This blog, The Pedestrian is an online guide to living in Los Angeles without a car.
Not all public transportation is created equal. If the LA Metro rail is a white-hot startup with Millennial co-founders and a $50 million valuation, the LA bus system is the older box manufacturing company that occupies the lower floors of the same building.
Essential? Without a doubt.
Run by the same transit authority that manages the Metro rail, LA's city bus program is a Spartacus-sized operation. It uses the same fare system as the Metro and boasts the second largest bus fleet in North America, with more than 2,400 buses rumbling around Los Angeles County during peak hours. Many of these buses are powered by compressed natural gas, an alternative fuel source that some consider "cleaner" than diesel. (The harvesting method of CNG - fracking - leaves this open for debate.) You can take the bus a few blocks to the closest laundromat, or you can ride it all the way to Disneyland, which is nearly 40 miles away from Downtown LA!
Wherever you're going, there's almost certainly a bus that can take you there.
So why does the bus get considerably less love than the Metro? We'll address that here, in three parts.
I. The Traffic Factor
Buses run on the streets, and the streets of LA are routinely jammed with vehicles. Where the Metro trains can zip along, unaffected by traffic, the bus must constantly exit and rejoin the crush of cars. This is why - when it comes to buses - the Metro authorities define running "on time" as running five minutes or less behind schedule. It's an LA thing.
What this means for you, a pedestrian, is that you should always aim to catch a bus that will allow you to reach your destination at least 10-15 minutes before you absolutely have to be there. (Make that 20-30 minutes during rush hour.) This will give you a sizable window for traffic-induced tardiness. Your best course of action is downloading and using the Go Metro mobile app to plan your bus trips. Unlike Google Transit, which acts as a middleman between you and local transit authorities, the Go Metro app offers you the most efficient routes and real time updates straight from the belly of the beast.
You can further hedge your bets for an efficient ride by showing up at the bus stop five minutes before the bus is slated to arrive. Lateness is the norm in LA, but the fluctuation of traffic can cause bus drivers to do everything within their power to make up for lost time. This often leads to early arrivals and departures, which can be even more frustrating than late ones. Don't let it happen to you.
II. The Transfer Factor
Traveling to a destination solely by bus will often require changing from one bus to another. For commuters in cities like Montreal or Portland, this is barely a hassle. But in a congested metropolis like LA, transferring is easier said than done.
The biggest obstacle to making a transfer is the likelihood of traffic-related bus delays. Any transfer window of 10 minutes or less presents at least a 50% chance that you'll miss the second bus. This leaves you two options: wait for the next bus and arrive at your destination late, or bite the bullet and pay for an emergency Uber or Lyft ride to close the gap. This won't break the bank in the way that vehicle ownership can, but it's still annoying: especially if you pay $100 for a Metro rail and bus pass each month like I do.
Even if you manage to make your transfer on time, the cost of transferring can be confusing. Certain neighborhoods in LA Country run their own bus networks, and jumping from one bus network to another isn't always free. Even if you stay within one network, your transfer options are finite. The table below will give you an idea of what you can reasonably expect.
Really, the best way to beat the bus transfer headache is quite simple: buy a monthly Metro pass and avoid bus-to-bus transfers whenever you can. But if you don't have that option, aim for as much transfer time as possible and be sure that you have some loose change in your pocket if you're connecting to a different bus networks.
III. The "Sketch" Factor
Try and recall the last time someone warned you about a "sketchy" neighborhood. Then, consider the demographic(s) and income levels of that neighborhood. Odds are the local residents aren't carrying yoga mats, sipping soy lattes, or listening to Wilco as they drive to work in their Priuses.
The ugly truth is that our most marginalized citizens - which is to say, the poor, people of color, and the mentally ill - are feared and even demonized by a lot of folks who've been luckier in life. And because the bus is a lifeline for those with less capital, the thought of riding the bus can become inherently "sketchy" to people with more money and options. Remember: wealthier people tend to live in communities where one can avoid interacting with the working classes and the poor in a manner that doesn't involve customer service transactions. To ride the bus is to bump shoulders with the less fortunate, sometimes literally.
Speaking as an LA bus rider with years of experience, I can guarantee that if you come from a "good" neighborhood and you ride the bus, you will encounter individuals who make you feel uncomfortable. By "uncomfortable," I don't mean fearful of your safety, but disturbed and, hopefully, sad. The bus is a window into the underworld of LA, beneath the poverty line. It magnifies the inequality that prevails throughout America, and the way in which our social welfare system has failed those who need it most. Any stories you may have heard about bus passengers getting mugged or assaulted are most likely urban myth. This rarely happens. Far more people have been harmed by Uber drivers than LA bus passengers in recent years.
All of that said, I advise LA pedestrians to be mindful of where they board and disembark from the bus, especially at night. The LA Times is continually tracking the incidence of violent crimes in local neighborhoods. The paper's most recent ranking offers a reasonable idea of what areas you should avoid. Consider the Top 25 places on the list off limits after sundown, and even if you're heading there during daylight hours, keep an eye out and leave your valuables in your bag.
That's all for now. I'll see you on the bus.