From coast to coast, Americans utilize transportation on an extremely regular basis. Cars, planes, trains, boats, motorcycles, bicycles, you name it. So it only makes sense that the largest cities (New York, Chicago and Los Angeles) have the best access to public transportation, right? Well, that may not exactly be the case, especially when it comes to our beloved LA. So the only logical next step is to ask, why?
The Los Angeles Metro website reports that 46,404 people rode the bus each week in 2014, which translates to a total ridership of 26,218,621 for the year. This is a substantial amount, even for a county of over 10,000,000 residents. To add to this, the Metro has reported that ridership is actually up around 5% over the last five years. So, all signs lead to a healthy, growing industry consisting of satisfied customers. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily accurate.
As with most things in life, the best way to experience anything is first-hand. So, armed with a notebook and a reluctant attitude, a boarded the 187 route into Pasadena, hoping to discover what those 26 million annual riders really think. Growing up in Southern California we always perceived public transport as something completely unnecessary. We thought that buses were dirty and filled with people who just didn’t care. While that is immensely over exaggerated and even insensitive, it really isn’t too far off from public perception of what Southern California transportation is like.
The first few moments on board the bus were nothing like what the 20 years of preconceived notions in my head amounted to. The bus was clean; it reminded me of any charter bus that I had been on as a student. My fellow riders were quiet, to themselves, just trying to get from point a to b without any sort of hassle. At first, I adhered to the same strategy, taking special time to simply observe. This strategy worked out well, as I was able to see the 40, maybe 50 people getting on and off as the bus got closer and closer to Pasadena. I could have easily maintained this state of observant silence longer, however that doesn’t really make for good journalism, so I began to ask questions.
My first conversation was with a girl who frankly looked even more lost than I felt. She was looking around and just seemed at bit perplexed by her whole situation. I leant in and asked a simple question, “Hi, do you have a few minutes to talk about your experience on the bus?” She quickly replied, “Oh, sure, although this is my first day in LA and first time riding an LA bus.” Her name was Ana, a post-grad student visiting from across the country in New York. Ana continued on to mention that she did not have a car on the east coast and used public transit each and every day. I thought that this more than qualified her to talk on the matter.
Ana was quick to notice that the vibe of LA transit seemed quite different from what she knows in New York. “Nobody here is in a suit…nobody looks like they are going anywhere important.” Ana’s initial observation seemed to be in-line with what may be a sad reality. New York is a place where anyone, regardless of economic standing, takes public transport. The Los Angeles system seems to reflect a different reality.
My next conversation took place on the way home from Pasadena. I spoke with a woman named Lanay. She just had surgery on her throat days before and was unable to talk without straining. Luckily, she was kind enough to take the time to have a full written exchange with me. Lanay mentioned that if she were able to afford it, she would not be a bus rider. She claimed that financial strain was the only reason she took the system. Her biggest gripe with the bus system is the sheer time it takes to take to get anywhere. Each day she commutes to work for over an hour, a journey that would be around 20 minutes with a car. Lanay said that she has several friends that are in the same type of situation. “We are just trying to get to where we need to go…I wish it was different…I wish it was easier, but times are tough.”
In my several hours aboard the 187 route, my biggest takeaway aligns with what the two women had to say. Why do people in LA not like the bus? Well, the equation seems fairly simple. The routes take extremely long, and people with the financial means don’t see it necessary to waste the time in their day on public transit. And while the bus is not nearly as dreaded as I perceived it to be, the real issue still remains: A trip from Azusa to Pasadena should not take 2 hours. And until that changes, I doubt the “LA stigma” about the bus system will either.