When Multiple Agencies Attack … a NYT Reporter

The New York Times ran an article this week wherein a reported attempted to navigate Los Angeles by transit. There’s an obvious faux pas in a picture caption (see right, and see if you can figure out what it might be), but otherwise the piece is a list of trials, tribulations and eventual successes trying to navigate Los Angeles by something other than a car.

Sometimes successfully.

As someone who once navigated LA for a week mostly by transit—aided by an iPhone and, at times, a friend at USC—I can empathize with Mr. Hanc to a degree: it can be hard to figure out how to use the system. And while I would criticize some of his convoluted routes and relying on infrequent direct buses when there were better options (and, yes, I’ll try to reconstruct his journeys later), another glaring issue is the multi-agency mishmash, especially in the part of LA where many of his travels took him: the area between Westwood, LAX and downtown.

First, Metro’s system is huge. The LACMTA carries more than a million passengers a day; only New York carries more. Since New York has the bus system separated out by borough, it’s probably the most complex system map in the US. Seriously, check it out:

Good luck making sense of that! But to add insult to injury, there are no fewer than 47 (forty-seven!) municipal bus operators. LA Metro has a long history of interagency squabbles—it was created in 1993 after two separate operators were merged because they almost built two subway lines that didn’t connect. And while, as far as I can tell as an outsider, there is not much contention right now, there are certainly still multiple agencies running multiple—and sometimes parallel—services, without fare or schedule integration.

It makes it tough, especially as an outsider, to use the system. When I was there, without time constraints, I stuck to Metro services (and a trip on Metrolink, the region-wide commuter rail service) even when another trip might have been better. I had a 7-day pass, and didn’t want to bother with learning the transfer purchase system. So I stayed away from Dash, and the Culver CityBus, and the Big Blue Bus, and others. But in the area that the Times author was traveling, he had too many choices, which led to enough confusion that he wound up taking at least one trip by car, and convoluted routings on others.

There’s obviously a lot of history and issues of local control, but from an outsider, it makes the whole system—which is complex enough already!—a pain to use. I know if, for instance, I’m in Chicago, and I want to go to a suburb, I might wind up on Metra and a Pace bus. Or that in New York I might need to take NJT or a Bee Line Bus or a bus out on Long Island. But to go from LA to Santa Monica is like going from Manhattan to Brooklyn, or the Near North to Wicker Park. Even in San Francisco, home to dozens of local agencies (many of them large—AC Transit is the tenth largest bus system in the country) the boundaries are generally clear: Muni in the city, AC across the bay, SamTrans south, Golden Gate north, VTA in San Jose.

In LA, all bets are off. It means that local riders may be penalized for crossing a city line; at least in San Francisco, the systems are county-run, and the dense cities (San Francisco and Oakland) only really have one system to use. Anyone unfamiliar with transit—whether a car-driving local or a visitor—will be flummoxed, as the author was:

But when I got to Westwood, I was dumbfounded. Buses of every size and color whizzed by: big blue City of Santa Monica buses, green Culver City buses, blue and white U.C.L.A. “Bruin Bus” shuttles. A barista at a nearby Starbucks pointed me to the one I wanted: the Metro Rapid 734 bus.

If you’re LA, and your reputation is already that it’s hard to navigate by transit, extra barriers to entry don’t help. The LACMTA is actually a pretty good system, buses are frequent, well-marked, go most everywhere, and once you learn the difference between an orange local bus and a red “Rapid” bus, as well as the fares (no transfers, cheap day passes) and a few other eccentricities, it’s easy (if not always speedy) to use. That is, unless you wind up going somewhere served by another agency. Then it’s almost as if you’ve flown to another city, even if you’re a mile away.

So, to recreate John Hanc’s journey, using GTFS, which has most transit agencies in it (and which I think he could have been helped by):

His first trip was from LAX to an unnamed hotel that overlooked the 405 he had to take the 734 on Westwood to get to. The 734 crosses the 405 on Sunset before going over the Sepulveda; it’s likely that it he was staying at one of the hotels at or near Sunset and Sepulveda. While he chose the airport bus to Westwood, a more frequent and less confusing option would have been the Culver CityBus 6 or 6R to Westwood ($1 fare instead of $10) from the airport bus transit center, and then a change to the 734. That bus would have dropped him on Westwood, not a few blocks away, for an easier transfer. Still, it’s multi-agency, so it’s not simple. And you have to get to the first bus on an airport shuttle, too.

The next morning he went from his hotel to the Hammer museum. He got a ride, even though it would be an easy, one-seat ride on the 734, every 20 minutes or so.

Next, he needs to take an afternoon trip from UCLA to downtown LA. This should be pretty easy, if not super fast. His buddy Mark works right downtown, near the terminus of all the buses and near the actual subway. Somehow Hanc finds a commuter bus that runs less frequently (four times a day!), and trades frequency for speed—and winds up waiting an hour for it. There’s a LA Metro route 534 from Culver City to Malibu, but it’s not the route he’s looking for: he wants a LA DOT 534, which is a different service entirely, although the fare media are at least integrated. Here, it pays to learn that any time you might make up waiting for an infrequent service you could spend already moving towards your destination, albeit slowly.

But it’s another illustration of how convoluted the overlapping systems are. You can take the LA DOT 534, or you can take Metro 720 to the Red/Purple Line, both of which will get you downtown in about 1:00, and which run parallel to each other. But there’s no fare or schedule integration. Maybe it makes sense for a daily commuter. Maybe. But for an outsider? Forget about it. It should be noted that if and when the Purple Line Extension a.k.a. Subway to the Sea (although it won’t quite get there) is completed, it will be a one-seat subway ride from Westwood to downtown, rendering the current alphabet soup for that ride moot. This might be done in 20 years.

Did he have to even go downtown? He could have taken an express bus due north and met Mark in Valley Glen, saving Mark the drive out of the way to pick him up, and himself the long wait for the bus. Since LA has no real center, it’s generally possible to get from one place to another without going downtown. (Although maybe he and Mark had dinner downtown; he doesn’t say.)

The next day he takes a BRT Line to a Subway. Easy. (Apparently Mark prefers to sit in traffic even though he lives walking distance from the Orange Line.) Then he was taking the Antelope Valley Line out to Newhall and coming back to Burbank, before transferring one stop outbound to the Burbank airport. He could have taken the 164 to Burbank, and then gone outbound on Metrolink from there. That would have also meant he would have bought a ticket from a machine rather than a person (and, yes, it’s perfectly fine to buy a ticket between non-downtown locations). And on the way back, rather than backtracking to Burbank and switching trains, he could have, again, taken a train to a bus.

So kudos to John Harc for sorta kinda getting around LA by transit. If only he’d actually planned ahead a little more, he could have saved a lot of time. And a couple of rides with Mark.

How many buses on Wilshire?

Another bit about Los Angeles: while there, we decided to take the bus on Wilshire towards Santa Monica. In doing so, we boarded one of the most frequent bus routes in the country. How frequent? At certain times of day, three dozen buses run along Wilshire Boulevard per hour, one every 100 seconds. They’re split between the local 20 bus (headways of 6-12 minutes; 30 minutes overnight) and the Metro Rapid 720 bus (headways of 2-9 minutes, generally less than 5). Yes, two minutes. From 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. westbound, the 720 has an astounding 51 trips, with buses arriving every 2:20 on average (not counting the 20, which adds another 20 trips.

The 720 is operated with 60-foot buses which have a capacity of 100 passengers; or 2500 per hour, with an additional 600 capacity on the 40-foot 20 buses. 3100 passengers per hour—more than a freeway lane of traffic. Yet this parade of buses has operated in regular traffic lanes, with only limited abilities to hold traffic lights. That’s slated to change, as rush-hour bus-only lanes have been approved for most of the corridor. The changes, which will cost $30m, are slated to save riders 10 minutes per trip. While it’s not the ideal solution (that would be a decades-long plan to build a “Subway to the Sea” under the corridor, which would serve many more people and halve transit times), it is a relatively inexpensive fix which will help thousands of riders a day.

How “relatively inexpensive” is it? There are approximately 160 affected trips daily (buses don’t run in each direction at the same frequencies), and we can assume that these trips are 75% full at rush hour (75 passengers per trip). That equals savings for 12,000 passengers per day, times 10 minutes, or 2000 hours saved per weekday, or 500,000 hours saved per year. There is limited literature regarding travel time costs (how much people value the time they spend in transit) but a conservative estimate is $8 per hour; about half of the prevailing average wage. (It’s possible that mobile computing will raise this considerably.) In any case, 500,000 hours at $8 per hour is equal to $4m per year, giving the project an eight year payback in this metric alone.

Of course, LACMTA stands to save as well. Saving ten minutes per trip will save the agency 1600 minutes of bus operation per day, or about 27 hours. It costs about $100 to operate a bus per hour, equating to a savings of $2700 per day, or $675,000 per year (and these are much more quantifiable savings than the time costs).

Will bus lanes give Wilshire Boulevard an acceptable level of transit? No—with the ridership the corridor sees a grade-separated line is probably necessary. But since that is many years off, this is a step in the right direction.