The Times of New York does something the Times of Los Angeles appears not to have done since February 2006. The Grey Lady sends a reporter to ride mass transit in Los Angeles.
But when he wrote this first-person comedy piece that had readers howling with laffter over their All-Bran back in the G.W. Bush Administration, the L.A. Times' Bullet Train Believer Dan Turner merely produced a rail-oriented travelogue. (The paper relieved itself of transit reporter Steve Hymon two years ago.)
America's newspaper of record, on the other hand, sends Jennifer Medina to ride a direct bus line that is slated to be shut down – the 305 from Watts to Westwood – and find out how riders feel about it.
I reported on the service cuts when they were announced in March, and many of Medina's findings will be familiar to readers of my transit coverage. But with transit, the drama is always in the mundanity. L.A. MTA offers one-way rides for $1.50 – no transfers. If you have to switch from a direct route to a connecting route, you not only get the time-doubling effect that every bus rider learns to factor into his or her calculations but have to pay a second or third time. Also, though Medina doesn't mention it, MTA's very useful monthly pass has jumped in price from $62 to $75 since 2008 – a 21 percent increase during a period of only 5 percent CPI inflation and double-digit deflation in housing. A day pass costs a hefty $6 – and if Turner's LAT story above is to be believed (never guaranteed), that means the cost of a day pass has doubled since 2006.
So the loss of the direct bus line (which MTA describes as an improvement) places the largest relative financial burden on ladies from Watts who commute to tonier parts of the county for sporadic work. In this excerpt from Medina's story, the real-world grievances of these customers are set off against a quote from an MTA official that is so abstract and math-maddened it would have shamed a clerk at the East India Company:
"The hardest part is when we have to transfer — you stand there waiting, and it can feel like forever," said Silvia Canjura, who has taken the bus to work as a nanny in Santa Monica for the last 31 years. "Will I arrive at 8:30 or 9:30 in the morning? I never really know now, but changing will make it worse."
Transit officials say they are trying to use new rail lines to turn the region's unwieldy system into a grid — a goal made all the more difficult by the facts that Los Angeles was hardly built with geometric precision and that the service area spreads over nearly 1,500 square miles.
"We want to fill in the grid rather than rely on these customized zigzagging lines," said Conan Cheung, the transit authority's deputy executive officer for service planning. "We have to streamline the system to work for the highest number of people."
But the Bus Riders Union complains that the transit agency continues to treat the bus lines as a "separate and unequal system." Under the new system, the 3,000 passengers who board the 305 each day, paying $1.50 for each trip, will instead have to take a series of buses or trains that could take twice as long and cost three times as much. (Unlike other cities, the patchwork system in Los Angeles does not allow free transfers.)
"People are going to be paying more for less service," said Esperanza Martinez, an organizer for the union. "In the name of efficiency, they are going back to where we were years ago."
For the most part, the bus riders are only vaguely aware that the route is scheduled to be cut this fall, and those who are have had little time to react.
"I have no idea what I am going to do after — nobody does," said Antonio Hernandez, 26, who uses the bus to get to his job as a painter. "They had a hearing and we could have gone to complain, but nobody I know did. Who has time to go to those things?"
In Robert Aldritch's Hustle, Burt Reynolds disdains L.A. as "Guatemala with color television." But this is one case where the City of Angels could take something of value from the developing world: a relatively entrepreneurial transit economy in which the only thing you need to get into the bus business is a vehicle that (occasionally) starts. For all we know, deputy Conan Cheung may be right: Closing the 305 line may be the least-bad move for the MTA monopoly. But we can never find out what works best for customers if we don't have bus services that must please customers – not politicians or ecologists or new-urbanism visionaries or the editorial board of the local print monopoly, but customers – in order to stay in business.