SMC Big Blue Bus Stop At Peak Time
When people tell me “no one rides the bus”, I think about moments like this at the SMC BBB stop on Pico Blvd., which deals with more ridership than some Metro train platforms.

When it comes to mobility beyond the private automobile, bus systems preform a lot of the heavy lifting. They are spatially efficient, carrying dozens of people in a fraction of the space otherwise distributed in cars, are more energy efficient than cars on a per passenger basis and a bus fleet requires fewer metals and other raw resources than mass car use preforming the same function would require. There is a cost of public resources to maintain bus systems, but the cost of doing so is less burdensome than the high private and public spending more car use requires.

For all these reasons and others, buses should be celebrated and prioritized, or at the very least bus riders treated as equally important as people when driving cars. But far too often we expect bus riders to settle for less. This creates unnecessary burdens for those already using the systems, some of whom without access to a car or an ability to drive, and it makes the bus less attractive to utilize, undermining the ridership potential, and exacerbating the dilemma of mass car use.

Locally, the Big Blue Bus system is a decent service. I make use of it often living a post-automobile life in Santa Monica, as well as Metro buses that overlap within Santa Monica. I walk and bike mostly, but for reaching further destinations or for certain circumstances, I go by bus, sometimes transferring to the rail system, to get around the region. The BBB #10 is a particular favorite of mine, and during it’s commuter focused hours of service frequency, it is the best car-free way to get to Downtown L.A. before Expo finishes. My spouse makes even more regular use of BBB in commuting to UCLA, and she is an enthusiastic promoter of public transit who had always disliked driving, preferring to be a relaxed passenger. There are a number of ways in which the service can and should be improved, ranging from the subtle and light in cost detail, to the need for service expansion or frequency improvement requiring new revenue models.

One of the most empowering public transit developments on the personal technology side of the equation has been access to real time estimates of next bus arrival and proliferation of smart phones. The availability of this information is most easily accessed by GPS enabled smart phones, but can be accessed over any phone with a bus stop ID number, that is for services that provide it, such as Metro Los Angeles. Notably absent however has been Big Blue Bus, leaving a fog of only partially reliable scheduled arrivals save for a very few stops downtown with displays.

Santa Monica From Above
Metro L.A. bus on 2nd St. in Santa Monica. One of these vehicles carries more than all of the others combined and then some…

When it comes to availability of real time data, and smart phone access to that information, in Santa Monica the priority has whether actively intended or not, been on cars. Every public parking structure has a digital sign display of spaces available, and that data is publicly accessible, in a format third party developers can work with. At first, the parking information was a fairly basic Google Map with a few numbers on the city website. With the data available to third parties, ParkMe, which is based in Santa Monica, has built a comprehensive tool that layers public parking data from many sources and places, along with predictive modeling for street parking availability even when real time data for such spaces is not available. Getting all that real time data collected, displayed, and accessible, is not an entirely trivial feat on the city’s part, and I’ve watched as millions of dollars have gone  by quietly though agenda items at the city council to modernize various aspects of the parking management systems.

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I’ve heard various reasons why Big Blue Bus has been so behind the times with regards to data, technical, contracts with venders, staffing issues. The bottom line is if it were serving automotive convenience, things would have been done by now. In almost every conceivable way our societal leadership, at every level of governance, bends over backward and throws out every available resource chasing the complaints related to driving experience, seeking continual improvements, while largely neglecting the improvement of systems of mobility that do not depend on cars. We need the public transit data to be a public resource for all, not a propriety and closed system, and whatever it takes to make that happen, should be carried out in the public interest wether it complicates some prior contract or not.

This pattern of prioritization on car conveniences and accommodations over transit, is entirely out of sink with goals of equity, sustainability, and improving mobility (since car investments now all chase diminishing returns at ever growing cost, e.g. the 405 widening). Aside from a handful of rail investments in the region, I don’t see a lot of meaningful steps being taken to shift course either. Within Santa Monica, the Big Blue Bus has been allowed to slip behind  the times on data access, and the base quality of service has been largely stagnant in the time I’ve been using it Some lines are reliably frequent, but a number of lines are both so sparse, and so frequently late, the absence of data is maddening, such as nearly time I attempt to take the #9 to the Palisades.

the_blue_spots_santa_monica_09
Design aesthetic for the slated bus shelters that were approved.

Take for example the simple matter of bus shelters, many stops lack anything but a basic seat, and those stops which go beyond that, primarily downtown, are often so heavily used that what is provided is filled beyond capacity, and people sit or lean on all manner of objects in the built environment  not intended for such use, seeking shade or a rest from standing. Rain is infrequent, especially this year, but we shouldn’t pretend like it doesn’t arrive, and more frequently shade is greatly appreciated while waiting. The city has had a plan in place for installing new bus shelters officially adopted since 2010, and the discussion of that plan goes back at least to 2007.

To put this in perspective, during that time Parking Structure 6 was completely rebuilt to include underground parking and go taller and with more spaces. This also included a number of additional features, functional and aesthetics that go beyond the basics of parking structure infrastructure.

So we can design, approve and then go to build and finish over 700 custom public “car shelters”, in the time that approved bus shelter plan has nothing to show for it yet. Apparently within this month or next we are going to see the first new bus shelters go in, but the full plan is to be rolled out in phases. There are a number of reasons why this has taken so long, one of which being the insistence of the council at the time to go with fully custom branded designs, instead of a possible configuration from modular off the shelf parts and bus shelter designs. I’ve looked at staff reports from way back when and found a solid case to go with modular parts was presented, but ultimately rejected. However it is not as though Parking Structure wasn’t also a completely custom design, and it was entirely a far more intensive, and complex undertaking, but despite all that, got done faster.

Shifting course toward a greater prioritization of the bus system is a complex task, and the fault of present shortcomings does not rest on any one entity. There is the transit agency itself, but it can not be thought of as the sole issue, there is the priorities of city governance that oversee that agency, there are state funding priorities, regional Metro dollars distributed, and the role of the broader media and public in shaping the leadership of all of those intuitions.

High among my peeves concerning mainstream environmentalism has been a dearth of attention on public transit systems in favor of salivation over every latest maybe slightly less polluting model of car (which still does nothing for congestion, land use, raw material construction and other impacts besides tail pipes). Plaudits for every purchaser of a Prius, Leaf, Volt or Tesla, but hardly a peep in celebration of the every day efficiency of any bus service, or the efforts of transit agencies to work on improving that efficiency further.

However complex the task may be however, we must seek out pathways at every level to move transit service up the agenda. The pathways toward attempting to solve the consequences of so many cars by focusing on cars, is a dead end, and has been for sometime. It’s time to start treating bus passengers as just important to the livelihood of our city as those who arrive by cars, and scaling bus service for growth instead designing for car growth assumptions, and go beyond more of the same reshuffling of the same number of transit service hours with a tweak here and there.

The double standard of prioritizing automobile driven lives as more important than others, is undemocratic, and it is failing us all, both presently and by imposing unmitigatable harm upon the future through ever accumulating consequences.