by Tom Anderson
photography by Reina Santa Cruz
Admit it: the doomsayers were right. Our assumption that gas would always be cheap, and that public transportation would always be the domain of the disabled, the impoverished and the car-hating “ecovangelists” of the world has passed its expiration date. The cost gap, if not the speed and efficiency gaps, between private automobiles and public buses and trains, is finally beginning to close.
But just how close is that gap in Southern California? Is travel by bus or train bearable, let alone enjoyable? Is public transportation even faster or cheaper? These are just some of the questions that your intrepid author intends to answer.
To test each of the three aforementioned modes of transportation against one another, I’ll take three trips from La Verne Magazine World Headquarters at the University of La Verne to that most famous of ocean liners turned tourist attractions, the Queen Mary in Long Beach. One journey will be made by car, another by bus and a third by train; the latter two include a free two-plus mile shuttle ride from the Metro Blue Line terminal in Downtown Long Beach to the Queen Mary. (You didn’t expect me to walk that far, did you?) With each test I will find out which conveyance is the fastest, the most affordable, and the most enjoyable. Then, I will weigh these results against each other to try and determine an overall winner. So, without further ado, here are the results of our experiment.
The Drive-It-Yourself Method
Arguably no other single invention has had as much of an impact on the Southern California landscape and the lives of its people than the automobile. We have built restaurants, banks, pharmacies and even the occasional wedding chapel that do not require us to ever to leave the comfort and relative security of our cars. According to the National Automobile Dealers Association, we are easily the largest new vehicle market in the country, having purchased more than $91.3 billion worth of new cars and trucks statewide in 2004. We have built a sprawling grid of freeways to accommodate thousands upon thousands of these vehicles and allow them quick and efficient passage. OK, so maybe that last one is a bit outdated, but the fact remains that ours is probably the most auto-centric society on earth.
This brings us to our little urban adventure. The trip began right at 9:30 a.m. on a slightly overcast Saturday, as I and my father (car pool lane ready, though traffic volume did not require it) departed the Arts and Communications Building parking lot to the Queen Mary. It was Arrow, 57, 10, 605, 105, 710 hike—whoops, sorry, wrong game. We took our ticket and parked, taking 49 minutes to cover the 45.4-mile trek.
After doing a little math, “guesstimating” and other quasi-scientific operations, and noting that parking at the Queen from one minute to 12 hours will lighten your wallet by $10, I managed to come up with the cost seen below, derived from using my car, a 1983 Mercedes-Benz 300 SD Turbodiesel, with diesel fuel costing $3.33 per gallon. Total time: 49 minutes. Total cost (fuel and parking) $16.05 (tire wear, engine oil, insurance—well, you know how it goes). Emotional toll: Three therapy sessions. Did I mention the interchange of the 10 and the 605 is the most white-knuckle section of LA freeway this side of the ancient Pasadena Freeway 110 roller coaster? Well, now I did.
Less Magic, More Bus
Let’s face it, when most of us think about traveling by city bus, we usually think of bland, smoke-belching sardine cans on wheels that always carry at least one screaming infant and one middle-aged man with considerably more facial hair than money in their graffiti blanketed interiors. But does the real So Cal bus riding experience live up to this rather unappetizing reputation? Well, yes and no. The bus experiment began with a short walk from the University up to the Foothill Transit Stop on Bonita Avenue between C and D streets. There, I waited almost a half hour for the first westbound bus on the 492 line. Once on board, I fed a dollar bill into the fare machine and took a seat.
The ride was pleasant enough, stopping only where new passengers were waiting or at ones prompted by passengers who jerked the ubiquitous yellow cord strung along the side windows. We arrived at the El Monte Bus Station, a round, spacey-looking two level structure built in the 1970s that, in its present semi-dilapidated state, would not have looked out of place in Tomorrowland. Magic Kingdom vibes aside, we had to get off here because the 492 line only goes beyond El Monte on weekdays; on this day, a Saturday, the way best way into Downtown L.A. is Foothill Transit’s 480 line, which I picked up after a wait of roughly 10 minutes. Being an express line of sorts, this ride costs $3 per person, and since I will be picking up an MTA bus for the third leg of the trip, I shelled out an additional 50 cents each for a transfer ticket.
The bus chugs out of the station and accelerates under Interstate 10 and stops at the corner of Hope Street and Wilshire Boulevard. I hopped off the 480 and walked one block to 7th Street, where I waited roughly 10 minutes for Metropolitan Transit Authority bus No. 60.
Ah, bus 60. The ride started in the heart of Downtown L.A., worked its way south and east through the gritty industrial neighborhoods lining the Los Angeles River’s west bank, then even farther south through an interesting mix of residential areas and shopping districts, including a seemingly endless chain of storefronts in Huntington Park. Then it was down into Long Beach, paralleling the Blue Line right to its downtown Long Beach loop, where I got off to transfer to Passport C, a free shuttle service provided by the Long Beach Transit Authority. A small red bus, the Passport weaves its way through the city’s Shoreline Village, skims by the harbor area and stops at a hotel before finally reaching our destination.
So, did the whole bus riding experience turn out to be the government-operated rolling freak show pop culture has almost invariably depicted it as? Well, not really, but there was the driver of bus 60. Not so much a freak, mind you, but an all around colorful character, this bespectacled African-American woman seemed intent on righting wrongs in her own special way, whether it was harassing a fellow bus driver who kept passing his stops or giving helpful advice and a short free ride to some clueless tourists. Obviously, if all public transportation operators were this engaging, and not the poker-faced monotone speaking androids that dominate the profession, then a lot more people might be willing to consider alternatives to driving. Results: Total time: four hours, 27 minutes. Total cost: $4.50. Emotional toll: Three therapy sessions.
Contrary to what many people might believe, the Southland has not always been so addicted to road travel. For the first half of the 20th century, this region had one of the largest and most highly acclaimed commuter rail systems in the world, a system dominated by the “Big Red Cars” of the Pacific Electric Railway.
Today, the sad irony is that with the freeways and other main thoroughfares rapidly approaching overload, the region’s passenger rail service network is in desperate need of expansion, and many of the “new” lines now in service follow the routes, and in some cases the actual tracks, used by the old “Big Red Cars.” In fact, approximately 90 percent of the Metro Blue Line follows the route of the Pacific Electric Long Beach Line, proving that the decision to dismantle the region’s trolley system was indeed an ill-advised and expensive mistake.
The journey begins with a three block walk from ULV to the Pomona Metrolink station between Fulton Road and Garey Avenue. It is a rather long walk (roughly 20 minutes at a brisk pace), and crossing E Street and White Avenue at First Street can be a patience-sapping and risky affair. My advice: If you have a bicycle, take it. It’s quicker, easier and arguably a bit safer than walking, plus bikes are allowed on all Metrolink and Metro Rail trains (with a handful of exceptions), and you will have transportation once you reach your destination. Once at the station, I purchased my $5 one-way weekend ticket, walked out onto the platform and waited. And waited some more. In the end, the train was exactly 10 minutes late, according to my watch. As far as our experiment is concerned, this was not a significant amount of time, but it could definitely be an issue for other people.
On board, finding a seat was surprisingly difficult, considering this was a Saturday afternoon. Many of the passengers appeared to be families with young children, no doubt on their way to or returning from a weekend day trip. Once seated, it was easy to notice just how pleasant the accommodations were. Each of the distinctive double-decker coaches, built by Canadian transportation conglomerate Bombardier, features a bathroom, a drinking fountain, comfortable cloth seats (including some with tables in between to create a place to eat, use a laptop, play cards) and plenty of sound insulation.
Watching the scenery whiz by the windows was like watching Southern California through a microscope. The train sped past the business parks of San Dimas, the industrial areas of Baldwin Park, and the countless neighborhoods and schools in between before following Interstate 10 and slowly negotiating the labyrinth of tracks along the Los Angeles River and pulling into historic and picturesque Union Station, so named because it was originally served by the Santa Fe, Southern Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads.
Unfortunately, I did not have time to take in all of the sights and sounds present in this shrine to the iron horse, as the clock kept ticking, and I had a subway to catch. As long as one manages to board an MTA bus or train before a certain time printed on the Metrolink ticket (approximately two hours after purchasing the ticket), that ride is included with the original ticket price. The clock had just passed one hour since the train left Pomona as I boarded the subterranean Metro Red Line. The doors slid shut, and the long chain of railcars built speed like a jetliner on takeoff, disappearing into the dull, sparsely lit concrete tube. Inside the train, things were relatively quiet, though the once immaculate furnishings now show the scars of graffiti, hardened chewing gum and scuffed upholstery. Overall, though, the red-trimmed cabin is comfortable, though the ultra thinly padded seats will probably victimize those with delicate posteriors over longer trips.
Fortunately for us, our Red Line journey ends at the fourth station, 7th/Metro Center. Just one floor above the Red Line Station is the northern terminus of the Blue Line. The line travels underground for approximately half a mile before emerging on the east side of Flower Street, just north of Pico Boulevard, the line’s second stop. The Blue Line trolleys, like their cousins that travel exclusively below ground, are beginning to show their age on the inside. But also like the subway cars, the Blue Line cars are comfortable and stylish enough for most people.
After a few miles of sharing the streets with cars and trucks, the line turns southward at Washington Boulevard and Long Beach Avenue onto its own private right of way, a way used heavily by the Pacific Electric so long ago. Along the way, we pass through Compton, Watts and other famous, or rather, infamous communities. The final miles are on the streets of Long Beach, and the line ends in a loop through the heart of Downtown Long Beach. From the line’s southernmost stop, I hopped on the Passport, the same free shuttle bus used earlier, to take me to the Queen Mary. Total time: Exactly three hours. Total cost: $5. Emotional toll: One therapy session. As long as you do not mind operating on someone else’s schedule and riding with strangers, you should be just fine.
What Have We Learned?
So it turns out that the car is the fastest but priciest mode of transportation, the bus is the least expensive but slowest, and the train falls right in between in terms of both speed and price. But what would be my overall pick, you ask? Well, as long as you are not in a hurry, and you do not mind giving up the privacy of your car and, consequently, the ability to do stuff like sing along with your favorite tunes (not that I personally do that . . . not very often, anyway), I would go with the train. It may cost 50 cents more than the bus, and driving takes less than one-third the time, but I think one would agree that it is infinitely more pleasant and relaxing than the other two. Metrolink’s weekday fares are slightly higher for regular customers. Fortunately, many Southland employers now pay for part or all of an employee’s train ticket or pass, making rail travel an even sweeter deal.
Of course, one may disagree with my conclusions, but compromise a little bit, and there are alternatives to paying more than $3 per gallon. After all, some day we may have to make changes to how we get around.