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Bus Service Grows Up

September 22, 2002

Night-owl bus service is as much a part of the 24/7 scene in big cities as the graveyard-shift workers who depend on public transportation to travel to and from work.

So why has it taken so long for Orange County to offer transit service for riders whose jobs require them to be on the roads when the vast majority of us are asleep? Orange County Transportation Authority Chief Executive Art Leahy suspects that the county's residential heritage is keeping many residents from recognizing the county's increasingly urban beat, particularly north of the Costa Mesa Freeway. Many suburbanites assume that everyone has easy access to cars or is snug in bed by midnight, when OCTA's buses head back to the garage.

Shortly after moving to Santa Ana from Minnesota early in 2001 to run OCTA, Leahy noticed a constant flow of pedestrian traffic in heavily urban parts of the county. The Los Angeles native viewed the foot traffic as an indicator of solid demand for public transit. In May 2001, Leahy read an article in The Times that described the growing army of nighttime workers who use bicycles to travel to and from overnight jobs around the county.

The story chronicled life on the lowest rung of the transportation ladder for a largely immigrant population that doesn't have easy access to cars, and because of their schedules, couldn't count upon public transportation. Many of the bicyclists are dishwashers, security guards and custodians who don't punch out until well after the last bus has departed. For many of them, the only alternatives are walking, riding bicycles or waiting idly for hours until friends or family members provide a lift.

Leahy then asked OCTA staff to study demand for overnight service. Projections contained in a subsequent report suggested that as many as 200,000 additional riders would use Night Owl Service. Last week, overnight service began on a handful of heavily traveled routes.

OCTA has enjoyed some of the highest ridership increases in the country in recent years, in part because of the county's constant population growth. But consistent ridership gains depend upon OCTA keeping its finger on the pulse of public demand.

The addition of Night Owl routes offers proof that OCTA indeed has been listening to residents.

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