Notes on Taking the Bus

I generally prefer to walk or ride my bicycle to get around the neighborhood, but sometimes distance or time requires that I use the car. And when that’s not possible — in the interest of consuming less oil (and everything else) we only have one automobile in our family now –I avail myself of public transportation. We have a subway system here in Los Angeles. Compared to New York, Paris, and London, it’s faster, cleaner, and more comfortable. It also connects to far fewer places in our attenuated metropolis. Some destinations are miles from the nearest subway stop. In those cases, one must take the bus. This is something I used to do a lot when I was a poor teenager, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In the intervening 25 years or so, much about the bus experience has changed. But some things are just as I remember them. 

+ In the olden days, one paid fare entitled you to a transfer. This was a little piece of tissue-thin paper the driver handed you as you boarded. It was good for something like an hour from the time you began your first ride. If you needed to catch another bus to connect to your final destination, your transfer was your ticket. Nowadays, each bus in LA requires a separate fare. For example, to get to the USC campus from Hollywood, a trip of about one hour, requires at least two buses, at $1.25 each. (Subways seem to have the universal rule: so long as you stay below ground you may switch trains for free; once you exit the tunnel you must pay again.) The Day Pass used to cost $3 for unlimited rides. Now it’s $5. If your round-trip commute requires three different buses each way, it’s a bargain.

+ The automobile is one of our great class signifiers. People with money in Los Angeles generally don’t ride the bus, unless their drunk-driving conviction resulted in a suspended license. Most poor people who regularly ride the bus aspire to owning a car, which offers the illusory promise of eliminating the indignities of public transportation: the waiting, the crowding, the objectionable conversations and music and smells. They see individuals in their individual cocoons, going on whatever path they prefer instead of the MTA-prescribed route, and they see freedom. What they don’t see are the shackles of insurance payments, gasoline, rush-hour traffic, and all the other stuff that car owners must endure. Few regular bus riders would understand why someone who could afford a car wouldn’t want one.

+ In New York and London, almost everyone takes the subway, regardless of sanity. In places like, say, Milwaukee, mostly the disenfranchised and working poor take the bus. In Los Angeles, it seems to me that there are more students, immigrants, and lower-class laborers on the bus than there are scary people mumbling to themselves. Still, it wouldn’t be The Bus if there weren’t a few of these crazy folks excorcizing their demons in public. No one pays them any mind.

+ These days, they have TV news (in English and Spanish) playing on a little screen behind the driver’s seat, which helps to keep the passengers narcotized, much like the Sponge Bob videos soccer moms play in their fortress SUVs.

+ Between 4-7PM, on the major LA arteries, the lanes beside the curbs, which are used for parking during the day, become no stopping zones. This aids traffic flow by approximately 50%. Cars that are parked in these lanes during the rush-hours are subject to towing. When you are a bus rider, the wisdom of this law — and its stringent enforcement û becomes acutely clear. Indeed, whenever the unimpeded progress of your rumbling bus gets interrupted by a scofflaw parked in the tow-away zone, you find yourself rooting for the police truck to get there before the owner does. Don’t stand in the way of public transit!

+ Broadsheets are not practical on the bus. Tabloids are. Perhaps there is a correlation between the content of tabloids and the public bus: If you must suffer the collective dismay of taking the bus you are probably not commanding a broadsheet-worthy income, because, if the standard formulation is correct, you are not well-educated or ambitious; thus, you will be more interested in the lowest-common-denominator content of a tabloid, which will never talk above you or your station in life.

+ Before riding the bus, the last time I saw certain Los Angeles neighborhoods — or even knew they existed — was when I ran the Los Angeles Marathon. Ours is a spectacularly ethnically diverse and polyglot city, with pockets of miniature El Salvadors, Armenias, Koreas, Eritreas, and Guatemalas speckled between redoubts of Russia, India, and the Philippines. Bus riders can dine cheaply and well at almost every stop on the MTA map, especially if you’re willing to eat delicious-smelling dishes you cannot pronounce.

+ Riding the bus to most places in Los Angeles usually takes longer than driving. But you can read, think, sleep, and maybe even dream more than when piloting a car. And you can convince yourself that you’re helping make the world, however incrementally, a tiny, tiny bit better by taking an automobile off the road. 

You may also like...