IT IS A NICE QUIRK, an amazing anomaly. Of all the subway systems in all the major cities in the world, L.A.’s is, for now, one of the few based on an honor system.
When foreigners come to Los Angeles, says the L.A. Visitors Bureau, they are confused: a subway system with no barriers, no gates? When Angelenos travel to New York, they can say, in a town where the car is king, that at least theirs is a subway system without barriers. In a city of 4 million, where residents tout individual achievement and grow isolated in their buffed cars and designer glasses, the forgiving, trusting subway honor system, similar to those in Portland, Toronto and Paris, is a rare point of shared pride.
Citywide, you merely hop on the light rail or the subway, without challenge, without feeding a turnstile. You are trusted to buy your ticket at a vending machine first.
The vast majority of Angelenos do just that.
“It does indeed feel better to ride public transportation when you are trusted to do your part,” notes Kariann Goldschmitt, a UCLA student who uses pedal power and the Metro as her primary means of transport. “I would even say it encourages civic pride, something all too absent in Los Angeles.”
But late last month, 12 of the MTA’s 13 voting board members — most of them well-known politicians who represent L.A. or suburban cities — decided that a $30 million system of 275 gates, to be built by a huge defense contractor, would be better than trusting people to do the right thing.
Few residents saw it coming, but MTA officials say that about 18 months from now, every single subway station and most light-rail stops will be gated.
“To be frank, the old idea of an honor system is passé,” says Walt Bonneau, a senior vice president at Cubic, the multinational defense firm that will get the lucrative MTA contract.
Cubic certainly would say that: The company herds 180 million humans into gated systems across the world, as well as providing live combat-training technology to armed forces.
The MTA board’s logic is that, ever since the honor system was created, the metro system has grown — and along with it, so has the number of fare evaders. That very issue was widely debated more than a decade ago, and modest fare-cheating — long expected as rider usage grew — was deemed to be a lesser evil than a gated mass-transit system.
The only MTA board member to vote against the gating plan was Richard Katz, a former California state legislator and former adviser to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger who says, simply, “I’d rather have more humans along the rails and in the tunnels than turnstiles.”
Katz says the relatively modest $5 million lost to fare evaders is so small in the MTA’s budget as to be “a rounding problem.” And in fact, MTA gets 82 percent of its $3.13 billion annual funding not from fares, but from sales taxes and government grants. The agency brings in only $322 million a year from its fares — and just $54.7 million of that comes from the system it now wants to gate.
The savings gleaned from erecting gates will be pocket change for an agency that still has not lived down its hubris in building a gleaming $140 million downtown headquarters — an edifice for transit bureaucrats filled with luxury furnishings, Italian marble and a $300,000 fish tank.
While bemoaning the $5 million lost to teenagers, the poor, and others who don’t buy a ticket, the MTA this year dropped $13 million on a pricey ad campaign urging nonriders to “Go Metro.”
“The MTA needs to take a reality check,” says Chris Shabel, a member of the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council. “A lot of people don’t ride the subway here. I think they [the MTA] have to swallow their pride and give back to the public.”
Nor will the MTA recoup all of the $5 million it now loses to scofflaws, no matter how many turnstiles it erects: Some of those who now cheat, particularly kids and the very poor, will just stop riding. And although the politicians hope to save money by firing many of the 90 fare checkers who roam the cars, politely asking to see tickets, the MTA will have to start paying $1 million a year for “upkeep” of the heavy new turnstiles and gates.
SO WHAT’S REALLY going on here?
Underlying this is the MTA’s growing desire to generate more and more cash by creating a “smart card” debit-card revenue stream, but that ID-card approach to travel in L.A. would be virtually impossible to launch without a gated system. Now, study in hand, the MTA has the justification it needs to move forward with its ID card.