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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

LA Bus Riders

Air Date: Week of

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The transit authority in Los Angeles fought a bus riders’ union all the way to the Supreme Court so it wouldn’t have to buy more buses. Ingrid Lobet reports how that could happen in a city in which traffic congestion and air pollution are major concerns.


CURWOOD: Bus riders are usually an isolated bunch. They're often buried behind newspapers or covered with headphones. Not much of a community, you might think. But, when the Transit Authority in Los Angeles tried to eliminate monthly bus passes a few years ago, bus riders there formed a union, and blocked the move. Then, the riders used civil rights laws to demand more buses to ease crowding and to improve service to poor neighborhoods. The Transit Authority and Bus Riders Union dispute went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And now, the bus riders have prevailed. From Los Angeles, Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports.


LOBET: That's a sound bus riders in Los Angeles say they're sick of hearing, a bus so crowded it can't or won't stop, leaving them stranded.

PETTIT: My name is Shepard Pettit. And, last week, I was catching a bus going to King Boulevard. Eleven buses passed me up. The first three were overcrowded. We waited more than an hour. And I was so frustrated that these buses were passing me up.

LOBET: Pettit, who uses a wheelchair, says if there were more buses, there would be more room in the aisles, and he'd have less stress trying to maneuver. Today, he's out at a busy L.A. intersection with fellow members of the Bus Riders Union. They're wearing yellow t-shirts, and handing out pamphlets in English, Korean and Spanish demanding more buses, and more bus routes. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or MTA, on the other hand, wants more emphasis on light rail. Even though the bus riders have won in court, they say their effort is ongoing.

ROJAS: We're the Bus Riders Union. Today, we are here. And every bus rider should be documenting the collisions on the buses.

LOBET: Cynthia Rojas says it's not that she has anything against trains. "They're fine if you happen to live near one," she says. But most people don't. And the tracks seem to go in places where people already have a way to get to work. That's what got her involved.

ROJAS: It was such a clear example of a separate and unequal transportation system. Rail lines came on time. You had room for your laptop computer. You had room to sit and read the newspaper. You look at the bus system, people are crawling all over each other.

LOBET: But Mark Littman, a spokesman for the MTA, says it's inaccurate to divide transit users between those who take the train and those who take the bus.

LITTMAN: The same people who use the buses use the trains. It's not an either/or. And this notion that the poor and people of color only want to ride buses in Los Angeles is bogus.

LOBET: Littman says buses are already scheduled every two to three minutes on some routes. They're beginning to cause their own congestion. And people may think of light rail as more expensive than buses. But over time, he says, bus routes actually cost more.

LITTMAN: It takes about $200,000 a year to operate a bus. So you may get federal dollars to buy a bus. But they're not going to pay you to operate the bus.

LOBET: So, the way the MTA sees it, each time it's lost a legal fight with the Bus Riders Union and been ordered to buy another bus, that's another $200,000 a year it has to budget. And, Littman says, that's a problem.

LITMAN: You're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars in terms of taxpayer monies to respond to a dictate that really had no basis in good transit planning.

LOBET: On the other side, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund has been representing the Bus Riders Union. And western regional counsel Erika Teasley sees an ulterior motive in the MTA's preference for rail projects.

TEASLEY: The MTA is a political body. And I think that the politicians would really like to have rail coming through their neighborhoods. And they can say, "I brought this rail into this neighborhood."


LOBET: The long, legal fight has brought changes. There are more buses now, and more routes. And all 2,100 buses in the MTA fleet will run on cleaner burning, compressed natural gas by the end of this year, reducing diesel fumes and particulates throughout the region. Observers say this dispute between the MTA and the Bus Riders Union is partly a question of whether the MTA should focus on luring people out of their cars or giving those who have no cars a reliable way to get to work. For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet in Los Angeles.



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