Few Bus Riders Penetrate Harbor Freeway Sound Barrier
Few places in Los Angeles are lonelier than the series of concrete-and-tile bus stations on the Harbor Freeway that Caltrans built for roughly $25 million to accommodate commuters between San Pedro and downtown.
Most of the eight stations are 30 feet from freeway traffic, with the rush of nearby cars creating a head-splitting roar. Plumes of vehicle exhaust choke the lungs and sting the eyes. Because there are usually few riders and rarely any police in sight, the stations appear isolated and dangerous. Vagrants find them a good place to camp out.
Caltrans promised the bus and freeway stations would relieve congestion with as many as 74,000 boardings a day -- the equivalent of about 37,000 round-trip riders.
But eight years after the stations opened, the buses tally about 3,000 boardings a day, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. By contrast, dozens of bus corridors in Los Angeles register more than 10,000 boardings each. A single MTA bus route on Wilshire Boulevard has nearly 50,000 boardings a day
“You don’t want to be here for more than five minutes,” said Antonio Rodriguez as he waited alone at the Carson Street station. “Anything more and your head hurts.... A lot of times, I am the only one here.”
The Carson Street station has an average of 20 people a day boarding northbound MTA buses, statistics from the transit agency show; three people a day get on southbound buses.
Caltrans built the freeway stations as a key component of the $500-million Harbor Transitway, which was mostly completed in 1996. In addition to building the bus stations, the project widened the Harbor Freeway and added carpool and bus lanes that use a three-mile stretch of elevated roadway south of downtown.
But so far, said Jim de la Loza, the MTA’s planning director, the bus system is not faring well.
Like other officials at the MTA, which operates most bus service on the transitway, De la Loza was quick to pass blame. “That was a Caltrans project,” he said. The statewide transportation agency designed and built the transitway with little coordination with the MTA and its predecessor, the Southern California Rapid Transit District.
Doug Failing, the Los Angeles-area regional director for Caltrans, said his agency did not control bus planning and operation on the transitway. In defense of his agency, Failing said there aren’t enough buses on the transitway and few convenient bus connections.
Asked to grade the transitway’s bus lanes, given that ridership is less than 5% of the total promised by Caltrans, Failing said: “I can’t answer that.”
Transportation experts who work outside the two public agencies give more frank assessments: They say the transitway’s bus lanes are a failure.
As evidence, they cite the El Monte busway, the 31-year old bus and carpool lane that connects downtown Los Angeles to El Monte and boasts as many as 34,000 daily boardings a day, according to the MTA.
One key to the El Monte busway’s success is design, said Tom Rubin, formerly a top official at the Rapid Transit District. Rubin said that the El Monte busway terminates in downtown Los Angeles. By contrast, the Harbor Transitway ends roughly a mile from downtown, requiring buses to complete the trip on city streets and costing riders valuable time.
Rubin also noted that the El Monte busway runs parallel to the San Bernardino Freeway, but operates largely in roadway that is separate from the freeway. As a result, bus stations are buffered from traffic and freeway noise.
Another obstacle to success on the Harbor Transitway, said experts, is competition. The nearby Long Beach Blue Line, a popular light-rail route that opened 14 years ago, also connects the harbor area and downtown Los Angeles. The Blue Line tallies about 70,000 boardings a day and many riders say they would rather be on a smooth-running train than a freeway bus.
Moreover, Los Angeles has done little to encourage dense housing around the transitway’s stations, a key element in boosting transit ridership, according to Mark Pisano, director of the Southern California Assn. of Governments.
“It’s a huge Achilles’ heel,” said Pisano. “This is a perfect example of what happens when you build something and don’t pay any attention at all to creating neighborhoods and jobs that can support the investment.”
Finally, there is the bus station design. Architecturally, the stations are handsome, built with a touch of the postmodern sensibility popular in the 1980s and 1990s. But their hard surfaces echo the freeway traffic noise on the platforms, making it difficult to hold a conversation.
The stations have an unpleasant atmosphere that keeps riders away, said Shahab Rabbani, an adjunct planning professor at USC.
“It’s not a place people feel comfortable with, even getting there,” Rabbani said. “And once you are there, often all alone at some station in the middle of the freeway, you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere, not connected to anything else around you.”
Until changes are made, Rabbani said, the system will remain a massive public investment that “is hardly being used.”
For now, the MTA has slashed fares from $3.35 to $2.25 for the longest trip, and has offered weeks of free rides. Officials have talked about adding more bus service and creating a connection with the El Monte Busway. So far, nothing has helped, and there are no plans to redesign the freeway stations.
Whatever the agency tries, attracting new riders is going to be tough, say the system’s few riders.
Natasha Simons recently stood at the station near USC and offered this evaluation, shouting to be heard above the traffic:
“The way it is now, who wants to be here?”