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Free and Flourishing : Pasadena's New Uptown Bus Service Proves as Big a Hit as Downtown Route

September 13, 1996|PETER Y. HONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cutbacks in government services may be widespread these days, but Pasadena is using a free bus service to give more of its residents a free ride.

Here in the land where the car is king, Pasadena has connected neighborhoods at its northwest corner to the Hastings Ranch area near its eastern border with service that began in July.

The city hopes money it spends for the free service will offset gaps in the regional bus system and cut traffic and air pollution in one of the nation's smoggiest areas.

The new bus line is an expansion of a free bus system that began in 1994 with a line connecting the South Lake Avenue business district with Old Pasadena.

That system was intended to promote commerce between the two areas and cut down on the number of car trips between the zones.

Known as ARTS, for Area Rapid Transit System and because it travels near cultural sites such as the Norton Simon and Pacific Asia museums, the downtown service has been a success. About 1,100 to 1,300 rides are taken on the buses each weekday, and daytime car traffic along the route has been cut about 28%, said Terri Slimmer, Pasadena's transportation services manager.

But City Councilman Bill Crowfoot, who derisively calls that line "the downtown lunch bus," pushed for a route through some of Pasadena's lower-income neighborhoods, as well as passing by schools, senior citizens centers and libraries.

The new route does just that.

Known as the uptown ARTS service, it has proved to be as successful as the original downtown line. It has averaged 1,300 passenger rides each weekday.

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Crowfoot said he is delighted by the new line's popularity. "I was very, very concerned that people would not ride it and I'd look like a complete idiot," he said.

Smaller San Gabriel Valley cities also run free buses, and Glendale has a widely used service. Larger cities, however, have had mixed experiences with free transportation schemes.

Austin, Texas, dropped its no-fare policy after 15 months, partly because parents complained that it encouraged truancy and some riders complained about transients on the buses.

So far, Pasadena has not experienced those problems.

Together, the uptown and downtown routes cost the city $1 million a year. Funds for the service come from the city's share of transportation money generated by sales taxes, Slimmer said.

At current use levels, the average trip cost per rider is about $1.67--less than the $2.34 per rider it costs the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to operate a bus.

Of course, an ARTS bus will not get you out of Pasadena, but the service is precisely what some residents say they need.

Because the regional bus lines connect Pasadena to other cities, they often are not routed conveniently for trips within the city.

"If you catch an MTA bus at Fair Oaks [Avenue] and want to go to Hastings Ranch, you have to transfer three times," Slimmer said.

Grace Ramos, 24, has an MTA pass and travels by bus because she, like more than 25% of Pasadena residents, has no car. But she uses the new ARTS line to visit her sister who lives on a street six blocks from the nearest MTA line.

"That's a long walk when it's 100 degrees and you're carrying this guy," she said, clutching her 1-year-old son.

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