capital solutions to problems. ''Admirals want to build battleships; subway people want to build subways,'' he says.

''This region is known around the world as the premier polycentric city in the world,'' he continues. The layman's notion that subways are impractical in this kind a city, he says, is correct. Gordon prefers what he calls ''management'' solutions to L.A.'s traffic quandary. These would include incentives for commuters to drive less and to share cars, such as cutting back on the massive subsidies for parking that most employers offer.

''There is not going to be another Manhattan, or Chicago, or whatever. . . . The idea that (a) we're becoming like them, and (b) that there are any benefits associated with that, is nonsense.''

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