10 ways to embrace L.A. as a bus city instead of a car city

illustration showing the author riding the bus and holding a tennis racket in a case
(Ryan Johnson / For The Times)

There is something about getting on a bus in L.A. that puts transport — in the mystical and joyous sense — into transportation. I take public transit a lot, but have ridden the bus this week even more than I usually do. I have traveled from my home base in Mar Vista to Encino, Montrose and Panorama City as I continue my quest to play tennis at every public court in L.A. County. I also have gone to the gym and physical therapy in Culver City; a book club meeting at the Rancho Park library; a bar in Chinatown where the DJ was spinning soul classics on vintage audio; and a mutual aid pop-up at a homeless encampment in West L.A.

For me, bus-riding is more than transit. It’s a creative adventure. Here’s how I open my mind to see L.A. as a bus city instead of a car city.

Use the bus stop as a launch pad

The adventure begins as soon as I exit my house and bypass my car. “I am a voyager upon the planet,” I often intone to myself, as if I were a character in a science fiction epic and not just a guy walking to the bus stop. This is because I am not just a guy walking to a bus stop. I am a voyager upon the planet.

The pre-bus stop phase is also the time to plan your route. Mapping apps are one of the major blessings of the internet. They tell you where to go and when the bus will arrive. There is no need anymore to stand in the street and gaze forlornly at the horizon; at least, not when you are waiting for the bus.


Open my mind to new visions of kindness

I also use my phone to pay the senior citizen fare, a new thing for me after I turned 62 in July. Seventy-five cents for peak travel and 35 cents off-peak helps me appreciate aging as a bargain.

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I say a hearty hello to the bus operator even though they rarely match my enthusiasm. No offense taken. Bus operators have a lot going on. They are not just driving but also maintaining order and caring for people with different kinds of mobility. Whenever a bus operator lowers the ramp to let on someone who uses a wheelchair, then makes sure that that person is secure — this is a public performance of caring and kindness.

city bus driving on magnolia tree lined street
(Ryan Johnson / For The Times)

There are no bad seats

Having paid my fare, I navigate a corridor of seated people mostly with eyes locked on their phones. My goal is usually not to bump anyone with my gigantic tennis bag. People do not take kindly to being bumped on the bus, nor should they.

The closer I get to the back of the bus, the more likely I am to encounter an orphaned empty fifth of vodka or 40-ounce can of beer. The back of the bus is also where you are most likely, once seated, to encounter a passenger rolling a blunt. Rarely if ever smoking, but very often rolling, with tenderness. That is their way of enjoying the ride.

My way is different.

Feel the noise

Rumble, wheeze, groan, roar, whoosh, clank, thud, creak and repeat — this, for me, is the onset of bus reverie. I’m relieved to be on the move with zero responsibility for doing anything but sitting there doing nothing, one of my favorite pastimes. I bask calmly while my seat subtly vibrates.


Look away from my phone to see the big picture

If I resist the lure of the 4-inch phone screen, I can immerse my senses instead in a 40-foot or longer rolling panorama of Los Angeles. This is always magnificent but, of course, not always pretty. Encampments, tents, tarpaulins, people in tatters staggering in the street. The bus is a self-guided tour of squalor and inequity. I can’t say I love this, but I do hear a call to action.

Simultaneously, there is splendor from the rainbow-colored umbrellas of fruit vendors to the shade of magnolia trees and the glass brick of Streamline Moderne homes. Every bus ride is a massive single continuous shot of L.A., including everything that breaks your heart and makes your spirit soar about this city.

illustration of a city bus driving past a giant bumblebee sculpture
(Ryan Johnson / For The Times)

Take the road not taken

I love it when the bus follows a route I would never take in my car. Put me on the 761 Sylmar bypassing the 405, taking Sepulveda instead, threading underneath the freeway and coming up into the craggy foothills of Bel-Air, the bushy chaparral harking back to the ecology of the land before the city.

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These bus-savvy routes show that the way things are is not necessarily the way they have to be. I take this inspiration from the G Line zooming along almost-secret bus lanes east-west through the Valley and the Silver Line zooming incognito as it parallels the 10 from City Hall to the El Monte Transit Center, where there is a giant statue of a bumblebee.

Find the inside-out light

Another mind-altering element of bus transport is how the interior lights of the bus reflect in the window as you gaze outward. This inside-out light reminds me of blues musician Reverend Gary Davis Jr. singing, “Just as long as I’m in this world, I am the light of this world.”


This effect is especially powerful at night, for example when the inner light of the 71 heading downtown from Westwood passes through Beverly Hills, accenting the ruby red glamour of the Beverly Hilton sign and spotlighting the Waldorf Astoria’s platinum one.

Move ahead with enthusiasm

The momentum of bus riding has carried me to 135 of the 240 public tennis courts in L.A. County, and whenever I’m riding the bus, I feel that it is not just possible but also highly heck yeah! that I will successfully publish a book about these adventures.

When have you ever driven anywhere in L.A. and felt more confident, enthusiastic, upbeat and capable of achieving a dearly held life goal?

The bus makes me feel this way every time.

Illustration of city bus driving past LA Philharmonic
(Ryan Johnson / For The Times)

Adapt when you’re annoyed

I bring a book and, especially, headphones for when I need to offset the one thing I really do not like about riding the bus, which is when somebody is talking on their phone or playing their music too loud.

One day, I was riding along feeling so full of bus-induced wonder that I wondered what would happen if I were to email the L.A. Philharmonic and asked for suggestions of classical music that would replicate my beloved bus noises. What happened was that the orchestra emailed me back a Spotify playlist featuring instrumental music with transportation themes.


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I am enjoying it right now while the rude person across from me enjoys their rudeness.

Say thank you

Many are thoughtful passengers who thank the bus operator as they exit. Often, you will hear the bus operator call back, “You’re welcome.” This civility made me wonder whether I could talk with a bus driver about things they notice that passengers don’t think about. When I inquired, L.A. Metro connected me with Juan Navarro, a bus driver with 25 years’ experience who is the three-time champion of the Roadeo, an annual test of bus operator skills.

He told me that what passengers probably don’t notice is how the bus operator is trying to pull up about a foot away from the curb, not so close as to pop a tire nor so far away to let an oncoming truck take off your mirror. Simultaneously, operators are looking after their passengers. Navarro is especially concerned about older passengers being seated before he accelerates. He says, “I don’t want anyone falling.”