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No-shows and 'discharging' passengers: Is LA’s Rapid bus line slowing down?

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If you need to get from A to B ASAP on the LA MTA… you could be SOL!

One of the best ideas to come out of the Los Angeles Metro Transportation Authority in recent years was the time-saving Metro Rapid bus line -- the “Limousine” of LA bus service. Since 2000, Metro Rapid’s fewer stops, direct routing and on-board control of traffic signals has given LA commuters an efficient and dependable way to get to work without wasting half their travel time stopped at lights and bus stops, or worse -- wasting half their paycheck on parking, gasoline and psychiatric counseling.

As one who knows the unparalleled joys of negotiating the highways and byways of LA, and believes good public transportation is the only thing that will keep Los Angeles from fully devolving into an automotive version of “Lord of the Flies,” I applaud any idea that gets cars off the road.

However, a conversation I had yesterday with a longtime Rapid bus rider suggested that all may not be well with the Rapid line, or at least with one of its more popular routes in the Valley.

The rider wishes to remain anonymous -- so let’s call her Jessie.

The Pluses

Jessie began our conversation telling me how much she likes riding the Rapid. She had always wanted to take the bus to work but knew the regular buses took too long. However, when she heard about the speedy Rapid bus that ran along Ventura Blvd., she gave it a try the next morning.

The bus’ excellent travel time, good on-board climate control, friendly drivers, clientele of working professionals like her, and most important to Jessie -- a quiet and comfortable place to read -- was exactly what she’d hoped for. She hung up her car keys for good in 2002 and ever since, the bright red bus has taken her from Topanga Blvd. in Woodland Hills to Laurel Cyn. every work day without a single hitch.

Then Came the Hitches

“The first time the bus didn’t come was in mid-January, about three weeks ago,” said Jessie. “I’m on a pretty loose schedule at work so it was no big deal -- I was only a half hour late. I mean, one no-show in ten years is not a cardinal sin. A lot of the other passengers were less than pleased, though.”

But things got worse -- and weird.

“Less than a week later, the oddest thing happened,” Jessie continued. “We were all already on the bus when the driver came on the intercom and told us that our bus was needed somewhere else and we would all have to get off. He told us his orders were to ‘discharge’ the passengers and that we would have to wait for the next bus.”

According to Jessie, the driver had to repeat his request three times before the disbelieving passengers finally filed off the bus -- without receipt or apology -- then watched it roll down Ventura Blvd. with no one but the driver aboard.

“This time, everybody was angry, including me. I had never even heard of that happening anywhere. I don’t care who needed our bus -- was their time more important than mine or my fellow passengers’? For the second time in a week I had to call work and explain that I was going to be late because of bus problems.”

“There was no way I was going to pay my fare again, so I explained to the driver what had happened. I don’t think she believed me but she let me on anyway. Incredibly, I saw a number of people from the first bus pay their whole fare again.”

Jessie wrote to the MTA at its website to ask if there would be passenger “discharges” in the future. As of this writing, nobody from the MTA has responded.

When another no-show occurred two weeks later, Jessie began to fear for her beloved Rapid line. “If it was one driver I wouldn’t be so concerned -- anybody can have a bad patch. But these problems involved different drivers. Ten years riding Rapid buses with no problems whatsoever, and then all of a sudden I'm having to call work three times in as many weeks with a bus excuse? What’s going on with the MTA? Don’t they have back-up buses?”

Fragility of Public Transportation

With Rapid buses carrying tens of thousands of commuters per day over 400 miles of routes, it might seem that three mishaps on one of those routes may not constitute a major problem. But public transportation in Los Angeles is so fragile that any problem -- especially one that makes riders late to work -- is a major problem. And for all we know, three problems in as many weeks could be the harbinger of doom.

There is also the image problem of public transit, most especially buses. Long considered the transportation mode of the poor, new riders on buses would be particularly sensitive to treatment that has a second-class citizen feel to it. So sensitive, in fact, that it could drive them right back behind the wheel of their SUVs in a heartbeat. I suppose unanswered emails from the MTA would elicit similar sensitivity.

We are so tied to our automobiles in Los Angeles, the only way we can be pried out of them is to be absolutely sure that the alternative is better. At least one Rapid rider in the Valley isn’t so sure anymore.

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