Rider on the Storm: The Best and Worst of L.A. Buses, Subways and Light Rail 

Scenic journeys to hell, on wheels

Wednesday, Nov 26 2008

With all the bad news out there about our local public transportation, it’s no wonder that so many of us don’t even bother trying to get anyplace by bus or light rail. But after spending several months traveling around the city on trains and buses, I can report that our local transit has improved over the past couple of decades.

Let me count the ways: clean, efficient light rail linking Manhattan Beach to Norwalk (other lines roll into downtown from Sierra Madre and Long Beach); dedicated bus lanes that swoop eastbound, from downtown into the San Gabriel Valley, southbound to San Pedro and, from North Hollywood, westbound into the sunset across the San Fernando Valley. Then there’s the subway barreling from Union Station along the Wilshire Corridor before swerving northwest to North Hollywood, with a finger line extending along Wilshire to Western Avenue. Express and Rapid buses feature limited stops on our most traveled major roadways, allowing them to sweep past the “milk-train” local buses that serve the same routes. A single fare for any MTA bus or train ride runs $1.25. In New York, the equivalent fare is $2.

Compensating for the idiocy of keeping the light-rail Green Line at a mile’s remove from LAX are “Flyaway” buses, leaving every 30 minutes to and from Union Station. Using diamond lanes, these shuttles get you to and from the airport in about 30 minutes, for $3 a ride. (Similar service from JFK and LaGuardia airports into New York’s Grand Central Station run $12 to $15.) Other “Fly Away” destinations include Westwood and Van Nuys.

click to flip through (2) GREGORY BOJORQUEZ

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Recent improvements on the subway and many Rapid bus routes include electronic alerts of when the next train or bus is arriving. They’re usually accurate, but even where they’re off by five or 10 minutes, there’s a perverse comfort in receiving misinformation — as opposed to no information at all.

The bad news is that the connections between the MTA’s major routes will take you efficiently and swiftly in the range of where you need to be, but you can then spend just as much time completing the final leg of your journey. Local-run buses are overcrowded and infrequent, and Department of Transportation shuttle service is paltry. The Eastside and South Los Angeles are woefully underserved, while the Westside, with no train service at all, is so gridlocked that even the Rapid buses crawl along with millions of car drivers, eradicating the very point of limited stops. Poor connections also undo the benefits of the Rapid bus service.

Example: I took the 780 Rapid bus from Hollywood and Vine, hoping to move swiftly through Hollywood and down Fairfax, so I could make the 333 “limited” Venice Boulevard connection to Culver City. The first part of the plan worked well. My Rapid bus easily passed the local 217 local bus that serves the same route. And when I saw that the 217 had its flashers on because it was changing drivers, I thought, “Glad I’m on the 780,” as we swerved around and passed the stopped bus. We made it to Venice Boulevard with amazing efficiency. But then I waited with a small crowd for the 333 — and waited and waited. The local Venice Boulevard 33 pulled up, so jammed with riders that the driver refused to open the front doors to let anybody on, while a few passengers squeezed out the back. Finally the 33 hissed away, leaving the small waiting crowd squinting east for sight of the next local or limited bus. That’s when I spotted the 217 local cross Venice and Fairfax — the same 217 I’d passed about 20 minutes earlier — making it clear that being on the Rapid 780 had served me no purpose whatsoever. This is an allegorical example of where our public transportation lags behind systems in almost every other world city, and why a recent CNN poll cited L.A.’s public transportation as the biggest impediment to tourism here.

Here’s a sampling of some of the best and worst lines our local transport has to offer.

The Connector: Red Line

Provides fast, reliable subway service between Union Station and North Hollywood (30 minutes). The ticket machines can be infuriatingly slow and, on occasion, accept bills only — which brings your base fare up from $1.25 to $2. Ridership has been steadily increasing so that it’s standing-room-only during rush hours, when downtown workers are using the Seventh/Metro, Pershing Square and Civic Center stops. It’s also an ideal way to connect to the Metro-Link commuter trains that all leave from Union Station and serve the valleys, Orange County, Riverside, Moorpark, Lancaster and San Bernardino. L.A. City College students (Vermont Avenue/Santa Monica Boulevard stop) are frequent riders, and in the evenings you’ll find the line used by theater patrons of the Center Theatre Group (Civic Center) and Pantages Theater (Hollywood/Vine). Later at night, you’ll be accompanied by retro punks and hipsters aiming for Hollywood/Highland, and movie patrons headed for the Universal City stop. On a recent Saturday night, coming home to Hollywood from a play in North Hollywood, I found the Red Line crowded even at 11 p.m. The trains run every 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the time, until midnight.

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