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Why Angelenos Say Nay to the Bus, Yay to the Car

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By Lenika Cruz

Here's something to think about the next time you're stuck in traffic on the 405. A new Brookings Institution study showed that the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana metro area ranked number one in the nation for having the most jobs (96.5%) located in neighborhoods with public transit.

Sounds great, right? In fact, most other areas also scored pretty well, with about 75% of all jobs in the 100 largest metro areas accessible by public transit. But the nation’s metro areas are lagging in the second category analyzed by the study: labor access rate, or how many people can get to work within 90 minutes via public transit. Here, the L.A.-Long Beach-Santa Ana metro area’s ranking fell to a dismal 42.

This means that while most metro jobs are accessible by public transportation, most workers live in the suburbs where transit coverage is far more sparse. So, many of these people end up driving to work alone in their cars. The Wall Street Journal explained:

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Solo drivers make up 74% of all commuters, according to Brookings. Adie Tomer, the report’s author, agrees but notes that between a tough recession and occasional gas price spikes the simple act of getting to work can be a burden on many households budget. He also notes that many unemployed workers are finding that they live further and further from possible job openings.
Meantime, commutes are getting longer. The nation’s average distance to work jumped from 9.9 miles in 1983 to 13.3 miles in 2009, and the average number of hours wasted in traffic increased from 14 hours in 1982 to 34 hours in 2010.

Even without labor access rates in the mix, riding the bus in L.A. has something of an albatross hanging around its neck for many commuters. A recent Atlantic Cities article, "Race, Class, and the Stigma of Riding the Bus in America," focused particularly on the social and racial politics of public transit in L.A. Here, where about 92% of bus riders are "people of color," the city has long battled racial stigmatization surrounding public transit, as have cities like Tempe, Arizona and Atlanta, Georgia.

Only about a quarter of bus riders are "discretionary riders," meaning they have other ways of getting around but elect to take the bus. The other 75% do so because they have no other choice. But it’s the 25% of "choice" commuters -- who are usually white and already own cars -- that U.S. cities are trying to appeal to to boost ridership, often without much success.

Throw in environmentalist reasons for taking the bus, and the role of public transit becomes even more complicated, prompting questions like those posed throughout the Atlantic Cities story: "Can a city actually successfully gentrify its bus system? Does it want to? ...What is the point of public transportation? Is it a social service to help those most in need? Or is it an environmental initiative to get drivers out of their cars? And can it ever be both?"