Geographically this city stretches across a map like a submarine sandwich. It is much longer than it is wide, with busy Whittier Boulevard the only major link between the city's eastside neighborhoods and the Uptown Village district and businesses on the west end.
Because of Whittier's shape and the distance between major shopping areas, cross-town travel can be inconvenient, particularly for the elderly, who now make up nearly 20% of the city's 69,000 residents.
Recognizing the transit dilemma, retailers, city officials and civic leaders have pushed in recent years for a municipal bus system.
In a series of actions in recent weeks, the City Council has cleared the way for Whittier's first fixed-route bus line, a system city transit experts believe may attract 250,000 riders in its first year of operation. In approving the bus logos, routes and fares, the council has all but turned the key and started up the propane-powered buses that will begin running July 8 along 22 miles of city streets.
Financed by Proposition A
Whittier is the 12th city in Los Angeles County to launch a fixed-route bus system with money from Proposition A, the half-cent transit sales tax initiative approved by county voters 4 1/2 years ago. Based on their population, all 83 cities in the county receive a share annually of the transit tax money.
In fiscal year 1985-86, Whittier's share of Proposition A money will be about $650,000, just about enough to cover the first year of operating costs for the Whittier Transit bus system, including a one-time expenditure of nearly $100,000 on bus benches, shelters, signs and advertising to attract riders.
An experienced Wilmington-based firm, Transit Contractors, has been hired to operate the Whittier bus line. The firm, one of four considered by city officials, was awarded a two-year contract--about $460,000 a year--to supply buses and drivers and to maintain and fuel the vehicles.
Optimism in City Hall about the new bus system is high. Newly hired Linda Creed, the city's first transportation manager, believes that residents--with a gentle nudge through advertising--will eagerly line up and pay the 25-cent fare to ride the buses, which carry a maximum of 20 passengers each. (Children under 5 will ride free.)
"The city is long and narrow, making it difficult for people--especially those without cars, like the young and old--to get from one end to the other," Creed said. "The bus system should help solve that problem."
Following a public hearing and much discussion, the council last month settled on two routes. The Sunrise line primarily runs south of Whittier Boulevard, winding through housing tracts on smaller surface streets on the city's south and east sides. The second route, the Sunset, runs north of Whittier Boulevard through the west side of town to the Pico Rivera city limits.
Although the routes were designed to serve different sectors of the city, they do intersect at three locations--the Whittwood Mall, the Whittier Quad and Uptown Village, the city's major shopping districts.
Creed said those three stops, along with the city's two major medical centers, Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital and Whittier Hospital Medical Center, will be the primary destinations of most riders. She also believes the local system, by making it easier to reach Southern California Rapid Transit District stops in Whittier, will encourage commuters working in downtown Los Angeles and elsewhere to use that system.
The buses, which are 23 feet long and painted white with red and blue striping, will operate six days a week. They will run from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Saturday. There will be no service Sunday.
Four buses will operate at one time. Initially, Creed predicts a 45-minute wait between pickups at a stop, a wait that she is confident can be shortened.
"It takes time to work out the bugs, particularly when you're trying something brand new," said Creed, 29, a six-year veteran of the Orange County Transit District who was hired by Whittier officials last month to oversee the start-up of the minibus system. "Eventually, our goal is to get the wait down to 30 minutes--but that's down the road a ways."
City officials say the new transit system will not affect Dial-A-Ride, the city's van and bus pickup service for the physically handicapped and residents over 60. Last year, more than 33,200 people in the city used Dial-A-Ride.
Although the city's entire 1985-86 share of Proposition A money will be used to operate the new bus line, Creed said interest income from $1.4 million in transit tax money accumulated by the city since 1981 will easily cover Dial-A-Ride's $130,000 budget next year.
Whether the new bus system succeeds will depend largely on ridership, officials said.
Ed Henning, chairman of the city's Parking and Transportation Commission, believes the key to filling seats is promotions. "The trick is to get people to get out of their cars and get on the bus," he said. "You've got to sell them on the notion that the bus is easier, more relaxing and cheaper. It's a sales job."
Although the city is still drawing up a specific marketing strategy, Henning said the three shopping centers--Whittwood Mall, the Whittier Quad and Uptown Village--should pool resources and offer shoppers free bus tokens with purchases or coupons refundable for soft drinks or food at local restaurants if they ride the bus.
"I'm a sucker for coupons and if the offer is attractive enough, I'll bite and go for it," he said. "But even then, I'm not sure Southern Californians are ready to embrace public transportation."
Opposition to Transit
Martin Gombert thinks they are, under the right conditions. Gombert, operations manager for the firm hired to run the Whittier system, said most Southern Californians are opposed to traditional transit systems--subways, taxis or bus lines.
"For years, those living in Los Angeles suburbs have rejected the old solutions to transit problems. They don't want the big 40- and 45-foot-long diesel buses that spew smoke and smell like a refinery," said Gombert, whose company, Transit Contractors, operates 19 transit systems in Los Angeles County, including services similar to Whittier's Dial-A-Ride in the Long Beach-Signal Hill area and Bellflower. The company also operates the Carson Circuit in Carson, which was the first municipal bus system set up in the county following the passage of Proposition A in November, 1980.
"But give Southern Californians smaller, energy-efficient buses and they'll buy it," Gombert said. "You have to personalize the service, make it fit their needs."
To enhance ridership, several Whittier residents--led by William McEwen, a longtime resident and Whittier College graduate--are lobbying city officials to turn the old Pacific Electric bus depot into a transit center. The city-owned building, at Comstock Avenue and Bailey Street in Uptown Village, is currently used by The Friends of Whittier Library.
The 29-year-old McEwen, who has lived in Whittier since the early 1960s, believes the Uptown Village area needs a central bus station, which could double as a taxi stand for the two taxi companies that serve the city.
Would Encourage Ridership
"Traffic and parking are becoming an increasingly critical problem in uptown because of the success of redevelopment," McEwen said. "A safe, clean bus station would encourage more people to take the bus to uptown, easing the parking problem."
While city officials concede the old depot is the logical site for a new station, they say the new bus line must prove successful before they will consider opening a permanent transit center. In addition, Councilwoman Sabina Schwab said The Friends of Whittier Library, a volunteer group that collects and sells old books, would have to find a new home first.
"That group is very important to the city," she said. "They raise about $10,000 a year for the library through their sales. They've been around a lot longer than this new bus line."