Susan drops her bags to retrieve the bus pass out of her purse. She makes her way to the middle of the large vehicle and sets her things in their own row, then stands near the entryway of the second exit. She’s returning from a full day of medical appointments and a trip to her storage facility, errands that would have taken her half the time eight years ago.
A medical problem put Susan out of work in 2007. It was then that she had to get rid of her car and was forced to rely on the Foothill Transit for her transportation needs. According to the bus service’s website, Susan is just one of 48,000 people to ride each week.
I met Susan on a roundtrip from my apartment in Glendora to Arcadia. We talked for about 20 minutes on the return trip before she got off in Azusa.
In our time talking, she shared with me her experiences with public transportation. She admitted the transition from driving to navigating public transit was challenging, but it has become part of the norm.
“It’s not too bad. It’s actually really relaxing. There’s big windows and you can watch everything as you pass by,” Susan said. “Sometimes I even nap.”
She recounted a rainy afternoon when she first started taking the transit. She had gotten off at the wrong stop and was short on cash to pay for another fare. After explaining what had happened to the next bus driver, she was let on free of charge.
“[The driver] could have gotten in a lot of trouble for that, but she was understanding,” Susan said.
Foothill Transit is the largest municipal operator in Los Angeles County, servicing the San Gabriel and Pomona valleys. According to the website, the 330-bus fleet is second in size only to Metro.
Susan and I had met while riding Line 187, which runs from Montclair to Pasadena. It was mid-afternoon on a Tuesday and passenger traffic was steady, frequently emptied and filled.
Clint and I were riding together westbound when we met Ana, a young woman visiting from New York. It was her first experience on the Foothill Transit since arriving the day before, but she had planned to use public transportation during her week-long trip.
She had a map printed out with hand-written instructions on how to get to Newport Beach, where she planned to go whale watching. When she realized the wait time when transferring busses could be as long as 30 minutes, she was surprised. She said 15 to 20 people would have gathered at a stop in New York after even just a 10-minute wait.
Beyond her dismay with the wait times, Ana explained the positive differences she had noticed through her new experience compared to her experiences back home.
“Homelessness is a big problem. People will just sleep in the [subway] car,” she said.
This bus was clean. The seats were cushioned. It smelled nice. It wasn’t over-crowded. And the system accepted bills as payment instead of exclusively coins.
Her observations and surprise were the same as mine.
Until this point, I was very unfamiliar with public transportation. I had taken the Bay Area Rapid Transit into San Francisco and used the metro system in Washington D.C. in the past, but that was the extent of my experience.
This new experience was much more pleasant than I had anticipated it would be. I didn’t feel unsafe, like I thought I would. And the space in the bus felt open with all of the windows. Susan was right when she said it could be relaxing to just watch everything pass.
And while it wasn’t bad, it had taken two hours to travel from Glendora to Arcadia and back — a trip that would have taken less than half the time in a car. I still wouldn’t consider taking the bus for daily activities such as running errands or going to work largely because the length of time.
But for many people, this is their reality.
The entire trip cost me just $2, nearly half the cost of a gallon of gas. And that’s not including car insurance, registration fees, smog checks or any unforeseen maintenance charges. Public transportation is simply more financially feasible than owning or driving a car.
As Ana noted, public transportation is a common way to get around New York. In fact, according to the New York Public Transit Association, 56 percent of the New York City population uses the public transportation system.
The same is not true for Southern California.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the Metrolink’s annual ridership continues to drop. This is attributed to the length of time it takes to travel using the system.
However, despite the steady decrease in ridership, there are people who continue to ride because they do not have the financial resources to otherwise get around. They are forced to deal with the repercussions of time, and often risk arriving late to their destination.