Four years after a major realignment of service and facing declining ridership, the Big Blue Bus will once again go before the City Council to discuss the future of the regional transit agency.
The staff report for Tuesday’s Council meeting, which can be read in its entirety here, offers a mix of potential solutions that range from the reasonable — installing more dedicated bus lanes to improve service time — to the patently absurd — outsourcing motorcoach jobs to save money and starting a ferry service to Oxnard.
Staff also frames the discussion using three big questions, asking whether Big Blue Bus should be a leader, a partner, or, most baffling, “should we get out of the way?”
“Is it time for an entirely new mobility model and framework, and, if so, what is the transition period for getting there?” the report asks.
The crux of the issue, according to the report, is that due to consistently declining ridership, the Big Blue Bus faces a potential structural operating deficit within the next few years under the current model of service.
Big Blue Bus isn’t alone. L.A. County has seen declining transit ridership over the last couple of years. A recent UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS) study found that, at least in part, increased car ownership in the region has impacted the number of transit riders.
The report proposes as one of the options eliminating low-performing lines and reinvesting the savings into replacing them with “subsidized demand response service,” ultimately outsourcing those lines to transportation networking companies (TNCs) like Lyft and Uber.
Another option proposed is to eliminate low-performing lines and simply hold on to the savings to shore up the Big Blue Bus’ reserves, or, alternatively, start operating a commuter ferry that would connect Santa Monica to Malibu, Oxnard, and the South Bay. Ferry service in California costs an average of $1,899 per hour. That’s compared to the $138 an hour it costs to operate Big Blue Bus service.
According to US Census Data, 243 Santa Monica workers commute from Malibu and 219 come from Oxnard. By contrast, 1,621 commute from Inglewood, which does not have a direct bus connection.
A third option is simply to limit service outside of Santa Monica. According to the staff report, about 85 percent of Big Blue Bus service is offered outside of Santa Monica.
What’s inexplicably missing is the possibility of eliminating low-performing lines and reinvesting the savings into higher performing lines, which the report notes was something the Big Blue Bus did in 2013 and 2014.
The report also suggests the possibility of subcontracting service, since “subcontracted costs are generally 10-25% lower due to lower wage and benefit rates.”
A previous UCLA ITS study found that contracting transit service does not always save money, and when it does, it is typically at the expense of labor.
This report comes three years after the City Council approved one of the biggest overhauls of service to the Big Blue Bus in the agency’s history. At the time, staff at the Big Blue Bus were considering the best way to integrate service to meet the coming Expo light rail, which opened to Santa Monica in 2016. Despite the changes, ridership continues to decline.
Ultimately, the discussion Tuesday will be the beginning of a longer process. The Council will decide which steps to take and which options to leave on the table. It’s likely that Tuesday will be the beginning of a longer community conversation about the future of the Big Blue Bus.