Tough commute: L.A.'s carless stranded by strike

In wealthy suburbs, commuters ask, 'What strike?' But the lack of mass transit has hit the poor hard in a city built around wheels.

In the shadows of downtown skyscrapers, the early-morning and late-afternoon ritual has repeated itself for the better part of a month.

Aging cars and passenger vans, with too many rust spots and too many occupants, disgorge riders at the curbs outside retail outlets from clothing and jewelry stores to fruit stands and rug sellers. The vehicles represent a make-do jitney service for workers from across the nation's most sprawling metropolis. There are also unregistered cabs, ubiquitous bikers, women in dress skirts and hiking boots, and the occasional businessman atop a gliding scooter.

"I have to leave at 5 a.m. to get to work by 7," says Beverly Jackson, who since Sept. 16 has daily walked the seven miles from her home to downtown.

She is one of an estimated 450,000 workers here who have scrambled to find alternate transportation for weeks. "I don't know how much more of this I can take," she says.

The vignettes are one result of a struggle that has socked the working class and poor of Los Angeles, while leaving the rest of the city largely unscathed as 4,300 striking bus and rail operators grapple with the Metropolitan Transit Authority over better pay and working conditions. The strike began 28 days ago, and at this writing is deadlocked over one final offer.

Whatever the outcome, a growing number of stories have surfaced to spotlight the underside of the strike and question long-held assumptions about fairness and public policy.

Such stories refute the more conventional news analysis that the prolonged strike has had little noticeable interest or impact because Los Angeles is built around freeways and cars.

"The strike has devastated the downtown retail district," says Sion Nahid, whose Sana Fabric store is empty of customers. He and other retailers say business has dropped 50 to 60 percent for nearly a month because of the strike.

The people who work here, as well as the lower-income shoppers who frequent the district, are largely dependent on public transportation.

"I can't take much more of this, I'm exhausted," says Jesse Rio, a fabric salesman who ferries relatives from several neighborhoods to downtown from 5:30 a.m. to 7 a.m. every day, and then spends 90 minutes taking them home at night. "I don't have a life anymore."

Arturo Segura, a retail clerk at Italian Corner Fashion for Men pedals down crowded sidewalks every day with his suit coat, shirt, and tie over his shoulder and parks his bike behind a steam press. "I'm getting in shape, but this is no way to get to work," he says.

Experts say the number of people using Los Angeles's MTA buses, rail, and subway is significant when compared with other cities - about 450,000 - but minuscule (only 2 percent) when compared with the number of people in the region: 9.4 million.

"Unlike any American city, Los Angeles was designed around, and grew with, the automobile," says C. Kenneth Orski, president of Urban Mobility Corp., a Washington-based consulting firm.

"A large-scale, public transportation strike like this would cripple many American cities such as New York," says Mr. Orski. "But L.A. is so auto dominated that the strike has not had a noticeable effect on traffic. That has hurt the ability of unions to win their way."

Interview drivers in other sections of town, and it is hard to find a complaint that commuting patterns have changed much. That's because the strike has added only 5 percent more traffic to highways and 8 percent to city streets, according to estimates.

"What strike? I haven't noticed any changes," says Walter Harrison, who drives a Lexus and lives in Bel Air, where homes outprice even those in Beverly Hills.

One ironic detail of the current strike is that the city's own transportation department - separate from the MTA - has continued 23 lines of bus service, which serves only a few areas. While taking the bite out of hardship for the totally transit-dependent, the service has kept the transportation problem from being as devastating as it might - or in fueling public outrage.

Another long-term problem for L.A., say experts, is going to be getting people back on the bus after the strike.

"Many people who use buses in L.A. are now just switching back to their cars," says Philip Aker, transportation planner for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. "After the strike, it will be hard to get those people back and convince them that public transit here is a good, reliable way to travel."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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