I'm writing you all from aboard the Metrolink OC Line, on my way home from a whirlwind vacation. First, I hit the Bay Area via Amtrak to see my best friend graduate from CSU East Bay, and then we drove across the country together in order to move her to her new school, Long Island University in Brooklyn, NY. Both of these metro areas have excellent public transport, which I used extensively. Well, a few hours ago I landed in Los Angeles, and I was immediately jolted back to reality. The experiences of airport transit in my departure and arrival cities was markedly different, and I think that a lot of the problems with transit usage here in southern California stem from these differences.
I flew out of LaGuardia this morning. This is the smaller and more poorly-connected airport in New York City, with no rail leading to the airport. (JFK, by contrast, has a direct, but expensive, rail connection to both the NYC subway and the Long Island Railroad.) Despite this fact, the experience using transit at LaGuardia was surprisingly smooth and inviting. Bus connections to the airport were advertised at each subway station they served, with line numbers and directional signs. At the airport, concise information displays offered information on each line serving the area, and the rail lines to which they connected, and stood next to comfortable bus shelters. Inside the terminal stood MetroCard vending machines, allowing passengers to purchase their transit fare without even leaving the airport.
Contrast this with the experience of riding a city bus from LAX. First off, city buses do NOT serve the airport terminals. To get to the admittedly plentiful city bus service at LAX, you have to ride a free airport shuttle- and that shuttle makes no mention of its transit connections, with a destination sign succinctly reading "LOT C". Signs in the terminal itself did not point to the location of city bus service- riders were simply required to know that "LAX Shuttle- Airline Connections" buses connected to both the rail station and the bus centre. Once on the shuttle, transit riders face a 20-odd minute ride, as the shuttle makes several zig-zagged passes through a large remote parking lot before finally stopping next to the bus centre. The stop at the centre lacks a curb or the attractive signage that all of the other parking lot shuttle stops had. The bus centre itself is isolated, dirty, and features several pornography vending machines, but no restrooms and little shade. Fare vending was not available, and I shudder to think of the fate of visitors seeking to buy a Day Pass- which, as we all know, can only be put on a TAP card on Metro buses, and yet Metro buses do not sell TAP cards. Despite decent way-finding information, fare information was conspicuously absent- riders on the 439 Express (which I took) would have had no way of knowing that the fare to downtown was $1.90, rather than the usual $1.25.
The difference here is clear. New York expects a substantial amount of visitors to use their transit system, and so enables them to do so with plentiful information, helpful fare payment, and attractive signs and stops at their port of entry. Los Angeles expects visitors to rent cars, and car rental shuttles were indeed plentiful and attractive. The only people who are expected on LA buses are the folks who work at the airport, and even then probably only those who are economically disadvantaged- they are therefore undeserving of anything more than the most basic amenities.
Southern California, we need to do better. You'll notice that none of these criticisms address the service provided at the LAX bus centre- in fact, aside from the hourly express route that I was waiting for, it seemed that bus service was in plentiful supply to all major corridors. Matters of signs and the like are not huge, ongoing costs- they cost a little bit of staff time to do it right, and an understanding of what transit patrons are looking for at any given location. Transit centres are costly, but they are often paid out of federal funds, and building attractive transit centres is usually no more costly for a local agency than building unattractive ones. It is not a shift of funding, but a shift of priority that is necessary here. We must stop treating public transit as something that only poor people ride, and start treating it as they do in New York and San Francisco- a system that the general public (and indeed, often the upper-middle class) can use in comfort and respectability. More than moving money, we must move minds- and after that, the money will follow.