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Catching The Bus To LAX, & Thoughts On Making It Better While We Wait For Rail To Arrive

LAX Bus Transit CenterThere has been a lot of debate and scrutiny over the vision of finally connecting rail service to the LAX terminals (this Metro Source post is a good primer on state of things), correcting what many lampoon as a great mistake in the routing of the Green Line. The plans are to bridge the gap either by aligning light rail directly into the terminal area, or a people mover from a new closer station coming with the the future Crenshaw Line. What seems to have been lost in any of these discussions are the existing bus and shuttle connections to the airport at the LAX Transit Center, and what we could do to improve that experience with relatively modest investments.

There are many travelers, as well as airport workers already taking transit to LAX from various lines all over the metro area that converge by the airport shuttles. But making this trip is not intuitive to the newbie, and the LAX Transit Center is a pretty underwhelming facility given the volume of bus traffic and riders that move through it. On the occasions that I’ve flown, since moving to Santa Monica about 7 years ago, I always take the Big Blue Bus number 3, or Rapid 3, to get to the airport, one of many lines across Los Angeles that include or terminate at the LAX Transit Center. It’s been an experience that has had it’s ups and downs, but there is no beating the affordability of paying a dollar to get to the airport.

This walkway to the far west of the LAX Transit Center leads to the bus depot where Shuttle C buses pick up arriving passengers to LAX.

The first point of confusion in managing a bus transfer to the airport, both in outbound and inbound travel through the Transit Center, is what do next. For someone getting off a municipal or Metro bus line, there are a few signs directing to where the shuttles pick up for connecting through to the final terminal loop, but it could be made clearer, perhaps benefiting from direction markers painted on the ground as well.

When I consider how many various redundant giant signs, and painted ground markers, we provide for drivers navigating the airport area maze, I don’t think bus riders deserve any less treatment in deploying visual aids to take the guessing out of the process. Over the years I’ve found myself on a number of occasions helping direct confused travelers getting off a bus on where to walk to in order to catch the airport shuttle.

For the traveler leaving the airport to catch a bus, the confusion can be even greater, and my first time attempting to do so became a nightmare experience because of a rookie mistake.

The first thing to note is exiting into the terminal arrivals area, is that you want to look for the blue ground transportation signs that read “LAX Shuttle Airline Connections”. Various shuttles come through but the parking shuttle C is the one you want to get to the transit center. The airport itself could and should make it clearer that shuttle C is for making public transit bus connections, and in my times using the shuttle, transit travelers often make up a majority of the shuttle C users, not drivers looking for the namesake lot “C” parking lot. A map of the LAX Transit Center itself, where the shuttles pick up, and which specific curbs different buses pull up to, would also be a nice touch.

When leaving LAX, stepping off the first C shuttle stop after turning right onto 96th from Sky Way, turn right right and head for the crosswalk.

This next step is where I made my major flaw on my first attempt, and this was also well before I had a smart phone, or transit data of any kind being accessible on one. The very first stop that shuttle C makes upon leaving the terminal area, is where you want to get off to make fairly short walk across the street (across Sky Way / Vicksberg Ave.) to the transit center bus connections. This was not clear to me my first time, and I was waiting for the bus to get to the depot area from which I had boarded when I was departing. Well shuttle C doesn’t return to that depot area until meandering across the vast expanse of parking lot C, making numerous stops, and takes an agonizingly long time to finish.

Not knowing the geography well in my head the first time, I had no idea that very first stop was so close to where I was wanting to go. If I can save just one person from making the horribly time consuming mistake of staying on the shuttle until it returns to it’s starting depot area after winding through the parking lot, this post will have been worth it. Clearly announcing the importance of the first stop for transit connections, improving signage visible from the bus, could help ensure people don’t miss the stop.

Current geography of the LAX bus transit center and shuttle connection.

Even better, the bus could be routed to go first directly to the depot stop or through the adjacent transit center loop. Given the importance of shuttle C as the only shuttle connecting to bus connections, I would rather see the transit users more directly served even if such routing introduces a time delay for parking lot access. We should not be adding inconveniences to the transit traveler in the first place for the sake of driving or parking lots. This would also eliminate the need to cross Sky Way on foot, where fast high volume traffic roars through, and doesn’t want to wait on red to turn in front of people crossing.

If the routing is to stay put, which currently avoids having to make any lefts, and we keep the walk over to the buses from the first stop, that stretch of sidewalk, and the crossing at Sky Way, could really use some love. It is bleak, and at busy times, a bit of a gauntlet atmosphere. There are a few signs directing which way to get to the bus connections, but again it could be made little clearer which way to go when you step out. For many travelers, this is their first experience of Los Angeles outside of the immediate airport terminals, and we aren’t exactly giving a great impression here.

The LAX Transit Center leaves a lot to be desired. Very exposed to wind, people gather under the limited shade of the central structure, and mostly everything is concrete.

The transit center itself is also pretty bleak, and the sparse number of trees that aren’t very close, and lack of buildings across the way from it for surface parking, leaves the area particularly exposed to coastal winds. At night and the mornings outside the summer months, can get quite chilly, and catch people expecting shorts and a t-shirt in Los Angeles to be fine off guard, especially if they wait for any extended period for their bus.

Getting direct rail service to the airport would be nice, and has been long wished for by many in the region, but under any scenario under consideration, that is still a number of years away. And not everyone will be making rail connections to the airport even if that situation is improved. There are modest things we could do to improve transit connectivity that already exists to LAX, and the experience of it, both to encourage it’s use, but also the LAX area workers, those who make regional transfers there, and travelers already making the commitment to go by transit, deserve better.

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