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Bus Line Changes Reroute Business

Downtown residents praise the shift off Spring Street. But merchants say their customers have been driven away.

July 01, 2006|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

When Carlos de la Rosa opened a convenience store on Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles last year, he was hoping to get in on the ground floor of the residential development boom.

His dream was to someday sell organic vegetables and fresh-cut flowers to urban loft dwellers.

But in his first year, he made ends meet selling cold drinks and cigarettes, mostly to people getting on and off the dozens of buses that stopped outside his door.

Now, he says, he's not sure his store can survive because those bus riders are gone.

Last month, the city rerouted the buses as part of an effort to increase street parking, encourage foot traffic and ease vehicle congestion downtown. More than 80 newly striped parking spaces on the east side of Spring Street between 1st and 9th streets replaced one of the nation's oldest bus lanes.

But what has some people rejoicing leaves others fretting.

Downtown residents lobbied for the street parking to give visitors safer, cheaper and more convenient access to their emerging neighborhood. They also said it would help attract businesses to fill the blocks of empty storefronts.

"It was impossible for a business to exist on that side of the street," said Brady Westwater, president of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council. The steady stream of buses, he said, prevented other vehicles from stopping in the northbound lane. Rerouting a dozen bus lines also reduced street noise, which thrilled nearby residents.

For Tracie May, 36, who lives at City Lofts, on Spring near 6th Street, moving the loud and obnoxious buses off her side of Spring Street was "the greatest thing that ever happened on the planet."

When it closed the northbound bus-only lane on Spring Street last month, the city created two new rush-hour-only bus lanes: a southbound one on Spring between Arcadia and 9th streets and a northbound one on Main Street between 1st and 9th. They are restricted to buses weekdays from 7 to 9 a.m. and from 4 to 6 p.m.

Thirteen bus routes, including the D-Dash, were moved from Spring to Main, Hill, Grand and Olive streets as part of the $1.5-million city transportation project.

As a result of the changes, thousands of commuters who used to wait for buses on Spring Street have been shifted onto Main Street, which some feel is more dangerous.

Advocates of the changes say this could turn out to be a positive for downtown too. They hope the influx of bus riders along Main Street will help accelerate improvements around skid row.

"The landscape is changing," said Kang Hu, the city's senior transportation engineer overseeing the project. He predicted a "more lively downtown" that welcomes pedestrians.

Because there's not much evidence of this yet on Main, the city will install lighting at the street's new bus stops later this year. It also will build and landscape a median island at the 9th Street entrance to the Fashion District.

Many bus riders are not pleased about the new bus routes. They question whether Main Street will ever become the pedestrian-friendly street that downtown developers and residents envision. For now, at least, they say they would prefer to wait for the bus on Spring Street, particularly after dark.

"It gets scary," said Gladys Fuentes, 30, who was waiting for a bus at Main and 7th on a Friday afternoon. She said she plans to avoid the area at night if at all possible.

Several bus riders complained that strangers had asked them for money as they waited at the new bus stops. One commuter complained that the street just smelled bad.

Without the full-time bus lane on Spring Street, residents can park on the street overnight on weekends. Because the new southbound lane operates only during rush hour, cars moving along Spring can share it at other times.

The old Spring Street bus-only lane also was dangerous because it ran in the opposite direction of the street's traffic, said Hu.

When buses broke down or emergency vehicles parked in the lane, city officials said, buses would have to back up, unable to pass without veering into oncoming traffic.

Dana Gabbard, a spokesman for Southern California Transit Advocates, a bus-rider group, is skeptical. "Pressure to free up the lane for parking" will hurt bus service, he said.

Gabbard also questioned city leaders' logic in arguing that converting a traffic lane into parking would improve traffic flow.

Until recently, about 6,000 people daily boarded the northbound buses that ran along the old bus lane on Spring Street, according to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. More than 2,200 exited buses there.

Today, Spring Street is quieter and cleaner -- and, in places, emptier.

"There are no more people," said Kyung Ho Chu, who for more than 20 years has served hand-squeezed juice and pastries to people waiting for buses outside his juice bar on Spring near 7th Street.

Two doors down, Henry K. Jhu has worked behind the counter of Happy Corner, his convenience store, for 22 years.

"Not happy now," he said.

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