Thursday, February 14, 2008

A bus to Hollywood

I was in Southern California for Christmas week. I flew into Burbank rather than LAX mostly because that's the best fare I could get, but also because LAX is such a zoo, and the last thing I needed was to get hung up on Christmas Eve at friggin' LAX.

Burbank was good. L.A. was good, as least as long as I wasn't driving there. I did meet the usual rich lunatic driver quota in the vicinity of Sunset Boulevard near Santa Monica, but at least this time the lunatic was only impatient, and not to the point of being either homicidal or suicidal, like last trip. Christmas with my wife's family was good, too.

One of the events my wife's family planned was a trip to the El Capitan theater in Hollywood to see the latest Disney film: "Enchanted". I decided to up the ante on the trip a little, announcing that I would be taking the bus with anyone else who wanted to come.

There was no response.

I asked around. "Would you?" I asked my wife's cousin. "The bus?" she asked incredulously.

Several similar responses followed. So I asked my kids, who usually enjoy taking the bus in Seattle. It's kind of an adventure for them, and one I actively encourage, though not on every route, and only during hours when I'm pretty sure they'll have a safe and positive experience. No dice. My two boys wanted to drive with their older cousins, one of whom has been on TV.

Only my five-year-old daughter was game, but by the time we got going it was too late to walk the mile to the bus stop, so my wife dropped us off there on her way. We hoped to be in time to catch the express bus from Santa Monica, but something didn't work out since the first bus we saw five minutes after arriving at the bus stop was a local "2" bus. This could have been unfortunate, as the "302" express was estimated to take 30-60 minutes to go the ~10 miles to Hollywood, and I hadn't scouted the "2" at all, other than to know it was heading the same way.

The people waiting at the bus stop were all Hispanic. The people on the "2" bus were all Hispanic, too. Every one. Note that I'm not saying this in any negative way whatsoever, nor did I feel any different about riding this bus with or without my daughter than I would have in Seattle with a different demographic. Truth is, these were very nice people, one of whom got up and changed seats, unbidden, just so my daughter and I could sit together. The woman in the seat in front of us thought my daughter was sweet, too, though she was very shy about expressing it. She smiled in a delighted way at us every so often, though, so I could tell.

A white man on a bike boarded about the time we were going past UCLA, getting off again several stops later. While he was still aboard, a black man on another bike also got on. The bike racks are just like those in Seattle (the older ones that still function, that is): two bikes fit on each metal rack.

Two things about these buses were different -- and better -- than Seattle's: scrolling monitors naming the next two stops, and TVs. The two TVs were similar to the ones on airline flights, including repackaged regular TV programming, albeit with many programs in Spanish, but also including snippets of a live map showing the bus' current position. This made it much more obvious to me when our stop was nearing, and as a stranger in town I really appreciated it.

Our total time on the bus had been about 45 minutes, with no significant traffic. We had a two-block walk from our stop to the theater. My wife called via cell phone as we walked -- she'd just arrived in line and was hoping and praying that we wouldn't be too late. Apparently, some of her relatives had been laying side bets on how late we would be. The consensus was that we had no chance to get there by showtime. We got there 10 minutes early. Ha!

Even better, we didn't have to hassle with parking, at least not on the way there. My wife parked across the street under the Kodak Theater, where the Oscars usually get awarded these days, and the whole process of finding a parking place and then coming out again is a big part of the reason that she only beat me to the theater by a few minutes.

After the show, we wandered around the Kodak Theater mall, then to the nearby Grauman's Chinese Theater, where a family member's footprints are in the concrete. It's kind of a zoo in that neighborhood, with lots of tourists and a few random people dressed up as celebrities  like Michael Jackson for reasons that I might still not fully understand (I didn't ask), but previous listening to songs like Rodney Crowell's "I Wish It Would Rain" may have at least partially cleared up for me. The upshot was that I really didn't want to take my daughter walking through the side streets of this neighborhood after dark, even for just the two long blocks from Hollywood Blvd to Sunset, so we drove home with the rest of the family. I was fortunate in this respect in that I had this option readily available. I suspect that many people who'd been riding the bus with us earlier in the day did not have this option, bringing me back to the central problem of transit for its ridership everywhere: its safety, convenience, and extended transit time compared to personal transportation options like private automobiles. Yes, I very much enjoyed taking my daughter on the bus to Hollywood, just as I enjoy taking my kids on the bus at home in Seattle, and just as they enjoy in their turn. Every trip can be an adventure!

But, of course, when you have no other transportation options, the potential for every trip to be an adventure can also be a drawback. I've had buses break down while I was riding them, or on which someone had a medical emergency, not often but still more frequently than any car I've ever driven, including some real beaters shortly after I graduated from college. I've also driven past somewhat more buses that had either broken down, or were surrounded by police cruisers with lights flashing, or which got stuck on slippery roads, and I've been on several buses so full that they drove right on past waiting groups that wanted to board. And, of course, transit almost invariably takes longer than driving, at least in the major cities of the western U.S., including Seattle and Los Angeles, though some of that time can be reclaimed by doing other work on the bus, or reading or writing, assuming a seat is available, which is another significant uncertainty at peak travel times.

All of these sorts of uncertainties and inconveniences work together to discourage many people from using public transit who might do so otherwise. If public transit ridership is to significantly increase during these times of skyrocketing energy costs and global warming, one thing needed is public transit that is faster, safer, more convenient, more immune to congestion, and capable of carrying volumes of passengers that are at least as high as the options we have available to us now, as well as being at least as energy-efficient as the transit options being used now, and not costing so much that they break the regional bank. This is one reason I'm so supportive of emerging public transit technology like Personal Rapid Transit, which is being built in London and outside Stockholm right now, with the first system scheduled to come online in Spring, 2009, with many more cities in the world anxious to implement it once they're convinced that it's viable, which it certainly appears to be.

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