When it comes to mobility beyond the private automobile, bus systems preform a lot of the heavy lifting. They are spatially efficient, carrying dozens of people in a fraction of the space otherwise distributed in cars, are more energy efficient than cars on a per passenger basis and a bus fleet requires fewer metals and other raw resources than mass car use preforming the same function would require. There is a cost of public resources to maintain bus systems, but the cost of doing so is less burdensome than the high private and public spending more car use requires.
For all these reasons and others, buses should be celebrated and prioritized, or at the very least bus riders treated as equally important as people when driving cars. But far too often we expect bus riders to settle for less. This creates unnecessary burdens for those already using the systems, some of whom without access to a car or an ability to drive, and it makes the bus less attractive to utilize, undermining the ridership potential, and exacerbating the dilemma of mass car use.
Locally, the Big Blue Bus system is a decent service. I make use of it often living a post-automobile life in Santa Monica, as well as Metro buses that overlap within Santa Monica. I walk and bike mostly, but for reaching further destinations or for certain circumstances, I go by bus, sometimes transferring to the rail system, to get around the region. The BBB #10 is a particular favorite of mine, and during it’s commuter focused hours of service frequency, it is the best car-free way to get to Downtown L.A. before Expo finishes. My spouse makes even more regular use of BBB in commuting to UCLA, and she is an enthusiastic promoter of public transit who had always disliked driving, preferring to be a relaxed passenger. There are a number of ways in which the service can and should be improved, ranging from the subtle and light in cost detail, to the need for service expansion or frequency improvement requiring new revenue models.
One of the most empowering public transit developments on the personal technology side of the equation has been access to real time estimates of next bus arrival and proliferation of smart phones. The availability of this information is most easily accessed by GPS enabled smart phones, but can be accessed over any phone with a bus stop ID number, that is for services that provide it, such as Metro Los Angeles. Notably absent however has been Big Blue Bus, leaving a fog of only partially reliable scheduled arrivals save for a very few stops downtown with displays.
When it comes to availability of real time data, and smart phone access to that information, in Santa Monica the priority has whether actively intended or not, been on cars. Every public parking structure has a digital sign display of spaces available, and that data is publicly accessible, in a format third party developers can work with. At first, the parking information was a fairly basic Google Map with a few numbers on the city website. With the data available to third parties, ParkMe, which is based in Santa Monica, has built a comprehensive tool that layers public parking data from many sources and places, along with predictive modeling for street parking availability even when real time data for such spaces is not available. Getting all that real time data collected, displayed, and accessible, is not an entirely trivial feat on the city’s part, and I’ve watched as millions of dollars have gone by quietly though agenda items at the city council to modernize various aspects of the parking management systems.
I’ve heard various reasons why Big Blue Bus has been so behind the times with regards to data, technical, contracts with venders, staffing issues. The bottom line is if it were serving automotive convenience, things would have been done by now. In almost every conceivable way our societal leadership, at every level of governance, bends over backward and throws out every available resource chasing the complaints related to driving experience, seeking continual improvements, while largely neglecting the improvement of systems of mobility that do not depend on cars. We need the public transit data to be a public resource for all, not a propriety and closed system, and whatever it takes to make that happen, should be carried out in the public interest wether it complicates some prior contract or not.
This pattern of prioritization on car conveniences and accommodations over transit, is entirely out of sink with goals of equity, sustainability, and improving mobility (since car investments now all chase diminishing returns at ever growing cost, e.g. the 405 widening). Aside from a handful of rail investments in the region, I don’t see a lot of meaningful steps being taken to shift course either. Within Santa Monica, the Big Blue Bus has been allowed to slip behind the times on data access, and the base quality of service has been largely stagnant in the time I’ve been using it Some lines are reliably frequent, but a number of lines are both so sparse, and so frequently late, the absence of data is maddening, such as nearly time I attempt to take the #9 to the Palisades.