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Taken for a ride

Using L.A.'s transit system can be a jostling, humiliating and dangerous experience.

May 18, 2008|D. J. Waldie | D.J. Waldie is a contributing editor for The Times. His most recent book is "California Romantica."

Welcome aboard Metro -- the buses and trains that are boarded 1.4 million times every weekday. Once on board, you'll probably have to stand in the aisle, because thousands more riders have already crowded ahead of you. Daily boardings on Metro -- L.A. County's principal mass-transit system -- are rebounding after a 20-year dip. Passenger loads on commuter rail are up an average of 15% in 2008, while bus ridership has risen 8%. The new riders are largely commuters priced out of their cars by $4-a-gallon gas, according to news reports, but increasing numbers of seniors and young adults are riding Metro for the same reason.

There are more riders in suits on the trains and the subway too, and some with laptops. But transit riders in Los Angeles remain mostly people of color and people with blue-collar jobs. And you'll find them mainly on the brutally overcrowded buses of the shiny Metro fleet that run on Western Avenue and Pico and Sunset boulevards. That's been my experience as a transit-dependent rider -- lots of new rolling stock in candy colors and lots more passengers pressed into thin, hard seats with only the nap of the fabric between them and molded steel. When those uncomfortable seats are gone, a swaying, shuffling, chest-to-back mass of men and women stand in the limited aisle space. When that's gone, the badly overcrowded bus will skip the knots of riders standing at the stops ahead.

The disappointed will wait -- for how long, they cannot know -- until another crowded bus arrives with some standing room left. And when they do get on one of the overcrowded buses, it will be traveling the same congested streets they would otherwise be driving themselves. As the Metropolitan Transportation Authority notes in its 2008 Long Range Transportation Plan, average bus speeds have dropped 12% since the mid-1980s because of increasing traffic. To get from Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley to Dodger Stadium by bus could take about 2 1/2 hours and require three transfers. It would be a short evening, however. There's almost no way back after 8:30 p.m.

I know the humiliating qualities of public transit, having been unable to drive for nearly all my adult life. I've seen the worst that transit delivers -- frightening encounters with abusive passengers and the sullen indifference of some bus drivers. And I've seen the best in ordinary riders and in transit workers too. The mix of good and bad is about the same as it's always been. The quality of service has never been defined by the size of the buses or how new they are but by how well they make daily life possible without a car in Los Angeles.

The harshest indignity is to be uninformed. When you're in a crowded bus, you know where you are mostly by habit or from what others riders tell you. Some buses automatically announce the coming stop, but not all. Most bus drivers, in my experience, never do. And the driver knows only the route, not the transfers from line to line that get you where you want to go. And when schedules are available on the bus, they're only for that route and not the connections you might need for your trip.

Metro's online trip planner is a great idea -- but in reality, it's famously cranky, sometimes wrong and offers help only in English. Bus riders make do with word-of-mouth advice and extraordinary patience.

Metro's funding constraints may make the wait time even longer. Last year, Metro announced that it needs to eliminate 215,000 annual service hours as a cost-saving measure. Initially, buses on 77 lines would run less frequently, making them more crowded just when a surge of new riders trudge to the bus stop. Earlier this year, Metro's board considered another cost-cutting plan that would have eliminated or reduced service on 29 lines, most of them traveling through low-income neighborhoods. Political pressure stopped those cuts, but Metro still faces a $1.8-billion deficit over the next 10 years as it struggles to find more revenue to pay for rail projects.

Even if some new riders eventually abandon the bus when gas prices level off, buses will still be more crowded than they should be. Metro continues to shift some service from local buses -- which stop every quarter of a mile on neighborhood streets -- to the bright red Rapid buses -- with limited stops along major boulevards. According to one estimate, 25% or more of neighborhood service is lost when a Rapid line swallows parts of local lines. Some riders benefit because Rapid buses are more frequent and faster. But not riders who lose their neighborhood bus and whose jobs may be on the local line.

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