The Bus

“What brand of shoes are those?”italianshoes

While the question wasn’t directed at me, I looked up from my book, curious. Was this a typical conversation that you might overhear during a bus ride in Los Angeles? The two gentlemen proceeded to talk quite extensively about the need for having a good pair of shoes, where to get a good pair of shoes at insanely cheap prices (downtown L.A., if you’re wondering, 7th and Los Angeles, to be exact, Little New York, one of the guys called the area), and how measuring foot width is as important as length. I silently regretted my choice of more sensible shoes for this outing. Man, I so could’ve been in on this conversation had I worn my Fluevogs!

I have become a regular bus rider during my time here, plopped down as I am on the suburban westside of town. The nearest rapid transit line is about a 23 minute bike ride or 80 minute walk. Nobody walks 80 minutes to take transit unless, you know, Fitbit, am I right?

So I take the bus. Like nearly 3/4s of all public transit users in Los Angeles. It’s a fact of life if you’re getting around this city without a car.metrotransitmap

Buses aren’t glamorous. Buses aren’t spiffy. Seldom do you think of buses as sleek or any other car commercial descriptive that comes to mind. Buses rarely beckon politicians to ribbon cutting ceremonies.

What buses do, however, for almost every North American city that didn’t get in big to the 19th-century subway craze, and grew up and out with the post-war automobile age, buses provide the backbone of their public transit systems. If your bus service isn’t fully functioning, your transit system isn’t either, regardless of your shiny subways and light rail. The quickest way to improve public transit is to improve your bus service.

But buses. So, 2nd-class.

My painter friend, Donald – not actually a painter, not actually named Donald, actually named Ned, All Fired Up’s L.A. correspondent, it’s just a phrase I like to use because Lou Reed did – Ned and I took a trip out along the Orange Line across the San Fernando Valley. It is a dedicated bus lane that connects to the Red Line subway terminus at North Hollywood. metrobusorangelineA real life, honest-to-god bus lane, protected from mixed traffic and with either signal priority or incredible luck with traffic lights. We zoomed westward, stopping almost exclusively only to pick up or drop off passengers, through places anybody even vaguely familiar with pop culture would recognize. Laurel Canyon. Van Nuys. Reseda. Tarzana. Canoga Park.

As we went, Ned told me that back in the day, this was originally planned to be a rail connection to the subway, appropriately it would seem, since it was running along the rail bed of the ol’ Southern Pacific Railroad line that operated in these parts during the first couple decades of last century. But wouldn’t you know it, and in a refrain familiar to those experienced in transit debates, there was local resistance to anything but a subway being built on the route. Too costly an option and, again for anyone aware of Toronto’s Scarborough subway debate, not an ideal mode to build for the type of urban design, built form the Valley was and remains.

The debate got lengthier and wackier. Residents didn’t want rail unless it was underground or unless the alternative was a bus lane. metrobusWhat?! Buses? OK. Let’s make it rail, even if it’s at-grade. Problem was, in their previous anti-rail zeal, state legislators made a law banning all non-underground rail in the Valley, a law which has now been overturned, paving the way for an LRT to eventually replace the Orange Line bus lane.

There is no transit planning that is not politicized transit planning, it seems. Which may just be an unfortunate inevitability of living with other people, we are political animals, after all, all of us in our own ways. The real problem though, as I have seen it, is that those really politicizing transit planning tend to be people who don’t take transit very often, if it all. How will this transit project affect my ability to get around in my car?

Non-transit users tend to like the idea of buses because they see them operating in mixed traffic, big lumbering vehicles that have to pull to the side of the road to pick up or drop off passengers, easy, sooner rather than later, to get around and get along your speedy way. That is, until you propose, taking a lane or two of road away and building a dedicated lane where buses can go about their transit business, free of snarled car traffic. metrobus1Then, all bets are off.

Non-transit users may also express a preference for buses because they can’t ever envision themselves ever getting out of their car and using public transit. Ever. So why spend all that money on fancy trains that they’ll never use. Never. Ever.

Public transit decisions made by those who have a transit choice.

I imagine if you ask even the most dedicated or dependent public transit user, what mode of public transit they’d prefer to use, the bus would be down their list. The ride is rarely as smooth as a rail glide. It can’t possibly go as fast as a subway. They can be bumpy, shaky and rattle-y.

Buses are the last option for those without many options.

So what’s with the buses already? Mothball them. Start building shiny stuff, fast stuff. metrobus2Let’s pimp our public transit rides.

Even if the barrel of money to build transit was bottomless, and we all know it isn’t, you couldn’t dig subways to everywhere you needed unless we all were prepared to Manhattanize or go full on Hong Kong. There isn’t the street space or capacity to run LRTs along every route you’d need to generate the ridership you’d want to make for an effective transit system.

The simple truth is, to design, build and operate a fully-functioning, robust transit network, you need buses. Buses are like the capillaries of the system (if I understand my anatomy correctly which I can’t guarantee), feeding riders into and onto the bigger capacity lines that take them to their final destination, work, school, the mall, home. Buses best provide local service while at the same time, if done right, treated well, delivered with a sense of purpose instead of resignation, buses can build and strengthen ridership growth. Like the Orange Line has done in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley.rodneydangerfield1

We need to stop dismissing buses, treating them as symbols of failure or reluctant compromises, or using them as a cavil in politicized transit debates, either in favour of spending buckets of cash on unnecessary high orders of transit or doing the exact opposite. Better buses, better bus service means a better transit system. More people happy and willing to ride the bus rather than choosing to do so as a last resort means fewer people driving their cars.

And fewer people in their cars mean more people knowing where to get good shoes cheap.

round-and-roundly submitted by Cityslikr

3 thoughts on “The Bus

  1. The shoe conversation is one example of why I always think of the bus as a public square on wheels, or in Spanish, the zoca-loca-motive! (Or would that be a train?)

  2. Having recently moved to East Palo Alto from Toronto and being a non-driver the bus is how I get everywhere. To the light rail of the VTA, to the Caltrain but mostly just to the next bus. Within a week of arrival the kids and I, Clipper cards in hand, set out to learn the bus routes that would take us into each of the neighbouring cities in a bid to find groceries and parks and sometimes just see what we could along the route.

    These buses are local to the extreme and run twisting routes in and out of neighbourhoods eventually intersecting with other routes and other forms of transit. On the bus the 25 minute drive to the doctors takes one hour and 38 minutes passing through Menlo Park, EPA, Mountain View, Los Altos and Cupertino. That bus route (3 buses in all) has tought me more about the area than I’d have ever learned travelling quickly by car or rail or subway.

    Sure the bus is slow and cumbersome and constrained by traffic but it also approachable and local and readily adaptable.

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