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Riding the bus changes her view

A self-described 'snob' makes the switch to public transit. Though frustrating, it proves enriching in ways she never expected.

February 27, 2010|By Ari B. Bloomekatz

The first time Jacquelyn Carr decided to take a bus in Los Angeles, she felt as if she were navigating a new world.

As she arrived at the bus stop at Wilshire Boulevard and Barrington Avenue, the 26-year-old wondered if she was on the right side of the street. She could not help but fixate on what her friends would think if they saw her.

She grabbed a seat on the bus and immediately noticed the garish multicolored upholstery of the seats. She couldn't help but wonder what fabric they used.

The ride was a little bumpy and Carr kept to herself, adopting a sort of tunnel vision. She brought a book, "The Alchemist," and when she got to work, she applied a good dose of hand sanitizer.

"I felt like I was too good for the bus," said Carr, recalling her virgin voyage last October with a mixture of embarrassment and marvel. "I think there's a social understanding and a construction around that if you take the bus, you take it because you don't have money. There's a social standard. Obviously I had bought into that."

A year ago, Carr would not have been caught dead on a bus.

She pulled into town from Indiana University in 2006 and quickly got a job at a talent agency. She drove a 2005 Volkswagen Jetta with tinted windows and thought of one day becoming a publicist.

She boasted of never taking a municipal bus -- save for the campus shuttle in college or party buses chartered for a night out with friends.

But her job working in Hollywood publicity went away. Then the lease on the Jetta was up. Her parents, who had been helping cover the $250 monthly payments, told her she would have to foot the bill on her own.

She could have pinched pennies and gotten a cheaper car. Instead, she decided to try the bus.

All Carr had to do was walk about half a mile to a bus stop just south of her apartment in Brentwood and catch the 720 Rapid for a straight shot down Wilshire into Beverly Hills, where she now works at the "yoga-inspired" retailer Lululemon Athletica.

The ride is only 20 minutes, yet there is an additional 22 minutes of walking from her apartment and to her shop. And that's when the buses are running on time and traffic isn't gridlocked.

But that was doable, she thought, as long as the bus was clean.

Over the next few months, she found that adding the bus to her life would be much more complex -- filled with frustrations but also enriching her life in ways she never expected.

Carr represents a relatively small but highly important segment of the MTA's passenger base: people who could commute by car but take the bus instead. Such "discretionary riders" currently make up a little more than a quarter of total ridership.

Transportation officials consider people like Carr central to the agency's future as it builds more rail lines with hopes of easing congestion by getting people out of their cars.

Carr can recite the improbabilities of becoming a bus rider: The commute is longer, less predictable and often more harried. There's standing in crowded buses and waiting when buses deviate from their schedules. Getting around nights and weekends is even harder -- and Carr sometimes relies on friends for trips to dinner or to a party.

Despite all this, Carr says it feels good to take the bus. She's saving money that would have been going to her car: about $450 a month on gas, insurance and car payments, not to mention oil changes and tuneups. She also feels she's helping the environment -- and the bus gives her a front-row seat in a city she missed when she was driving and focused on traffic.

"This feels different, this looks different," said Carr, who has a quick grin, long, brown hair and a penchant for bright-colored clothes and big sunglasses. "When you drive through the streets of L.A., you're not looking around, talking to people."

::

The first rides were the hardest.

In October, a woman sitting across from Carr began staring at her intensely.

Carr was wearing neon-green, aviator-style sunglasses.

Carr wondered whether the woman thought she smelled funny. She forced a smile. No response. The woman continued to stare before nodding off to sleep.

The encounter left Carr feeling uneasy. She adopted a strategy of shutting everyone else out. She often read, sent messages to friends on her BlackBerry or put on headphones and listened to music.

But slowly she began to let her guard down. It started with smiles, then turned to quick chats about weather and working out.

Carr is naturally gregarious, and she found that chatting with passengers was the best way to ease her anxieties about riding the bus. She started to make eye contact with people and have a little talk -- even if it lasted only a few minutes. She also wrote down some of her experiences in a notebook.

Those notes turned into a blog called Snob on a Bus.

She envisioned the blog as a way to keep friends and family updated on her bus adventures. But it soon became a repository for her thoughts on mass transportation and her dreams about making her commute better.

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