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.
Roger Moliere, the MTA’s executive officer for real-property management and development, says the “smart card” system would allow subway and rail-line riders to use a debitlike card, and the MTA could team up with Visa or MasterCard, meaning, “Essentially, the MTA would become a credit-card issuer.”
Tony Bell, press deputy for county supervisor and MTA board member Mike Antonovich, says Antonovich voted yes in part to emphasize law enforcement over fare checking, but equally important, Bell says, the turnstiles “will allow riders to use a smart pass — allowing the MTA to collect data [on riders] — and plan ahead.”
And that, more than the MTA board’s dubious official tale — cracking down on the tiny group of honor-system scofflaws — seems to be driving the push for turnstiles.
The idea for so-called Total Access Passes was cooked up by the board years ago, and the MTA has since spent $80 million on the project. But by the admission of MTA executive Jane Matsumoto, getting the passes to work is virtually impossible without a turnstile-and-barrier system.
Without turnstiles, “we are likely to throw $80 million away,” on the Total Access Pass boondoggle, says Mike Bohlke, assistant deputy to board member and Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke, who voted for the gates. Matsumoto adds, “Automated fare collection is the vision of our board.”
Bohlke insists that the end of the honor system and the installation of gates means “seamless travel” for Angelenos.
But as doubtful riders ask, What is more seamless than a system with no walls?
“What is so beautiful is that you can just get on and off — it’s almost like a dance,” Goldschmitt, the UCLA student commuter, says. She was so annoyed by the board’s embrace of turnstiles that she called the Weekly while traveling in Rio de Janeiro. “Adding turnstiles feels kind of ugly.”
What may be even more ugly is the board’s use of the war on terror to justify its move. “When one argument doesn’t fly, the board finds a popular way to phrase things for funding,” Katz says of his peers. “In this case, it’s ‘security.’ ”
MTA officials claim that the new payment-control gates are easily fitted with “ion scanners” to check passengers for trace amounts of explosives. According to MTA officials, once it requires riders to use debit cards doubling as ID cards, police will be able to track the movements of all riders.
So, instead of emphasizing an honor system that gives Los Angeles some civic pride, the system becomes a supposed tool against terrorists — and a way to watch everyone else as well.
The MTA’s board of directors came to this decision after paying $400,000 to a consultancy firm, Booz Allen Hamilton, to look into ways of justifying the turnstiles.
The report found that 5.5 percent of riders were scofflaws. Or put another way, 95 percent of Angelenos willingly buy their tickets — no surprise, right in line with what was predicted more than a decade ago and deemed acceptable.
After looking at the “cost-benefit” report from Booz Allen Hamilton, all board members except Katz voted for a “middle option” among three: $30 million or more in capital investment to build 275 turnstiles, plus $1 million in annual upkeep. There’ll be years of profit for Cubic, the gate system’s architect, which will be handed a lease to control the gates.
TODAY, 90 FARE INSPECTORS walk the 216 railcars, a train system that has grown since the Blue Line opened in 1990, now handling 83 million passenger boardings a year. The civilian fare inspectors, contracted through the L.A. Sheriff’s Department, each cost the MTA around $85,000 in salary and other benefits, according to MTA spokesman Rick Jager. The Booz Allen Hamilton report estimates that the inspectors cost $7.06 million annually.
Daniel Cowden, director of security for the MTA, says that out of 52,000 citations given by fare inspectors in 2005, $1 million was recouped from riders who were fined $250 for fare evasion — and thousands of tickets were issued for other reasons, like public drunkenness.
Even a critic who berates fare inspectors for failing to recoup more losses, and who lauds the upcoming turnstiles, was miffed to learn that most of the savings under the MTA’s turnstile plan will come from firing fare inspectors. “To replace that human-authority presence for turnstiles is a mistake,” blogger Stephen Friday says. “The MTA should bring in the new gating systems to supplement its current safety measures. After all, I think perceived safety is one of their biggest hurdles in luring new riders.”
But maybe the MTA is a bit sidetracked from its core mission. It is supposed to implement anticongestion policies and build transit systems. Instead the MTA, whose board’s first vice president is prodensity czar Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, has increasingly involved itself in big development projects that make it look more like a land developer than an anticongestion agency.
For example, the MTA plans to lease out 15.6 acres of land it owns in North Hollywood for the $1 billion, ultra-high-density NoHo Art Wave office, shopping and apartment development whose street traffic could end up dwarfing Hollywood & Highland’s infamous road congestion. Art Wave includes 6,000 parking spaces — more than the Westside Pavilion. Yet MTA officials, without irony, argue that the North Hollywood project will address rather than cause congestion — making the development a “transit” project.
In some ways, the MTA’s mission appears to have less and less to do with moving people around town: Its dream of issuing credit cards, tracking consumer movements, and leasing land for huge shopping centers feeds that image.
Not everyone is happy about the agency’s metastasizing mission, particularly its plan to use the new turnstile system to track law-abiding Angelenos. John Crossley, a former professor of religion at USC who mistrusts the “security argument” often used to clamp down on personal freedoms, says, “I think it’s bad. There shouldn’t be any type of system where we are tracked.”
Yet Washington, D.C., Metro Transit Police Chief Mike Daly, in an “expert opinion” offered to the MTA board, wrote that electronic trip data would help track a suspect’s whereabouts. And even better, “It can provide evidence of not only where he was, but when — and perhaps who he was with.” Daly wrote: “Good stuff for the police.”
Matsumoto points to terrorism in Madrid and London and darkly asks, “How do we control chaos? . . . Public transport is now looking at how to detect bombs.”
But cash, and the MTA’s desire for more of it, are clearly motivators. If 275 gates are erected in L.A., the MTA can then require personal ID cards touted as “debit cards” that track riders — and such ID cards, in turn, would make Metro Rail eligible for Homeland Security funds. “I wish the world was perfect, but it isn’t,” Bonneau of Cubic says.
Yet neither is Metro Rail. “The painful lack of civic pride in Los Angeles is not reflected in such thriving local communities as Redondo Beach or Santa Monica or Glendale or Pasadena,” says novelist and USC professor of journalism Ed Cray. “Or even in the grim hood, where gangs throw up tags to mark their turf. There, civic pride and involvement flourishes. But mega-local Los Angeles no longer has a single identity. Thanks to former city planner Calvin Hamilton’s concept of the multicenter city, people don’t live in L.A. They live in Granada Hills, or Silver Lake, or Brentwood.
“Now,” Cray says, if only “we had a viable subway system binding these disparate neighborhoods together . . .”
As Cray seems to be suggesting, under the region’s surprisingly workable transit honor system — a point of pride that delighted visitors and gave Angelenos something to tout — we very nearly did.