Gerald D. Wagner hates driving his ’87 Jaguar to work. Too much wear and tear on the vehicle, his psyche and his eyesight. “You’re facing the sun in the morning,” explains the tweed-jacketed First Interstate Bank vice president. “And you’re facing the sun when you come back home.”
Instead, Wagner hops the No. 10 Freeway Express, plunking down 80 cents for a 45-minute ride from Santa Monica to Los Angeles.
Ruby Baker also owns a car, a beat-up Nissan that’s been in the shop a month while she scrapes together cash for a new transmission. Working the midnight shift at a catering company at LAX, Baker shells out $4.30 as she climbs on the last bus nightly between San Bernardino and Los Angeles.
Problem is, the No. 110 Inland Empire Connection departs at 6:30 p.m., dropping her off four hours before work begins--and leaving her only six hours after she returns home before she begins her next nightly trudge.
Baker and Wagner are far from typical. For many Southern Californians--whose cars serve as rolling sound systems, grooming salons or telephone booths--the idea of taking a bus or train sounds as inviting as riding a rocket to Russia.
But the pair illustrate the kinds of people found by a Times reporter who spent a week traveling 1,000 miles on more than 40 buses, trains and trolleys in the Southland.
The five-day journey, at a time when the region’s commitment to improved public transportation is greatest since the heyday of the Red Cars a half-century ago, showed the riders to be a diverse and resilient lot. It demonstrated that it is possible to reach almost any major destination--provided a passenger has the time, patience and cash.
But it also showed evidence of a two-tiered transit system.
Express buses and Amtrak trains, which generally transport an upper-crust clientele, are clean and comfortable, passengers say, while local buses, particularly on routes frequented by minority groups in central Los Angeles County, tend to be more crowded and less shipshape.
DAY 1: The Sea to the Desert
That old bromide “You can’t get there from here,” does not necessarily apply to public transit in Southern California.
A passenger can travel from the sea to the desert and back in a single day; more specifically, from fashionable Santa Monica, home of the $3.50 cup of cappuccino, to rustic Yucaipa, home of the $3.69 seven-course dinner at Mr. T’s Family Restaurant.
The 200-mile, round-trip journey, which requires transfers in downtown Los Angeles and San Bernardino, begins at 8 a.m., in sight of the churning Pacific.
Santa Monica Municipal’s No. 10 Express is a sea of business suits half-hidden behind newspaper financial sections. No radios boom rock music here; a string quartet is more likely to be found on the “Big Blue Bus” as it rolls down the Santa Monica Freeway.
“I don’t like to drive too much--I get too anxious,” says Diane Allred, a Varig Airlines ticketing clerk. Allred, who is poring through a paperback collection of Plato, has taken the bus for two months since quitting a car pool.
Across the aisle, architect Kenny Turner stares at the bumper-to-bumper commuters. “I guess it’s the individualism of Los Angeles,” he muses. “A lot of people like to be alone.”
Turner appreciates the 80-cent fare but wishes the express operated after 7 p.m. He can’t stand the slow, gritty RTD local, he says, and when he works late, “I usually call my wife, who has to come from Santa Monica and pick me up.”
From the Freeway Express stop at 1st Street and Broadway, Union Station is a short jaunt by DASH, the city’s 25-cent downtown mini-bus service.
At noon, The Desert Wind pulls out of the train station, ultimately bound for Chicago. Most passengers are on for the long haul, but not Glen Ratcliff, an administrator for a security firm specializing in rock concerts.
Today, he is headed for San Bernardino to submit a bid to provide security for the National Orange Show. He doesn’t need the headache of driving, he says, although he’s not looking forward to the trip back home either.
“I’m taking the bus back because there’s no return train. You know, it was awful hard to learn about the bus service. They keep you on hold forever--with classical music. They’re trying to improve the RTD image, I guess.”
As the Amtrak churns past tract homes, tumbleweed and lots cluttered with car carcasses, travelers in the full-service dining car lunch on hot turkey sandwiches. Ratcliff snoozes in his $15 one-way coach seat.
Once in San Bernardino, a traveler is faced with one of the all-too-frequent problems with Southern California’s mass transit system--a dearth of adequate links between major service lines. Although the Amtrak station is several miles from downtown, only intermittent bus service is available.
Once one reaches downtown, though, Yucaipa is a clear shot on the Omnitrans No. 14, which offers a 63-mile tour of the Inland Empire for 60 cents. Some senior citizens ride the entire length from Montclair to Yucaipa for recreation.
Rolling past orange groves, the bus arrives in Yucaipa in 90 minutes, just long enough for a traveler to stop for coffee before heading back to San Bernardino to catch the day’s final Inland Empire Express bus to Los Angeles.
The finale--RTD Line 4--snakes down Santa Monica Boulevard. The commute costs 30 cents more than Santa Monica’s Freeway Express and takes twice as long.
On board are a short-order cook, a Creative Artists Agency security guard, a pair of homeless men and a plastics factory laborer.
The ambience aboard Line 4 shifts between high tension and low comedy.
“I have no money, they robbed me, they always rob me,” shouts a homeless transvestite climbing aboard at Wilcox Avenue and exiting three blocks later. “Yup, this is my stop. That’s my bed out there--that bus bench. Merry Christmas to you.”
At 9:45 p.m., the ocean is finally back in sight.
DAY 2: The Mission to Santa Barbara
Public transit between Los Angeles and Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties is extensive and well-publicized.
But crossing into Ventura County--where voters recently turned down a ballot measure to fund regionwide rail transit--is like traversing an international frontier.
Only four public buses provide service between Los Angeles and Ventura counties each day. What’s more, there is no municipal bus link between Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
To reach Oxnard from downtown Los Angeles, a traveler climbs aboard RTD Local 424, which rumbles down the long retail corridor of Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley on its way toward Westlake Village.
During rush hour, the No. 424 bus is standing-room only, its riders primarily high school students and Latino domestic workers who commute daily to pricey Valley neighborhoods. The $1.10 journey takes two hours--about 30 minutes longer than the early morning commuter express buses the RTD operates for inbound Valley residents only.
“Sometimes we spend more time on the bus than we work,” muses Jona, a nine-year domestic worker. “But it’s hard to find jobs nearer to home.”
From Westlake Village, the Ventura County Interconnect bus departs from Westlake Boulevard just north of Agoura Road.
At the bus stop, a small blue sign features a drawing of a bus, but is otherwise generic. The sign does not state what bus stops there, who owns it or where it is going. The destination sign on the bus itself is similarly confusing. It reads “Antelope” rather than “Oxnard.”
Only two people board the plush Interconnect, which descends down the picturesque Conejo Grade toward Oxnard.
To continue north to Santa Barbara, the only choice is Amtrak. However, the connection, the 9:55 a.m. South Coast Area Transit bus--a clean, comfortable Grumman--leaves Oxnard’s Esplanade Shopping Center 10 minutes too late to link up with the 10 a.m. Amtrak commuter train.
Fortunately, the next train, a reservations-only “Coast Starlight,” with service to Seattle through Santa Barbara, has an available seat.
Australian backpackers Julie Heriot and Hamish George are aboard, on their way to San Francisco after a hectic two-week stay in Los Angeles.
“Public transit in Los Angeles is crazy, really,” George says. “We looked into it and it didn’t seem convenient. I presume that’s why there’s so many traffic jams on the freeway. We got caught once in the parking lot from Los Angeles to San Diego.”
In Santa Barbara, the MTD bus service is the choice of college students, senior citizens and otherwise mobile residents whose cars are laid up in the repair shop. From the waterfront, one can make it to the historic Mission Santa Barbara in two short bus rides--some seven hours after leaving Los Angeles.
DAY 3: The Cross-Town Survivors
John Mills, 66, stands on a street corner in Skid Row, discussing the safety of RTD buses.
“On the east-west lines there’s not a lot of fights,” asserts the retired City Hall maintenance supervisor, “And on. . . . “
Just then, a half-filled Budweiser can whizzes past Mills’ head and crash-lands on the pavement. A scraggly bearded street person, who flung the beer for no apparent reason, resumes his conversation with another lost soul. Mills, awaiting the Wilshire Boulevard local after delivering groceries to an old friend in an SRO hotel, concludes his thoughts.
“On the north-south lines,” he says, “You have your problems. . . . “
In some Los Angeles neighborhoods, waiting at the corner for a bus can be a profile in courage. Climbing aboard, passengers add, is but the first step in a test of endurance.
“There’s too many people riding the bus, it’s too crowded,” declares Wanda Arrowhead, 80, after struggling for a seat on a late-morning Wilshire local. “They bring baby buggies on board, everything but the kitchen sink. And they stuff them in here like sardines.”
Others say that inner-city residents, many of whom are without their own wheels, seem more apt to be crammed onto aging, overcrowded buses than are suburbanites, whom transit officials hope to lure back to the mass transit system. Frequently, the windows of these buses have been scoured over so often to remove graffiti that it is no longer possible to see out of them.
“The buses on the Westside tend to be much cleaner,” says college student Emily Jeter, taking a break from a chapter in her Sociology textbook titled “Hidden Injuries of Class.” “But (overall) RTD is pretty decent.”
Passengers on the city’s busiest central city routes say that service has improved in the last few years. “The buses used to be pretty bad, but now they’re pretty much on time,” says Marva Martin, 51, a fund-raiser for the Watts-Willowbrook Boys and Girls Club. “But they do need to have security on the buses in the afternoon and at night.
As the typical RTD bus rumbles through central city neighborhoods, the elderly tend to congregate close to the driver. Teen-agers move to the back.
Because each bus route passes through a succession of neighborhoods, each claimed as the turf of a different street gang, bus transit can be a hair-raising experience shortly after public schools let out.
“Safe? It depends on the neighborhood,” says college student Tracey Railey, 19. “Sometimes gang members are waiting at the bus stop to see who is on the bus or if a person gets off with the wrong colors. Then they might start hassling them, you know?”
Some riders say the safest mode of inner-city transportation is the new Blue Line, guarded by armed sheriff’s deputies.
“Most people who ride the Blue Line feel relaxed,” said Damon Brown, 27, of Southeast Los Angeles. “It’s quiet and clean. There’s no violence. On buses you can see shootings. (On the light-rail cars), the deputies make a difference.”
DAY 4: Tourists’ Special
What do Mickey Mouse ears, a ceramic Bart Simpson and an autographed copy of Richard Nixon’s “Six Crises” have in common?
A traveler bent on a break-neck public transit tour of Southern California can pick up all three souvenirs in one day, riding trolleys, trains and buses to Disneyland, Tijuana and the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace.
The journey begins at 6:20 a.m. on the Amtrak San Diegan at Union Station, which carries commuters to Orange County and San Diego.
“How you doin,’ teach?” smiles conductor Wayne Norwood as he checks tickets on a no-smoking car near the snack bar.
Norwood is speaking to Marlys Marsteller of La Crescenta, an elementary school music instructor for the San Juan Capistrano school system.
Each morning, Marsteller commutes two hours to work--driving her car to Union Station, boarding the train and then hopping into her second car at the Orange County train stop.
“I really like living in the mountains . . . so it’s worth it,” said the 19-year teacher, who pays more than $400 in monthly fares and parking to ride on this moving kaffeeklatsch. “There’s a whole group of us on the train that have become friends. There’s a jewelry designer, an interior decorator and a management consultant. . . . We ride together every day.”
The No. 570 zips past surfers, the San Onofre nuclear power plant and the racetrack in Del Mar, arriving in San Diego just after 9 a.m. From there, it’s a one-block walk to the San Diego Trolley.
The highly successful light-rail system, in operation since 1981, carries a diverse mix of local residents and tourists on its $1.50-fare, 17-stop journey to the Mexican border.
A quick walk across the border provides a traveler with a large array of ceramic shopping possibilities--Bart on a skateboard, Bart on a surfboard, Bart on a football field. After making one’s selections, the traveler simply strolls back through U.S. Customs to the trolley--ignoring the crush of cars waiting impatiently to cross from Mexico.
The return trip to Fullerton takes a little more than two hours, pulling into the Fullerton Transportation Center at 2 p.m. From there, one can catch the Orange County Transit District’s No. 26 bus, which stops right in front of the Nixon museum.
Don Sedor, a driver education teacher at Esperanza High School in Anaheim, is on the No. 26 headed back to Fullerton.
“It’s convenient for me and I feel I’m saving the environment some,” Sedor says. “But once in a while I drive to school so I won’t lose credibility among the students.”
DAY 5: Orange County and the SuperBus
The dearth of nighttime bus service is a common refrain among mass transit riders in Orange, San Bernardino, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
“Not everyone gets off work right at 5 p.m.” says Carolyn Neu of Anaheim. “Sometimes you end up calling anyone you know to get home.”
Neu, an office worker waiting for the No. 51 bus outside Disneyland, believes that more frequent service would also help commuters who face waits for connections. “Now, you really have to plan out your schedule. I have to get to work 30 minutes early to get in on time.”
But in other ways, bus service in Orange County, appears to be user-friendly. Signs on buses include translations in Vietnamese as well as Spanish. And transit maps note that surfboards six feet and under are allowed on board.
Orange County Transit is also the operator of what is arguably the most futuristic, and impersonal, bus service in the region: the SuperBus, which leaves the Fullerton Park ‘N Ride seven times daily for downtown Los Angeles.
Introduced in 1987, the experimental contraption is a truck-and-trailer rig in which the driver, alone in a cab, keeps track of passengers via intercom and closed-circuit television.
“I laughed the first time I saw it,” says Janelle Dauphin, a para-legal from Placentia. “It looked like a cattle car or a moving van.”
Dauphin, 22, has since become a believer.
“Even if it looks like a cattle car, I don’t feel uncomfortable in it. I mean, I don’t feel like a cow.”
The No. 721 provides a kaleidoscope view of the world out its oversized windows--passing from middle-class Orange County to the Skid Row world of cardboard condos and tattoo parlors in downtown Los Angeles.
The final truth deals with timing. Scheduled to arrive at 5th Street and Grand Avenue in 45 minutes, the 5:29 p.m. SuperBus arrives several minutes late.
No matter how up-to-date, it seems, a bus can’t go any faster than the rest of the traffic on Southern California roadways.
Southland public transit riders, accustomed to standard bus service since the decline of the Red Car trolley system in the 1950s, now have several new options. Among them: Blue Line light-rail between Los Angeles and Long Beach; the San Diego Trolley; truck-and-trailer-style SuperBuses between Fullerton to Los Angeles, and daily commuter trains linking Santa Barbara, San Diego and Orange County with Los Angeles. In addition, the Metro Rail subway system is under construction. Regional transit planners, buoyed by last month’s voter approval of a half-cent transit sales tax in Los Angeles and Orange counties, are proceeding with the purchase of Southern Pacific rights-of-way to operate a 280-mile rail network linking Los Angeles, San Bernardino and the San Fernando Valley.
Public Transit Traveler: A Day in the Life
How fare can a Southern California tourist go in one day by public transit? A Times reporter starting in downtown Los Angeles learned that with ample planning and punctual service, one can make it to Tijuana, Disneyland and the Richard Nixon Library. The 12-hour journey, on trains, buses and trolleys, cost $34.80 in fares. 1. Tijuana: From the San Diego Trolley stop in San Ysidro, a short stroll across the border affords a shopper a wide choice of Bart Simpson busts. 2. Richard Nixon Library: The Orange County No. 26 bus stops in front of the Nixon Library, were autographed copies of the ex-president’s literary works are on sale. 3. Disneyland: Mickey Mouse ears are available just down the block from the Disneyland Monorail station.