Metro bus 733 pulls out of the Patsaouras Transit Plaza at 7:02 p.m. with only two passengers on board. For the next 20 minutes it winds its way through downtown Los Angeles without picking up another rider.
That’s perhaps to be expected: Metro data singles it out as the worst performing bus of the entire fleet of around 2400 buses.
The 733 covers a distance of 22 miles before hitting its final destination on Ocean/Santa Monica. According to the official Metro schedule, it should take the bus anywhere between 1 hour 12 minutes to 1 hour 45 minutes to cover this distance, depending on whether it’s rush hour or not.
Metro is notorious for poor performance times. In 2008, it surveyed other big-city transit systems including Dallas, New York, Boston, and Chicago and found that its buses were the least reliable in terms of performance. While it did not attribute it to a single factor, it noted the deteriorating performance may be due to “traffic congestion [and] increased revenue hours and miles operated with no increase in staffing,” meaning Metro currently is short-staffed and employees work long hours driving through abysmal traffic conditions.
Over the past five years, data collected by Metro from the GPS on their buses, and analyzed by the University of Southern California’s Integrated Media Systems Center and Annenberg School of Journalism shows that performance has not improved. For the 733, GPS data shows that the average delay is 5.5 minutes, which is the highest among all bus routes currently in operation. That can bring the total journey time to 1 hour 50 minutes, if one were traveling from one terminus to another during rush hour. The total average delay over a period of a month can be almost 135 minutes.
To put the numbers in perspective, the total time taken to cover the 18 miles between 7th Street/Metro Center in downtown LA and downtown Santa Monica on the Metro Expo Line train is, on an average, 47 minutes. According to Google, driving from Patsaouras Transit Plaza to Ocean/Arizona takes anywhere between 39 minutes to an hour, depending on traffic.
“I try to not take this route regularly, but when I do, it feels like forever just to cover a distance that should take twenty minutes tops,” says 733 passenger Eric Lee.
Four stops later, at the crossing of Main and 1st, the bus gets a few more passengers. Most are on their way home from work. As the bus makes it way through downtown, it frequently slows down at traffic snarls. The number of passengers increase, but the time at which the bus is supposed to reach each stop deviates more and more from the official schedule. The schedule lists 8:24 pm as the time when it’s supposed to reach Venice/LaBrea but on three different occasions, it deviated by three, five and seven minutes.
The slowness of the 733 is particularly problematic because it is listed as one of Metro’s express buses, part of its “bus rapid transit system,” or BRTS, that typically have fewer stops to improve efficiency.
While its rush hour performance is poor, it does a better job of staying on schedule later in the day. “I’ve taken this both during the day and night and I definitely reach home quicker if I take the evening bus,” says Brad Holt of Santa Monica.
Four commutes along the entirety of this route bring out a singular characteristic — the bus fails to pick up a considerable amount of speed at any given point. Having fewer stops does not do much to improve the overall situation. Ridership data by Metro says that in 2016, an estimated 234 people in total have taken the bus each day during weekdays, 48 on Saturdays and 53 on Sundays. Metro Rapid low-floor bus design allows for lower “dwell time.” that is, fewer minutes spent on boarding the bus. That rules out the possibility of increased ridership leading to delays because buses are spending more time at stops.