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LA workers swap cars for subway

By David Willis
BBC News, Los Angeles

In Los Angeles, the rising price of petrol is prompting people to travel to work by train rather than by car. According to figures from the city's subway system, the number of passengers increased by more than 14% in the first three months of 2008.

Los Angeles skyline
America's second largest city is a sprawl. Fifty-two suburbs in search of a city, so the old saying goes
I am going to let you in on a little secret, but promise me please you will not breathe a word, otherwise I may never be able to show my face in certain parts of this town again.

This week I did something which - in nearly 10 years of living in Los Angeles - I have never, ever done before.

Cue the drum roll: I travelled to work on the subway.

I did it because the figures suggest it is the trend. And (hem hem) being the trend-setter that I am, that is the only excuse I need.

Labyrinths of freeways

You see - like most people here - I would rather stick pins in my eyeballs than hop on a bus or a train.

That is not because I am a snob, but because America's second largest city is a sprawl. Fifty-two suburbs in search of a city, so the old saying goes.

And the prospect of sitting in grid-locked traffic on one of the labyrinths of freeways, only to pay the equivalent of a small dowry for the right to park, may sound miserable, but given the distances involved, it is still invariably quicker than public transport.

passengers on the San Francisco subway
In the early 1900s, Los Angeles boasted the largest urban rail network of any city in America, more than a thousand miles of track

Yet certain things have happened here which have prompted some in this car-crazed city to question their betrothal to the internal combustion engine and weigh the possibility of a trial separation.

Congestion is at times so bad there are fears the place could one day grind to a halt. And on top of that there is the rising cost of running those gas guzzling machines.

Although motorists in Europe would give their right arm for petrol at nearly $4 (2) a gallon (assuming of course they steer with the left), here it is nothing short of the end of the world as we know it.

Old glamour

All of which accounts for an unprecedented spike in the number of people taking to public transport, and explains why yours truly found himself in the sepulchral surroundings of Union Station in downtown Los Angeles earlier this week.

The last of the great train terminals to be built in the United States, Union Station fuses Moorish and art deco architecture to truly spectacular effect.

I noticed the first draw-back of the LA subway system: it didn't go anywhere I wanted to go

It was here - amid the marble walls and frescoed ceilings - that movie stars of the 40s would arrive in Hollywood flanked by their agents and assistant.

This was back in the days when train travel was seen as glamorous and genteel, and Union Station epitomised the promise of a glittering future for the railroad.

Such promise was realised, for a while at least. In the early 1900s Los Angeles boasted the largest urban rail network of any city in America, more than a thousand miles of track.

Limited routes

Yet by the mid-1960s train travel had all but hit the buffers. Only in the last few years has there been a modest revival, prompting hopes that LA's cinderella subway system may be catching on.

After the sort of false starts that I believe to be entirely consistent with getting used to public transport (buying the wrong ticket, getting on the wrong train), I noticed the first draw-back of the LA subway system: it didn't go anywhere I wanted to go.

I scoured a map of the entire system for somewhere fun to spend the day - what about shopping in Beverly Hills? Sorry, not on the subway route. Santa Monica beach? Ditto. Burbank, where the big movie studios are based? Uh-huh. Well I could always go to the airport to watch the planes take off? Er, not on the subway I couldn't.

Cars driving down the Sunset Boulevard
Being stuck in traffic is, after all, that much easier when the roof is down, the palm trees are swaying gently and the sun is shining brightly in your face

So I opted instead for a trip to the Kodak Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, where the annual Oscars ceremony takes place.

Sitting next to me was accountant Chris Peterson, who said he liked the subway because you could always get a seat. Which didn't come as a surprise to either of us, since, aside from not really going anywhere, the network's other failing seems to be a chronic lack of self promotion.

Chris said he had only just discovered there was a subway system in LA - and he has lived here for 30 years.

Part of the psyche

As we arrived in Hollywood, I got chatting with Bradley Chapman, who makes those life-sized cardboard cut-outs of movie stars which cinemas use to promote their films. Like Chris, he had recently taken to the subway because he could no longer afford the price of petrol.

Bradley's new commute is the antithesis of the LA norm. As well as taking the train, another part of his journey actually involves putting one foot in front of the other, a heretical notion that simply will never catch on.

The man from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the body which runs the LA subway, seemed to agree its route was a little limited.

He told me there were plans for expansion but admitted it could be 10 years or more before they reach fruition.

Despite the rise in oil prices, it is my guess there will be seats on the LA subway for some time to come, so much are cars a part of the psyche.

And, being stuck in traffic is, after all, that much easier when the roof is down, the palm trees are swaying gently and the sun is shining brightly in your face.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday 22 May, 2008 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Fuel prices 'keep cars off road'
19 May 08 |  Business

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