My week on the bus: Pirate songs and other thrills
With the price of gas creeping toward $5 a gallon, I spent last week riding various forms of public transportation to and from work. I embarked on this little science project expecting to find -- no surprises here -- that L.A.'s buses and subways are impractical, inconvenient and frequently uncomfortable.
Well, I can report today that L.A.'s buses and subways are impractical, inconvenient and frequently uncomfortable. But the system does work.
And it can be easily improved.
First of all, let’s be honest: This isn’t an easy town for the car-less. Without your own set of wheels, it can be a big challenge to run errands, attend events, handle the kids, enjoy outdoor activities and, not incidentally, earn a living.
So I’m not trying to make the case for leaving your car at home and switching entirely to public transportation. What I’m saying is that you may be surprised at how easy it is to do this one or two days a week.
And with gas prices at record levels, you can pocket some serious coin to help defray other costs, such as your equally alarming grocery bill.
According to the Automobile Club of Southern California, it costs, on average, 23 cents a mile to drive a car with gas at $4.50 a gallon (not including depreciation, insurance, taxes and other fixed costs).
Let’s say your round-trip commute is 40 miles a day -- a conservative estimate for lots of people, I know. Factoring in the $1.25 one-way cost of many bus tickets, you’d save almost $350 a year by leaving your car at home one day a week.
If you could pull off two car-free days a week, that’s about $700 in savings. And that doesn’t include what you’d save on parking.
How doable is this? It depends on how flexible you’re prepared to be.
I started my mass-transit odyssey with what I rightly assumed would be the ugliest option: local bus lines.
On the plus side, L.A.'s bright-orange local buses run relatively frequently. On the minus side, you’ll spend a lot of time on the road.
Getting from my home on the Westside to The Times’ downtown office took about an hour and a half. Returning home that evening took almost two hours.
That’s 3 1/2 hours for a 32-mile round-trip commute that usually takes me about 45 minutes each way by car. And by the time I got home, I was exhausted.
Hector Barbosa, 41, whom I encountered twice during the week as he traveled to and from his home in Pacific Palisades and his job in Beverly Hills, said local bus lines take some getting used to.
“The problems are especially huge when it comes to the homeless and the mentally ill,” he said. “Sometimes you see people getting violent, sometimes defecating.”
Or in my case, there was the elderly gentleman who sang what sounded like pirate chanteys for about 15 minutes.
I was much happier with the Commuter Express bus I caught the next morning. The seats were softer, the ride was smoother. And after only a few stops around my neighborhood, the bus hit the freeway for a straight shot almost all the way downtown.
Renee Korn, 43, a deputy district attorney, was similarly pleased with the experience. High gas prices had prompted her to leave her 1997 Volvo station wagon at home. She had a Commuter Express schedule in her purse and had her whole trip planned out.
“If I can do this one time a week, I can save a lot of money,” Korn said.
Is that what she’ll be doing from now on?
“No,” Korn replied. “But I’m considering it.”
This is L.A., after all. Baby steps.
And there’s a pretty significant drawback to the Commuter Express, at least for me. There are only two such buses in my area each morning, one at 7 and the other at 7:30. That’s about an hour earlier than when I typically leave home by car.
At that hour, it took only about 40 minutes to get to work. But it took almost twice as long to get home after leaving the office around 5 p.m.
The next morning I rode a local bus to Wilshire Boulevard and transferred to one of the big, red Rapid buses that traverse the city.
You cover a lot of ground relatively quickly with the Rapid lines, although Wilshire’s no picnic during rush hour, and some parts of the road are so bone-jarring you might want to stop off at a chiropractor.
At Wilshire and Western Avenue, I switched to the Purple Line and rode the subway the rest of the way. The commute took a little over an hour to get downtown and about an hour and a half to get home.
I love subways. Every time I ride L.A.'s pitifully truncated system, I get a taste of how great this city could have been if our elected officials hadn’t consistently guessed wrong on transit over the years.
Now it’s too late.
So how can we fix what we have? First, it needs to be easier to navigate the region’s myriad bus systems. The L.A. County Metropolitan Transit Authority, which runs the biggest fleet of buses as well as the subways, has an excellent trip-planning site at www.metro.net.
But it doesn’t include the region’s second-biggest bus fleet, run by the City of Los Angeles Department of Transportation. Nor does it include Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus network, nor Culver City’s buses, nor any of the other services that cover the area.
What’s needed is an online resource that combines all of the region’s mass-transit systems so that a commuter can easily map out the best possible route to his or her destination, not just a single provider’s options. The MTA’s site links to the sites of other systems, but that’s not good enough.
Google has a pretty nifty trip-planning feature ( www.google.com/transit). Perhaps the region’s various public transportation providers can get on board with that.
Then there’s the matter of convenience. As it stands, you have to buy a $5 day pass or a $17 weekly pass if you want to transfer smoothly from MTA’s Rapid buses to the subway system. Otherwise you pay separately for each leg of your journey.
To encourage more people to ride public transportation, buses and subways should issue free transfers -- good for half a day -- so that riders can easily move between Rapid lines and subways.
The MTA charges $62 for monthly passes to its buses and subways. But the best deal is the EZ transit pass that costs $70 a month and is good for nearly all systems serving L.A. County.
Many employers (including mine) help subsidize monthly transit passes for workers. This is great, but it’s not the most cost-effective choice for people who plan to ride the bus only once or twice a week.
Perhaps a cheaper pass could be issued that’s good for, say, eight full days of public transportation each month, with a day’s ridership being activated when a bus driver punches the card at the outset of a commute.
What we want is to give commuters the flexibility to ride buses or subways on days they choose, without paying for the days they drive their cars to work.
To make buses more attractive, time-wise, we need more express buses and routes that allow commuters to zip across town. Designated bus lanes during commute hours would help, but we could go even further.
As I’ve written before, one possibility would be to close Olympic Boulevard to private vehicles from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and again from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. each weekday, giving right of way exclusively to Rapid and express buses. Think of it as an above-ground subway line.
L.A. doesn’t have to be unlivable. Our political leaders merely need to focus on what can be done, as opposed to what can’t.
Commuters, for their part, need to support such efforts by trying to ride the bus or subway as often as possible. For my part, I’ll be hitting that 7:30 a.m. Commuter Express at least once a week.
Gas isn’t getting any cheaper. Count me in for at least $350 a year that won’t be going to OPEC.
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