January 10, 2014: Redondo Beach Pier, Torrance Transit Bus Stop

The Case for Public Transportation

Los Angeles: Land of the Cars. Growing up here, I always heard people say, “Nobody rides the bus; nobody walks in LA.” Returning home and looking around, I can understand how easy it is—in this city ruled by its massive, serpentine highways filled with sleek Audis and BMWs and Teslas—to believe that there can be no method of transportation superior to driving.

Yet, each time that I land at LAX and take the airport shuttle to the transit center, then a Metro bus from the transit center to lunch, and then a Torrance bus from the pier back home, I am reminded of how utterly untrue this idea is. From friends exchanging Avon catalogs with each other, to coworkers who spontaneously bump into one another and start conversing in Spanish, to European tourists that would like to know if this bus goes from the beach to the mall, to the elderly Asian gentleman with a walking frame that everyone patiently waits for, to the lady who just bought and brought on many—many—groceries, to myself, the only person dragging around a thirty pound carry-on bag, I am constantly reminded that not only do people ride the bus in Los Angeles, but also, in the words of Jonathan Gold, of “the huge number of cultures that live in this city, who come together in this beautiful and haphazard fashion.”

I would like to make a case for taking public transportation as leisure in this sprawling metropolitan as a way to explore, to walk around more, to reclaim time for thought and observation, and to acknowledge by virtue of sitting next to strangers that we live together in this city that otherwise would never force us to cross paths.

Clearly the case for public transportation as leisure requires the ability to decline an alternative—those without access to their own cars or hailing Ubers and Lyfts are not likely choosing to regularly take public transportation because they find it the most wonderful, incredible, fun use of their time. I offer my experiences on a recent Saturday, when I had to travel about fifty miles to meet a friend in Santa Monica for lunch and then my cousins in Alhambra for dinner, as a prime example of a comedy of errors and the frustations of public transportation.

In total, I spent about five hours on four buses and one train. At the start of the morning, I missed my first connecting bus by half of a traffic signal, pushing my arrival to Santa Monica out by half an hour. In Santa Monica, one bus driver closed the door on me right as I was trying to board (I assume that he simply did not see me). To make up for the lost trip eastward and to make it to the cousins dinner on time, I switched to the Expo line and ended up waiting twenty minutes for the train ahead to recover from an unexpected mechanical failure. Once I arrived in Downtown, I enjoyed another unexpected walk several blocks down Pico St. while searching for my final bus because I exited the wrong direction at the Metro station. In this one Saturday, I experienced every public transit problem that I have ever experienced. Purely as a method of transportation, certainly much is left to be desired.

But on this same Saturday of comedic errors, I used the extra twenty five minutes from missing my first connection to enjoy a cortado and chocolate chip cookie at The Boy & The Bear, Redondo Beach’s one-and-only third wave craft coffeeshop. I observed with amusement a benevolent stranger who guided everyone that needed directions to their buses at the LAX transit center while waiting for my own bus. I didn’t make it to Book Soup, but I spent a little more time catching up with a great friend who accompanied me from the bus stop to the train station in Santa Monica. I napped in the air-conditioned train as it waited for the train ahead to start moving again (I’d like to think that I also inspired the Cal State Los Angeles student sitting next to me to take a nap). On my final bus from Downtown to Alhambra, I overheard a man make arrangements in Cantonese to have dinner with his family: “I’m on the bus now, I’m an hour away! I’ll see you at the restaurant!” I watched the sun slowly set. I looked over in fascination as the man sitting next to me played a Chinese soap opera on his phone. When I got off the bus, I thanked him for letting me scoot by in Cantonese.

When I visit my friends and family in Los Angeles, usually for a few weeks at a time, I ride public transportation as my primary means to get anywhere that I cannot walk to. In addition to getting to and from the airport, I take the bus to get lunch and coffee near the beach every day that I am lucky enough to spare the time for such an extravagance; I take the bus to run errands for anything that fits inside a Trader Joe’s shopping bag or my backpack; I head out the door at 7:45PM daily on weeknights to meet my parents for dinner at their restaurant.

I enjoy the time to myself when I ride the bus. I enjoy yielding the responsibility of driving, taking new routes, and seeing new parts of the city. I enjoy the transient moments spent sitting next to people that I would likely never run into at my favorite coffeeshop, or bookstore, or beach. In this city with so much space and so many ways to isolate ourselves to the geographic and social bubbles that we are most familiar with, I am grateful for the privilege and opportunity to slowly get from A to B.

This article is part of a series about public transportation and buses. The first three articles focus on NextBus, a popular real-time tracking and prediction system used by many public transit agencies. Part 1, “This is the 1 Bus in Boston”, explores traffic patterns for the 1 Bus in Boston using data from NextBus’s real-time feed. Part 2, “A peek inside the black box”, explains the inner-workings of NextBus Delay Tracker and how it tries to improve the predictions offered by NextBus. Part 3, “Predictions from Predictions”, compares the accuracy of predictions from NextBus Delay Tracker and NextBus.

Posted September 24, 2016

Next: The farmer’s market in a bowl.

I am Tommy Leung, an engineer and amateur chef. These are my curiosities. (RSS)