In Transit

In Spring, 2009, I wrote this commentary about my personal experiences with transit in Los Angeles. An assignment for a class, it was something of a companion to the reporting I'd done for my master's project, the work that became “R We There Yet.”  

In Transit

“Have you seen my boy Wayne?” the driver, smiling, calls out to a man on the sidewalk as he pulls over the #26 Short Line along Avalon Boulevard in the middle of South Central Los Angeles. It's a Saturday afternoon in early February. This isn't an official stop, and it's not the first time the driver has pulled over to say hi to a pedestrian he recognizes.

I'm sitting a few rows behind the driver, and suddenly it hits me: I realize that I'm falling head over heels for Metro, the largest transit operator in Los Angeles County.

More formally known as the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Agency, Metro offers more than buses and trains. It exudes personality, a personality interwoven with this vast community. Many claim Los Angeles has no public transit, but I know otherwise, and this afternoon's ride only cements my opinion. A bus driver stopping randomly alongside the road might not be the model of efficiency, but he embodies the charm of transit in Los Angeles. I've heard of bus drivers who croon Rat Pack hits as they carry passengers to and from their homes; I've watched flirtation blossom to affection on the platforms of the Green Line. I've watched drunken partiers stumble down bus aisles then politely strike conversation with late night commuters. I've even seen gangbangers politely offer their seats to elderly and disabled passengers.

Occasionally, I'll overhear someone declare “I'd take public transit in Los Angeles if it went near me” and I'm baffled. Metro operates more than 2,000 buses on 200 routes during its peak hours, as well as two subways, three above-ground light rail lines, and a “busway”—an old train right of way in the San Fernando Valley that has been transformed into a roadway devoted to fast-moving, high-capacity buses. My own exploration suggests just how many places in Los Angeles the system reaches.

I can take the bus to the beach or down Sunset Strip. I can visit friends in the Miracle Mile and family in Pacific Palisades. I can do my grocery shopping at the Hollywood Farmer's Market or browse the boutiques on Melrose and Third Street. I can eat my way across the city, grabbing noodles in the Okinawan neighborhoods of Gardena or Korean barbecue from a hole-in-the-wall on Olympic Boulevard. I can even take the bus to the happiest place on Earth. That's right, for less than two bucks I can catch a ride from Downtown L.A. to Disneyland.

Every ride gets me to my destination, but there's more. Every ride is an adventure. Every ride leaves me with a story to tell.

When I drive, I have to find my way around wherever it is I am. Driving requires me to focus on the road, not my surroundings. Riding the bus let's me leave the details to the bus driver. I am free to enjoy the scenery, eavesdrop on fellow passengers, read books, listen to friends, nap, study, or write. I can come and go when I please, without searching for parking or worrying about what condition I'll find my car when I get back. If I over-imbibe after a night out I can get home without worrying about risking anyone's life.

Recently, I had an experience that helped me put this in perspective. A few weeks ago I decided to take my car on an errand, ironically enough at Union Station, Metro's hub and headquarters (where I went in search of Metro souvenirs for a friend). Normally to get from my house to Union Station, I pay $1.25 for a Metro ticket or buy a $5 day pass and hop on the Red Line subway at Wilshire and Vermont. At Union Station, I can transfer to other rail lines, get on a bus headed any direction, or even pay $4 to catch a shuttle that will take me straight to my terminal at Los Angeles International Airport.

But this day, I drove, thinking I needed my car for flexibility to get to the station then off to USC in time for a yoga class. I negotiated tractor trailers and impatient commuters on Highway 101, merged onto Alameda St. and pulled into the station's parking lot. At Metro's gift shop I spent some time browsing for my friend's present and pondered buying a transit pass, then got back in my car. I paid six dollars for parking and headed to the 110 to make my way to USC. There, I fed two more dollars to a meter on Jefferson for two hours more of parking. After class, I drove through start and stop traffic up a packed Vermont Avenue. Relaxed when I left class, I felt my loosened muscles tense as I inched through the two miles home.

According to estimates from AAA, the day's driving probably cost me more than four dollars simply for fuel and wear and tear on my car. Add in parking and I spent more than $12 on a couple quick errands. Had I taken the bus, I could have completed the same trips for less than half that, and let someone else do the driving.

Seems like a great deal. So what's the catch?

For some people it's the stigma.

This morning I rode the #204 — which travels 13 miles through the center of Los Angeles along Vermont Avenue between Los Feliz to the North and the community of Athens in the South, near the 105 freeway. I sat in the rear of the bus facing one set of windows with my back to another set. I watched the passing streetscape, the morning's first bustle of commerce and the people running to catch the bus down sidewalks spotted with gum. But my view was clouded by rain spots caked on the windows' exterior, and the jagged contours of graffiti etched into the thick plexiglass. Scanning the bus's interior, I saw tags all over, from the backs of seats to the curved gray ceilings of the vehicle.

But despite the graffiti, the buses are clean and well lit.

Some people are simply confused by Metro. They avoid it because the transit network seems so foreign.

Caged in our automobiles, learning a transit system can be like learning a new language. At first, the squiggles and lines criss-crossing route maps and the figures filling bus schedules can look like hieroglyphics, but given time and a little bit of trust they quickly begin to make sense, and soon, the serenity of understanding this secret code sets in.

“The city does not have a reputation for really having any public transportation,” Erin Steva, a spokeswoman for the California Public Interest Research Group, says. “Clearly it does and it does work for many different people, but it does need to improve.”

Steva rides her bike and takes the #603 and #201 buses and the Purple Line Subway to her office near the intersection of Wilshire and Western Avenues.

So how can Angelenos make the bus work for them? They don't have to do anything more than stretch their legs, leave their cars parked in their driveway, walk down the street and board one of hundreds of bus routes crisscrossing the city and the surrounding county. It's not a perfect network, but it's a delightfully quirky system far removed from the fist-clenching aggravation of traffic jams and parking woes. L.A.'s buses, like its bike trails and its rail and subway networks, need vast improvements and expansion, but the billions of dollars it will cost to invest in the system's future are easier to accept for those who’ve spent any time using and even enjoying it.

Last fall, voters were so fed up with traffic that they voted to tax themselves to pay to improve transit in Los Angeles County. In the midst of an economic crisis they passed Measure R, which guarantees $40 billion in sales tax revenue to pay for transit infrastructure improvements over the next 30 years. Even though $8 billion of that might go toward improving Metro's bus network, it might not be enough. Measure R pays for capital improvements, for new things — things like new railways, bus only lanes, and timed traffic signals. It doesn't pay for people. It won't pay for bus drivers' salaries or maintenance crews.

So Metro's day to day operations remain at risk. To cover gaps, Metro's board finds itself choosing between slashing routes and raising fares. The latter isn't politically expedient, but the former could dramatically impact tens of thousands of people's lives. Metro’s fares are some of the lowest in the country; yet officials know that about 75 percent of the system's bus riders make less than $12,000 each year. While taking the bus is an attractive option to me, those riders don't get to make a choice. They need the bus and the train to get to and from work, to take their kids to school, to get to the doctor's office, to visit their friends and to run errands. If service is cut, their very lives will be at risk.

If more people who CAN choose realized how easy, how comfortable, and yes, how charming it is to ride a bus, perhaps we'd put more pressure on politicians to avoid making such lose-lose decisions, to avoid starving a lifeline so essential to our city. We can ride the bus, learn how much freedom and adventure it can bring to our lives and demand transit as a right.

Thousands of years ago, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said “The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one's feet” The lesson isn't any less true when it comes to journeys of a few miles from the movie lots of Hollywood to the classrooms of UCLA, or between the spectacular views from Griffith Park to the crashing waves of Manhattan Beach. From the broad boulevards of the San Fernando valley to the Art Deco towers of Downtown's historic core, the journey toward a sustainable future for Los Angeles begins with small steps—beginning with an appreciation for what exists today.