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LA bus system revamp proposal: More frequent rides over smaller area

Mayor Eric Garcetti named Jackie Dupont-Walker and L.A. City Councilmen Paul Krekorian and Mike Bonin to the Metro Board of Directors.
MTA Library/Flickr Creative Commons
MTA Bus yard

A Blue Ribbon Committee convened by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has proposed increasing bus frequency for most of the system at no extra cost by cutting service on some of the less-used lines.

The plan has drawn excitement and controversy in a region where most public transit-users still rely on buses for the majority of trips.

The committee recommends creating a "high frequency network" of buses that run at least every 15 minutes - even during off-peak hours. Right now you can wait for 45 minutes for some lines during off peak hours.

Suggestions include switching some top and second tier priority lines to high frequency service, including several in the San Fernando Valley, San Gabriel Valley, South L.A. and the South Bay.

"Frequency is the single most important variable that determines whether transit can be useful to lots and lots of people," said Jarrett Walker, an international transit consultant and author of the book and blog, "Human Transit."

He said increasing the frequency of buses makes it seem like they are "ready when you are," in the same way a personal vehicle is, making transit use more convenient and inviting for the broader public.

"Frequency is freedom," he said. "Frequency is what can give us that sense of spontaneity when we use transit."

But, he acknowledged, frequency is also very expensive because it requires more buses and drivers. To offset those costs, the Blue Ribbon Committee has proposed reducing or eliminating service on the least-used lines in the system as well as routes outside of Metro's service area.

One line that meets both those criteria and is slated for elimination in the proposal: the 534 bus from L.A. to ritzy Malibu, an area known more for luxury vehicles than public transit.

"Malibu has many faces," said Oscar Mondragon, the director of the Malibu Community Labor Exchange, which connects day laborers with short-term work in the area. "It doesn't matter how affluent a community is, it still needs labor to keep it up."

Mondragon said many of the people who work in Malibu — as domestic help, in the service industry or as manual laborers — can't afford to live there and have no other option but to take the bus. 

"For us it's a very critical service," he said.

The proposal suggests that municipalities, like Santa Monica or Malibu, might take over operation of lines like the 534.

Walker, the transit blogger, sees cutting back on low-ridership lines as a necessary tradeoff.

"Metro has to look at what's the best thing to do in terms of building the most liberating possible service for the whole city," he said. "This proposal puts service where it will be useful to large numbers of people and get lots of ridership."

The committee also proposes to cut costs by lowering the threshold at which a bus is considered too crowded during rush hour. Overcrowding at peak times means more buses have to run to carry the overflow, incurring more costs. The new standard would put Metro in line with cities like New York, Seattle and Philadelphia, which tolerate more crowding on buses.

The recommendations are still open to change and discussion. The Metro board is expected to take up the proposal at its upcoming meeting at the end of July.