Taken for a ride

Welcome aboard Metro -- the buses and trains that are boarded 1.4 million times every weekday. Once on board, you’ll probably have to stand in the aisle, because thousands more riders have already crowded ahead of you. Daily boardings on Metro -- L.A. County’s principal mass-transit system -- are rebounding after a 20-year dip. Passenger loads on commuter rail are up an average of 15% in 2008, while bus ridership has risen 8%. The new riders are largely commuters priced out of their cars by $4-a-gallon gas, according to news reports, but increasing numbers of seniors and young adults are riding Metro for the same reason.

There are more riders in suits on the trains and the subway too, and some with laptops. But transit riders in Los Angeles remain mostly people of color and people with blue-collar jobs. And you’ll find them mainly on the brutally overcrowded buses of the shiny Metro fleet that run on Western Avenue and Pico and Sunset boulevards. That’s been my experience as a transit-dependent rider -- lots of new rolling stock in candy colors and lots more passengers pressed into thin, hard seats with only the nap of the fabric between them and molded steel. When those uncomfortable seats are gone, a swaying, shuffling, chest-to-back mass of men and women stand in the limited aisle space. When that’s gone, the badly overcrowded bus will skip the knots of riders standing at the stops ahead.

The disappointed will wait -- for how long, they cannot know -- until another crowded bus arrives with some standing room left.And when they do get on one of the overcrowded buses, it will be traveling the same congested streets they would otherwise be driving themselves. As the Metropolitan Transportation Authority notes in its 2008 Long Range Transportation Plan, average bus speeds have dropped 12% since the mid-1980s because of increasing traffic. To get from Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley to Dodger Stadium by bus could take about 2 1/2 hours and require three transfers. It would be a short evening, however. There’s almost no way back after 8:30 p.m.

I know the humiliating qualities of public transit, having been unable to drive for nearly all my adult life. I’ve seen the worst that transit delivers -- frightening encounters with abusive passengers and the sullen indifference of some bus drivers. And I’ve seen the best in ordinary riders and in transit workers too. The mix of good and bad is about the same as it’s always been. The quality of service has never been defined by the size of the buses or how new they are but by how well they make daily life possible without a car in Los Angeles.

The harshest indignity is to be uninformed. When you’re in a crowded bus, you know where you are mostly by habit or from what others riders tell you. Some buses automatically announce the coming stop, but not all. Most bus drivers, in my experience, never do. And the driver knows only the route, not the transfers from line to line that get you where you want to go. And when schedules are available on the bus, they’re only for that route and not the connections you might need for your trip.

Metro’s online trip planner is a great idea -- but in reality, it’s famously cranky, sometimes wrong and offers help only in English. Bus riders make do with word-of-mouth advice and extraordinary patience.

Metro’s funding constraints may make the wait time even longer. Last year, Metro announced that it needs to eliminate 215,000 annual service hours as a cost-saving measure. Initially, buses on 77 lines would run less frequently, making them more crowded just when a surge of new riders trudge to the bus stop. Earlier this year, Metro’s board considered another cost-cutting plan that would have eliminated or reduced service on 29 lines, most of them traveling through low-income neighborhoods. Political pressure stopped those cuts, but Metro still faces a $1.8-billion deficit over the next 10 years as it struggles to find more revenue to pay for rail projects.

Even if some new riders eventually abandon the bus when gas prices level off, buses will still be more crowded than they should be. Metro continues to shift some service from local buses -- which stop every quarter of a mile on neighborhood streets -- to the bright red Rapid buses -- with limited stops along major boulevards. According to one estimate, 25% or more of neighborhood service is lost when a Rapid line swallows parts of local lines. Some riders benefit because Rapid buses are more frequent and faster. But not riders who lose their neighborhood bus and whose jobs may be on the local line.

Those who do get on a Rapid bus often find there’s standing room only. If you think congested freeways are punishment for the city’s sins, you’ve not ridden the 720 Rapid line on Wilshire Boulevard. The 60-foot articulated buses slam over Wilshire’s deteriorating pavement, tilting at 7 to 10 degrees because of the camber of the roadway, the bus’ right wheels often locked in the trough of the gutter. The 30 or so standing riders buck with every pothole and do a little half-step at every abrupt stop until a grab bar or contact with another passenger steadies them. Nearly 100,000 riders endure this every weekday, followed by the dangers of the “Rapid Bus Shuffle.”

To get from the 720 bus to one of the local buses that will then take them closer to home, riders have to dart across Wilshire’s major intersections, often blocking traffic or running against the light. That’s because stops for local and Rapid buses were deliberately separated here and on other lines to keep local buses out of the way of the hard-charging Rapid ones. I’ve seen riders do the “Rapid Bus Shuffle” many times and wondered when a stumble at a changing light would be fatal.

We don’t connect otherwise, you who drive and we who are driven. Despite more than 2,500 buses on L.A. streets and more than 18,500 stops in the Metro system, public transit is almost invisible to the 90% of L.A. that prefers a car. Which leaves the transit-dependent locked in a system that provides a ride but not much ease or respect. It does provide us lessons in civility. We passengers redefine personal space and reorder social distinctions in L.A., mostly with resignation. The slight man reeking of kimchi, the pretty girl talking in Tagalog, the sleeping security guard whose shift has ended, the artist type, the iPod-addicted boy, the beaten-down domestic worker and the man reading his Biblealready know that they’re a diminished version of real Angelenos. But all of us should know that we are actually making a new citizenry for a different city.

Los Angeles used to be a city of joy-rides. The wheels on which the city rode the freeway had promised to carry us away. No longer. But even now, when the urge to move overcomes me, when the momentum that I imagine is the city’s takes me, I will ride a crowded bus across the city’s unyielding grid of streets.

D.J. Waldie is a contributing editor for The Times. His most recent book is “California Romantica.”