Bus Blues : Commuter’s Odyssey Takes 6-7 Hours a Day

Times Staff Writer

Call it a very long commuter bus ride.

Alvis Holloway spends between six and seven hours a day traveling between Pomona, where he lives, and Venice, where he works.

He gets up at 4 a.m. to get to work by 9, traveling 57 miles on three bus lines. Then he turns around and does it backwards, getting home at 8 p.m. on a good day. He’s in bed by 10, resting up for the next grueling round trip.

Holloway, the coordinator of a walk-in service center for alcoholics and drug users, lives a two-dimensional life. Working and commuting. “During the week, I have no social life whatsoever,” says Holloway, 62, a short, barrel-chested man with slicked-back hair and a wispy goatee, serving to remind you of his past as a jazz bass player.


Southern California Rapid Transit District representatives say that in mileage--if not in time--there are longer bus rides than Holloway’s, such as the 73-mile express run between San Bernardino and downtown Los Angeles, a 140-minute trek through two counties on the San Bernardino Freeway. There are even RTD commuters who change buses more often.

But they can’t identify another bus rider more consumed by the act of daily travel than Holloway.

It’s a long, frustrating process, says Holloway, who loves his job, at one extremity of Los Angeles County, and is enchanted by his Pomona senior citizens apartment complex, at the other.

“A lot of people think I’m somewhat of a nut,” he confesses.

Stress is part of the deal. The monotonous rhythm of bus tires on pavement or the herky-jerky of street traffic keep him mumbling the “Serenity Prayer” to himself. That’s the well-known Alcoholics Anonymous anthem about having serenity to accept the things you can’t change, courage to change the things that should be changed and wisdom to know the difference.

The idea is, says Holloway, a recovering alcoholic who’s been on the wagon for six years, to remember that there’s nothing he can do about delays, breakdowns and slowdowns.

“Last month, the bus broke down three days in a row,” he says. “They don’t send a replacement. You just have to stand there and wait for the next bus.”


This is a time of unusual dissatisfaction with public transit in the San Gabriel Valley. Twenty cities, claiming that the area is treated by RTD as a poor relation, want to pull out of the RTD system altogether to start what they say will be a more responsive, cost-efficient transit system using private operators. The county Transportation Commission has authorized them to set up the Foothill Transit Zone, a three-year experiment to contract with private companies to take over much of RTD’s San Gabriel Valley service.

“RTD acts as if they don’t give a damn whether you ride with them or not,” says Holloway. “It seems to me, they even try to discourage you.”

Exactly, Foothill executives pipe in. While maps of the RTD bus system show the San Fernando Valley covered by a neat, all-encompassing grid, there are large empty spaces in the San Gabriel Valley, where bus service is a distant amenity, critics say.

And the prospects are for bigger empty spots still. Because of low ridership and the high cost of suburban bus service, the area has been targeted for further RTD service reductions. The buses that do operate in the area break down frequently and run behind schedule, the critics say.

“There are big holes in the (RTD) service,” says William Forsythe, executive director of Foothill. Before a Supreme Court action brought by RTD drivers and mechanics put a hold last week on expansion by Foothill, the private system had already taken over seven RTD lines, including two express routes from Glendora and Diamond Bar to downtown Los Angeles.

No RTD Comment

An RTD spokeswoman said that, because the transfer of lines to Foothill is still in litigation, she could not comment on critics’ complaints. “All I can say is that RTD is concerned about maintaining a regional transportation system, which better serves the public than breaking the system up into individual zones,” she said.


At the rider level, the complaints usually stick to the asphalt-level nitty-gritty. Riders at the El Monte Bus Terminal, the mecca for San Gabriel Valley public transportation where 700 buses a day pick up and discharge passengers on a carousel-like platform, talk about long waits on street corners, jammed buses and insufficient seats for all the passengers.

For example, Marcella Gomez, a secretary for an El Monte insurance agency, said she has to give herself an extra half-hour every morning in case of delays in the trip from her home in West Covina. “You never know what time the buses are going to pass by,” she said.

There are delays and more delays. But often it’s not RTD’s fault, passengers acknowledge. “It takes a long time on hot days,” says Patricia Yung, a secretary in a downtown import-export firm. “That’s when there are breakdowns on the freeway.”

Leaves Early

Holloway’s day begins about 5:15 a.m., when he leaves the apartment he shares with his wife, Margaret, on 3rd Street and walks two blocks in inky darkness to the bus stop on Mission Boulevard. “I always leave earlier than I have to,” says Holloway, “because the buses can run late and, if you wait too long, you have to stand up.”

It is 15 minutes before RTD’s 480 bus shows up. “A lot of your bus time is tied up in waiting,” he says. “The actual time in transit isn’t that bad.” The bus stop is on a sidewalk, next to a vacant lot. “What am I supposed to do out here when it’s raining?” he says. “During the winter, I get soaked at least once a week.”

There are still plenty of seats at that hour, and Holloway settles next to a window. They’re not individual seats, as on an airline, but cramped “love seats,” each accommodating two passengers. “Not very conducive to relaxation,” says Holloway.


The Detroit-born Holloway is a loquacious man, full of stories about his long and varied life (“I’ve been cut, stabbed and shot”) and bits of wisdom (“I’ve never seen anybody go out with a smile on their face,” he says, talking about a job he once held in a funeral parlor. “Everybody’s struggling for just one more breath.”)

He has been a bass player, a dental technician and a professional boxer, fighting briefly as a light heavyweight with the nickname “Baby Bull.”

“Why do you think they called me that?” he says, leaning forward in his seat to give you a clear view. “No neck.”

Can’t Afford Car

An emphysema patient who suffered a heart attack seven years ago, Holloway is passionate about helping people with disabilities on his job, for which he earns a salary too modest to afford a car. Holloway was paying more than $120 a month ($6.40 a day) in bus fares before he acquired a medical disability card, which entitles him to monthly service for $10.

“I very rarely miss a day,” he says. “I’m so uncomfortable if I don’t come to work, knowing that people need me, knowing that people are out there sick with no place to go.”

He is just as adamant about keeping his Pomona apartment. He points to a neighborhood in the pitch darkness. “This is where I used to live,” he says. “I had just dozed off one night, and all of a sudden I hear bam-bam-bam, gunshots right there in the complex. It was that kind of a place. You had to keep your hand on your knife when you went in at night.”


But his current apartment, besides providing elevators, a sauna, a swimming pool and pool tables, is gated, with armed security guards patrolling the area. “You don’t have to worry that some guy is going to grab your wife and put a knife to her throat,” he says.

Lack of Toilets

It’s 6:15, the sky is beginning to light up and traffic is already bumper-to-bumper on the 10 Freeway. Holloway’s bus edges toward El Monte. The worst part of his long daily odyssey, he says, is “no toilets.” Holloway must take a diuretic to cleanse his system of accumulated fluid. “It can put you in a tight spot, brother,” he says.

Holloway could leave his bus at the El Monte terminal and race downstairs to the men’s room. But that would probably add 20 minutes to his trip, forcing him to wait for the next scheduled bus. At the very least, he says, he’d lose his seat.

Holloway sticks with the bus, which pulls out of El Monte at 6:25. “Now we’ll make some good time on the diamond lane,” he says.

The bus, with a full complement of snoozing service and office workers, whizzes past a monumental jam-up on the freeway. By 6:45, it arrives at Wilshire Boulevard, where Holloway, after rushing to a nearby restroom, switches to the 320. He used to switch downtown to the Pico Boulevard bus, he says. “People would climb over your back, elbow you, hit you,” he says. “I’ve seen them tooting coke right in the bus. Then somebody told me about this line.”

The Wilshire Boulevard bus wheezes along, with Holloway perched on a rear seat. Office and restaurant workers jam into the bus, pressing against Holloway’s knees.


‘Great Guys’

Like a lot of riders, Holloway doesn’t like to complain. It’s not always the service or the drivers that are so bad, he says. “Most of the bus drivers are great guys,” he says. “But when there’s a problem with the bus, the passengers start cussing, ranting and raving, developing an attitude with the driver. It isn’t his fault.”

Indeed, some riders at the El Monte terminal talk glowingly of the bus service. Despite having to program in extra time for delays, some said, you can read or sleep on the way. “It’s easier on the nerves,” said Jerry Winn, a comedian and magazine layout artist from Hacienda Heights. “You get on the bus, sit back and relax.”

As long as his ride lasts, Holloway concedes, it probably offers fewer hassles than if he drove a car.

The Wilshire bus drops him at 6th Street in Santa Monica at 7:55. From here, it’s easy sailing. There remains a slow trip south to Venice on the neighborly Santa Monica Municipal Bus Line 3. After stopping for his first container of coffee of the day (to avoid restroom problems, he doesn’t eat or drink anything before he leaves his house), Holloway opens his little office, where he works for the Santa Monica-based Clare Foundation on Lincoln Boulevard, at 8:20.

On a glitch-free morning, Holloway’s cross-county commute has taken about three hours to the minute.

Holloway settles behind his desk and merrily thinks ahead to the trip home. “It’s a lot more crowded in the afternoon,” he says. “You need the patience of Job.”