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Beyond Freeways: 21st Century Transit Strategy
By: Rick Cole

Among the hot topics sure to get plenty of comment these days are high gasoline prices, global warming and traffic congestion.  Not enough of our leaders, however, are connecting the dots.

Last fall, Californians approved a nearly $20 billion transportation bond that was supposed to untangle gridlock on our major transportation corridors.  But no sooner had Caltrans staff unveiled their recommendations for spending the first $4.5 billion, than howls of outrage came from localities whose highway projects had been passed over.  Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa even waded into rush hour traffic to urge motorists to call the California Transportation Commission to add a nearly $1 billion widening of the 405 to the list of funded projects.

Villaraigosa’s lobbying was successful, but are we on the right road?  While voters are fed up with congestion, colossal spending on freeway projects just postpone dealing with the real challenge for Southern California’s future – how do we move beyond our dependence on cars? 

Experts may differ on how quickly, but no one seriously doubts that the era of cheap energy is coming to a close.  Whether because of diminishing supplies, national security or planetary climate change, we can’t go on as we have for the past fifty years.  Building freeways won’t solve our congestion problems – nor can alternative fuels wean us quickly from petroleum burning autos.  The cost of our current auto dependence is staggering – just the projects on Caltrans drawing board exceed $100 billion and that doesn’t take into account the now chronic deficit to simply maintain the highway infrastructure we’ve already built.

The San Gabriel and Verdugo cities covered by Business Life are in a unique position to lead the transition to cities built around people, not cars.  Not only have these cities been pioneering smart growth efforts, they have a remarkable depth of world-class engineering talent and capacity.  Surely there are opportunities for Glendale, Burbank, Pasadena, Monrovia and other communities to show the rest of California a better vision for the 21st Century than traffic gridlock.  The answers need not push the bleeding edge of technology.  Completing the Gold Line extension would be a major step forward.  So would bringing back street cars to central cities, as is happening in major western cities like Portland, Seattle, San Francisco and Tucson.  Improving the bus transit experience with cheaper fares, shorter headways between buses and clean, well-lit bus stops is vital. 

We have lived so long with our cars, for those who aren’t too old, too young or too poor to drive, it is hard to imagine life without them.  But with global gas prices and temperatures rising, local cities can lead the way into the future.  Instead of pouring money into backward-looking highway projects, why not show the rest of Southern California how to make more livable and prosperous communities where people can safely, conveniently and affordably walk, bike and use public transit?

RickCole, CityManager, City of Ventura, (805) 654-7740 or visit