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What Do Mountain Lions and Mass Transit Have In Common?
A chat with Curbed writer Alissa Walker on Los Angeles, transportation, big cats, and more.
Since we’re in the dead of winter, I wanted to keep it on the sunny side (in literal terms), so I spoke to fellow Angeleno and writer, Alissa Walker. Alissa is the California correspondent for Curbed and a co-host of LA Podcast, and recently covered two topics that are very near and dear to my heart: mass transit and urban animals. Earlier this week, Alissa and I chatted about how Los Angeles Metro recently completed what (in her words) “may be the biggest free-transit experiment in U.S. history,” by making city buses free to riders for two years during the COVID pandemic.
As you can imagine, the benefits to LA’s passengers, and particularly low-income passengers, were enormous and far-reaching, and naturally, the city didn’t technically intend on that happening and doesn’t totally know what to do with the results now.
We also talked about the upcoming wildlife crossing over the 101 Freeway, which, when completed, will be the largest bridge of its kind in the world, and will provide a much-needed pathway for the city’s mountain lions. Fans of famed mountain lion P-22 (hello, I am one of them), take note.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
I think I’m probably more of a public transit freak than most, but I’ve been really fascinated by the ongoing free bus story in LA. It seems like such a huge deal. As someone who’s been covering it, could you talk a little bit about the program—how it came to be and what has transpired with it?
Walker: So, it wasn’t actually an official program. I don’t know if a lot of people understand that it wasn’t anything that Metro formally decided they were going to do with the intention of making transit free to the people who rely on it the most. It began as a safety precaution so they could protect their operators at the beginning of the pandemic, because when you board on most Metro buses, you walk through the front door and you have to walk very closely to the operator to validate your TAP [reloadable fare] card. So in the very early days of the pandemic, they just said, “Stay away from the people who are driving the buses and go in the back door and give yourself distance from Metro employees and other people on the bus.” So it was never an intentional plan, but I think what is really important is that the advocates for bus riders—there’s a huge coalition of very engaged transit rider groups—really organized during this time, so that every time Metro even considered trying to stop this process, they really kept pushing to say, “You shouldn’t resume fare collection, particularly on buses.” And they still say that, even though Metro finally decided, almost two years later, that they were going to.
Wow yeah, I knew that it was a COVID safety percussion initially, but I didn’t realize that it was specifically about the drivers. I thought it was meant to protect everyone in addition to being a nice thing for people during a hard time.
Walker: I think there was maybe some messaging like that, that maybe came from the board members, but it was very interesting how even Metro did not promote that this was a thing they were doing. I think they still wanted to make people pay or try to pay? It was a very interesting public relations exercise.
Yeah I mean, as I was researching, I read a quote from the former Metro CEO [Phillip A Washington] who said [via Fareless System Initiative materials] that Metro had a “moral obligation” to explore free transit “as a social and public right and common good.” I guess I assumed a bit more goodwill than was actually there.
Walker: I mean, I’ll give the board a lot of credit because it’s made up of county supervisors, and council members, and some people who have proven to be good advocates for transit. But yeah, it’s been very interesting to see how they really skirted around promoting what I thought was such an amazing thing. That’s why I wanted to do the story! I wanted to be like, you actually did something great and helped the right people at the right time. You should take more credit!
Did you hear from a lot of people who were affected by it? I know that people love to shout about public transportation, and I’d imagine there were a lot of opinions.
Walker: Yes, I did a thread on Twitter and the stories were so amazing. It was the same thing for me too. I don’t think I rode any buses at all for maybe a couple months at the very beginning [of the pandemic]. And then when I finally went back on, paying wasn’t even the first thing on my mind, I was just anxious about riding the bus again. And I got very emotional because a lot of these people who have been riding the buses never had a choice. These people who had to go to work. So I was like—I mean, exactly what you’re saying—like, what a great thing we did to protect these people. We’ve done this very small and very easy thing that probably saved a lot of lives and kept a lot of people from getting sick. But the stories that people told in that thread were just remarkable. So many little things that you wouldn’t have thought that free transit would do. Yes, of course, you save money and you don’t have to think about paying when you get on, but people were also taking more short trips, or taking people from out of town with no problem. It was easier to leave your car behind because you just knew that you had different options. People didn’t have to learn how to pay. For me, I have two young kids, and having to deal with kids every time you get on the bus, it’s just one less thing to worry about. One thing that I saw that was so remarkable was with boarding itself. Everybody else boards in the back, but if you use a wheelchair or mobility device, you still have to board in the front, because that’s where the ramp is. And a person that was getting on in the front while my family was getting on in the back had so much extra time and care to board. Instead of feeling rushed, the operator could really take time to help them and get them onto the bus, where normally everybody gets really frustrated and there’s a lot of chaos. You could see how we could actually make getting on and off of buses a much more dignified experience. And in talking to a few people who are not on Twitter—people who actually rely very heavily on buses, and some of whom are in very low-income households—they said they took more trips. All of a sudden they were able to run that extra errand or they were able to do things that they normally wouldn’t have done in their day. And I think that is so revealing. Because oftentimes you’re either like scraping together money, or you only have a certain amount for transit. And once you have kids it really starts to add up every day. So it was just great to hear that people can actually do more things. And that’s what we should want, and for everybody to do those trips on transit. That’s the goal here.
I was also reading about how it’s not only better for riders, but more efficient for the system generally, and also better for the climate.
Walker: Totally. And the climate thing was just nuts because again, it was Metro’s own data! They used their own study to say that it’s the most effective program for reducing VMT—which is vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions—of all the things that they do. Free transit is the most effective thing that they could do, and it also costs so much less than all the rest of the other interventions. So things like congestion pricing, where you charge car drivers to enter a certain part of the city like downtown or different areas, they kind of cordon them off. And that requires a lot of money and research, and putting up card readers, and things like that. Free transit is actually probably cheaper than charging because they have to spend money on enforcing fares and signing people up for all these programs and stuff. So it’s a really good thing. And you know, they have done a lot of good things with the student passes. Like my daughter, who is in first grade, she just got her student pass from LAUSD [Los Angeles Unified School District]. But still, you shouldn’t have to fill out paperwork. You shouldn’t have to register. You should just be able to get on the bus.
Do you think there’s a world in which this accidental experiment has lasting effects? I know we’re in kind of an opposite situation now: They’ve resumed fare collection, there’s a driver shortage, and in some ways things are worse than ever for riders.
Walker: The timing of it is just so unfortunate. We knew this was going to happen because the labor shortage has been a looming problem the whole time. It’s the Great Resignation, right? People should be properly compensated for this type of job and they’re not. This is going to haunt us if we want to make the transition that we’ve been promising. We have to pay people to have these jobs that are going to support this. So, they need to take a really deep look at who is literally driving the change and the agency and make sure that they are paid better. There’s just no way around it.
I think part of what interests me so much about the bus transit story is that it feels like kind of a small thing, but the way it’s handled really says a lot about how a city is taking care of its vulnerable population. And in LA in particular, which is so massive and which has such a big population of low-income people, something like this could make a big difference.
Walker: Yeah. The coalition of advocates has done such an amazing job to get people really activated around these issues and get people to really pay attention to who the bus riders are. It’s not necessarily the people riding the train—it’s a different subset of the city. The train goes to certain places and the train has been invested in based on where it can lure in higher-income riders or to certain job centers or things like that. And the buses literally go everywhere. So, we need leaders who are not just saying that they want to build out our transit system, like how our current mayor [Eric Garcetti] has been. It’s not just about this infrastructure building. It’s also about being in solidarity with those bus riders. And we need more leaders that are focused on that.
Do you see any possible changes on the horizon? I know the operator shortage is part of a broader nationwide trend, but at some point it seems like the system will actually start to break down unless something shifts.
Walker: I think we’ll get through this surge part and people will have to make a decision about hiring or training or whatever they’re gonna do to get more operators. But there are so many simple things that the city can do that they’re just not doing enough of. Things like dedicated bus lanes. That could have been much more accelerated during the pandemic. They put down a lot of bus lanes and they’re performing so well. Things like that are very easy. It’s a little bit of enforcement, yeah, but it’s mostly just paint. Little things like that could make a huge difference about how fast the buses come. Things like better bus shelters and places to wait so people feel safe, and have shade and seating and things. They’re slowly working on those, but we could have done so much more during the pandemic when the system was being underused. It’s a shame.
I want to make sure we have time to move from buses to cars and talk about the 101 wildlife crossing, which is yet another thing that feels so simple and beneficial, but has taken a really long time to come together. I saw you tweet that you’ve been covering it for over a decade??
Walker: Yes! Isn’t that nuts? Like, just how long it takes for us to do anything.
Are you surprised it’s actually happening?
Walker: No, because the people who were behind it were so focused on making sure it happened. [California Governor] Gavin Newsom has been a big champion of it, I guess his dad was a judge who did a lot of wildlife protection, so yeah, they got their champion when Newsom came in office. Then it was just a matter of fundraising. They got some state funds, and now it’s like a federal priority as well, which is really cool. And they got the Annenberg Foundation to sign on, which is why it will now be called the [Wallis] Annenberg Wildlife Crossing. But yeah, I think maybe the collective consciousness about this type of issue has been raised over the last decade. I think people know a lot about P-22, and a lot about the fate of a lot of the mountain lions here, and not just the ones that get hit by cars, but also that inbreeding has become this truly an existential risk for this species, our Southern California species. This is their home and we have basically ruined their habitat. It’s on us to fix it, or they are going to be wiped out because of us.In the introduction to my story, I wrote about the gray wolf known as OR-93, that had traveled all the way down here from Oregon [and was then found dead by the I-5 Freeway]. You know, with radio collars on these animals and the fact that everybody has like, Ring cameras outside, we now have a surveillance system for how much these animals move around and what barriers they’re facing. And that was just so crushing that OR-93 was basically across the street from the largest piece of private property in the entire state of California and he couldn’t get there. That should be a real wake-up call.
It’s so heartbreaking, but I think you’re right that people seem more aware. Just living here, it’s hard not to be aware of that clash of wildlife and city life. It seems like the bridge might help to further encourage that awareness.
Walker: Yeah, exactly. And just people asking, “Well, why do we need that?” I think that’s another really good question. I think a lot of people say, “Why just this? Why isn’t there, why isn’t there more park space like this for humans?” And Beth [Pratt, California regional executive director for the National Wildlife Federation] who I spoke to for the story had a really good point. [She said] we do need these for everybody. It isn’t a one bridge solution or one crossing that’s going to fix this for one species. Many species will benefit, including us. But the key is that we’re creating a network. It doesn’t start and end here. We have to go look again. What’s the next barrier, and how can we fix that one? And how can we make sure that every time we build an infrastructure project, or a tunnel, or anything that affects the human species, we also ask how it will impact other species. Griffith Park is a great example. It’s completely encircled by freeways. There’s absolutely no way that P-22 should be in there, right? But he is, and he continues to thrive in there. But he’s not going to be able to reproduce because of the risk of getting out and back in safely. It’s not a good future for him.So really thinking about things like freeway cap parks, daylighting creeks, and making sure that when we’re doing something like the river revitalization, I don’t know if you’ve seen Frank Gehry’s plans for the Los Angeles River, but it’s like leaving the concrete in place a lot of places and not really restoring it to a lot of the naturalized river that a lot of the ecologists have been calling for. It would basically just resculpt it for humans. It was controlled in one way, and it’ll be controlled in a different way. So really thinking much more carefully about how the city isn’t really just ours as people. We really have to think about coexisting with the animals that were here before us.
Yeah, that’s the thing. The bridge is amazing and I’m so happy that it’s happening, but it also feels like it took a really long time for one step to be made to better integrate these two worlds.
Walker: Exactly, yeah. So it’s like planning decisions, every time a decision is made for what we’re building, to try to think about how we can start to undo some of those previous mistakes.
In a more general sense, how do you approach covering LA through the lens of a New York publication?
Walker: What’s interesting is that since Curbed moved over to New York magazine, I now really have to think carefully about like, why is this nationally relevant? Why is it really important that the story is told? And I write about a lot of things that aren’t LA of course, but it’s been interesting to see that what LA does really is cared about from a national perspective. And not just like in the ways that you think about New Yorkers not understanding LA, although that does happen. But with the stories I write here, the two we talked about are good examples because they’re kind of like, we have the resources and the ability to make very big mistakes, take really big risks, or try very big things, and have very big successes, but we don’t do that nearly enough. We are still so afraid of disrupting the status quo or we’re too polite to our elected officials. We need to get to that next phase where we have a lot of people who don’t just get up there and make speeches about taking bold action, but actually do it and manage to piss off a lot of people at the same time. I don’t see that nearly enough happening here. I think LA and California are both relevant here. We’re gonna start getting lapped pretty quickly if we don’t take a little bit more progressive action. I wrote about something else, in Colorado, where they’re actually tying their transportation investments to proving that they can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and also have better environmental and ecological outcomes for the state. We could have done that in California! But they beat us now, so it’s a good example of how if we don’t move a little bit swifter, we’re going to get left in the dust.