Stop waiting for the bus

So much of the discussion about mass transit in Los Angeles is about the future.
April 2, 2015

So much of the discussion about mass transit in Los Angeles is about the future. And it is true that Los Angeles is aggressively building out its transit system to make up for past neglect and to help meet the region’s profound growth and urbanization. It seems every other day there is a new story in the press about the Expo Line coming to Santa Monica, the Crenshaw Line to LAX, the Gold Line extension in the San Gabriel Valley or the subway to the Westside. I know because I write some of these articles.

But let’s not forget that good mass transit is already in many parts of the region. And many of those bus and rail lines serve neighborhoods that are home to large Jewish communities. Think Valley Village, which benefits from the Metro Orange Line busway on Chandler Boulevard, and Cheviot Hills and Rancho Park/Westwood, which will benefit in a year or so from the Expo Line extension. Between Metro, Metrolink, Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus, Culver City Bus, Commuter Express and assorted other regional bus companies, Los Angeles is already well-served by mass transportation.

Still, the challenge remains getting people to ride those buses and trains. And given the economics of Los Angeles, that challenge is probably nowhere greater than in the Jewish community. With Jews in Los Angeles on the whole better off economically than other Angelenos, many still suffer from the common misperception that buses and trains are not for them. Metro’s own statistics may not help. According to the agency’s annual riders survey, bus riders have a household income of $16,377 while train riders have a household income of $22,517.

“I’m too [fill in your nationality/ethnic or religious origin here] to ride the bus.” That’s what I heard from the otherwise smart young woman having breakfast next to us at Go Get Em Tiger on Larchmont Boulevard in Hancock Park on a recent sunny weekend morning. The place was packed with well-heeled, casually dressed people, with cars to match parked up and down the block. Although some rode bikes or walked, the young woman’s sentiments about the bus seems to be the attitude of many of the better-off in Los Angeles. From Hancock Park to Bel Air, Westwood and Brentwood, those who can afford to drive don’t even consider the bus or train as an option. True or not, “It’s too slow” is another excuse. And unlike in the Bay Area, Chicago, New York, Boston and Washington, D.C., many of our landsmen have no history of commuting to work by bus or train.

Although Metro Rapid (express) buses and routes such as the Orange Line — the San Fernando Valley’s popular rapid bus line, which runs on a bus-only route (a former rail line) — have helped, thanks to widespread local antipathy to the bus, Angelenos raised in the North or East or from Tehran, Moscow and Tel Aviv are more likely to consider riding transit than many locals. These transplants are used to it and know the drill.

On the positive side, L.A. has changed significantly since Mike Davis penned “City of Quartz,” an important but grim book about an almost dystopian Los Angeles scarred by racial and ethnic tensions and balkanized by de facto and de jure segregation. The 1992 riots would hardly have come as a surprise after reading Davis’ book when it came out in 1990. 

Today, the ever-expanding, often-feared city that Davis described is no longer the reality. In many neighborhoods, it has been replaced by a mostly safe, infill city whose geographic boundaries are more blurred, where development takes the form of building in already built-up areas and adaptive reuse of existing commercial, industrial and residential buildings, as seen in parts of downtown and in the Arts District. Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s investment in Koreatown, whose character is principally Latino and Korean, is an example of a major urban infill project in a part of Los Angeles that is as urban as it gets. Having completed the renovation of its landmark sanctuary, the congregation is now renovating its school buildings and constructing a new social service center on Sixth Street, which will house a food pantry and dental, vision, mental health and legal services for the neighborhood, as well as rooftop athletic facilities.

Whether you call it gentrification or the natural course of events, the desire of old and young alike to live in more urban and older areas of L.A. is transforming neighborhoods from downtown to Koreatown, Echo Park and Highland Park.

And as that urbanization continues, even for those who don’t currently count themselves transit riders, the bus and train will become a more attractive option.

If you are one of those holdouts who has not been on a bus or train in Los Angeles recently, you are doing yourself a disservice. Although the Metro system needs to do a better job keeping its bus stops tidy, most trains and buses are clean and, in many cases, new. This is particularly true of the busy lines serving higher-density routes such as Wilshire, Santa Monica, Sunset, Ventura and Chandler boulevards.

Like so many other changes that have come to L.A .in recent years, there is cause for optimism about the public’s use of public transit. Just think about two local phenomena that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago. The first is CicLAvia, the highly successful bicycle and pedestrian street party that has taken L.A. by storm since its first event in October 2010. Think about it — the closing of major streets so that people can bike and walk on them. “Are you nuts? Meshugge? It will never work. It will bring the city to a standstill.” But more than 10 events later, with one in the San Fernando Valley just a couple of weeks ago, CicLAvia has become a fixture, and even a model for other cities across the country. Long Beach is having its first “Beach Streets” event June 6. Five years after the first public block party, hundreds of thousands of people have explored more than 100 miles of open streets in Los Angeles. Who knew we wanted this, until it happened?

Second is the transformation of downtown Los Angeles. Who among us believed in its rebirth more than a few years before Wexler’s Deli opened at the Grand Central Market? Developers like the Yellin Co., which owns the market and the Million Dollar Theatre, and Steve Needleman, whose family has owned the Orpheum Theatre since 1964, have long touted the merits of downtown. But the majority of us have needed more convincing.

Both of these transformative developments are about a new sense of community in Los Angeles that is resulting in Angelenos from all over the city interacting in ways they never have before. Taking the bus or train, like riding a bike in CicLAvia or exploring Broadway downtown is what we do, even if our parents out in Tarzana or Encino didn’t. And now it couldn’t be easier, with real time, transportation apps that let you know when the bus or train is arriving. I like RideScout, NextBus, L.A. Metro’s Go Metro app and Google Maps.

At an affordable $1.75 a ride with free transfers when you use a TAP transit card (for up to two hours to complete a one-way trip), Metro is a bargain compared to public transit in cities like San Francisco, Chicago and New York. And after all, you ride buses and trains when you travel, so why not at home? Whether you live in Pico Robertson or Hancock Park, Hollywood or downtown, the bus has arrived. It’s not a matter of waiting anymore.

Joel Epstein is a senior adviser to companies, law firms, foundations and public initiatives on communications strategy, corporate social responsibility, recruiting and outreach. His writing focuses on business, politics, public transportation, education and other critical urban issues.

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