I never cease hearing the common myth that nobody rides the bus in L.A., but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The LACMTA (Metro) carries more bus passengers than any agency besides the New York MTA, and we have many overlapping regional systems, like our own in Santa Monica. The L.A. metropolitan region may be most closely associated with car culture, but if you break out a Metro regional transit map, you’ll find quite a density of bus service.
My own experiences riding public transit to get around began when I started attending Otis College of Art & Design near LAX. I was quite fortunate that my mom was generous in her support of my education, but with a caveat. I was given a choice between her buying me a car, and I would commute to school (a 40-mile distance) and live at home—or she would help pay for the off-site student housing that was offered. I had zero interest in having the hell-on-earth daily commute I pictured driving in toward LAX from so far away every day, so I went with the car-free-living/student-housing option. And I am glad I did.
Even though I wasn’t living in Santa Monica, the Big Blue Bus system became my lifeline immediately. The apartment building where student housing was offered was too far me to walk to the campus, but it was right next to a bus stop on the #3 BBB line on Lincoln Blvd., which makes its way to the airport. I also had a pair of inline skates and a beat-up bike (back then, I wasn’t quite the I am now), and between those, the buses and occasional car pools with other students, I had all the mobility I needed.
Living by the #3, Santa Monica became a natural destination because, like all Big Blue Bus lines, Santa Monica is at the center. Long before I was a resident here, I was often visiting local businesses along the #3 route, like , which I quickly discovered was the best place for movies anywhere.
When you’re on a tight budget, the advantage of low-cost bus fare compared to high-cost car ownership is clear. Another plus is that while commute times are often longer, the time on the bus can be time spent usefully. You can read, text and preform other tasks while you let a professional deal with the traffic. In a car, you have to stay focused: People who try to multitask in the car sometimes do so with catastrophic results.
Riding the bus is not without its drawbacks. Sometimes it’s late, the schedule doesn’t line up and the stops aren’t always where you’d like them. And, every so often, you deal with unpleasantness like a belligerent passenger. I’ve heard a lot of people express fears that riding the bus isn’t safe, but I’ve never once felt seriously threatened by anyone on the bus. Attacks on transit passengers are exceedingly rare events, but drivers being killed in car crashes are very common, yet the safety of driving every day is rarely questioned.
I think a lot of what makes the bus-riding experience a good one is having the right attitude. My wife loves the bus, mainly because she loves being a passenger and hates driving—whether it be in the back of a car on a road trip, a bus, a train or the back of our tandem bicycle. The way she sees it, the bus driver is her chauffer who deals with the stress of driving through traffic so she doesn't have to.
As an advocate for alternative transportation, hoping for a day when we don’t need the label “alternative” anymore, sometimes it is hard to draw the distinction between being a booster for transit service and pointing out the flaws in hopes of pressuring service improvements. There is no denying bus service could and should be better. We need things like better on-time performance, more frequent headways and better bus shelters at stops. However, opting out isn’t going to result in those improvements. We need greater ridership to support the costs and justify more investment. It becomes a bit of a Catch-22 that more people don’t ride the bus because the service level isn’t higher; the service level isn’t raised because more people aren’t riding.
One key difference between public transit and private automobile travel is that taking transit is a virtuous feedback loop, and driving is the opposite. The more people take the bus, the more buses can be run, reducing delays, making more routes viable, and helping transit become more competitive and convenient. With cars, the more people drive, the more clogged the streets become, the more difficult it becomes to find parking and the utility of driving is diminished. That is, until a critical mass on some streets and freeways creates jams and bottle necks.
As Tom Vanderbilt points out in the book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), congestion gets worse along an exponential curve. Which means, in the case of a serious traffic jam slowing cars to a crawl on a freeway, removing 5 percent of the cars can sometimes actually double traffic flow.
If you want to give it a shot and you’re new to bus riding, the best advice I can give is get acquainted with the transit button on Google Maps, which has radically altered the process of catching the bus. It features automated transit-service routing across agencies, is presented in a slick interface and also is, most of the time, pretty smart. Losing a sense of spontaneity is often lamented with transit, but using Google Transit data on my smart phone has allowed me many instances of quickly and confidently throwing together transit routes from wherever and on bus lines I had never used before, or even in cities I had never visited before.
One of the things I appreciate about Santa Monica is its commitment to providing a high level of bus service for a city of its size, and with routes that extend far beyond its borders. Hopefully, with new route connections to the in-the-works stops, first in Culver City and then later in Santa Monica, along with other service improvements, we can continue to build a more transit-oriented culture with greater transportation choices.