Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Getting real

Today's LA Times includes "Blue Line cuts across L.A. County's invisible boundaries ... The oldest light-rail line is a rolling improv theater with a lively cast of characters running 22 miles from Long Beach to downtown L.A." Reporter Mike Anton has fun with a day in the life of the train.

They are strangers on a train. Text-messaging businessmen and hawkers selling pirated DVDs, cotton candy and drugs. Teenage mothers pushing strollers and weary scavengers with strollers heaped with cans and bottles. Students quietly reading textbooks and proselytizers shouting passages from the Bible.

There is the blind man who takes out his glass eyes for money and the tightly coiled gangbangers with whom direct eye contact is not advised. Commuters lost in their iPods next to full-throated yakkers broadcasting personal confessions.

The Metro Blue Line cuts up the middle of Los Angeles County, from Long Beach to downtown, like a surgical incision, exposing an element of the metropolis many never see.

In a place dominated by freeways and the automobile's numbing isolation, the 22-mile light-rail line — the oldest in L.A. County, marking 20 years of service this summer — is a rolling improvisational theater where a cast of thousands acts out a daily drama that is by turns poignant, sad, hysterical and inexplicable.

Whoa! Did a guy just get up from his seat and urinate before stumbling off the train?

Yes, folks, he did.

Five bucks gets you a day pass to one of the most unpredictable shows in town.

Trouble is that the perennially optimistic ridership forecasts that boosters like to use to justify the huge costs involved ($864 million of capital costs and $64 million in annual operating costs, 2005, serving just 78,000 boardings per day) presume that there is a middle class audience for these systems -- just like the European systems that fans once visited and forever pine for.

As much fun as the reporter had with the story (and that some readers might have with it over their morning coffee), it tells us quite a bit about why so many Americans avoid so many public spaces and public facilities.