The Unbearable Lateness of Buses

The 720 Has a Most Unfortunate Route

Jutta Hoegmander

Arleen Ayala is waiting for one of Los Angeles’s most delayed buses at one of the most delayed stops: the Commerce stop in East Los Angeles of the 720 line.

What awaits her on the other end of the line is no better. She is going to ride the 720 all the way from East Los Angeles to its final stop in Santa Monica, just half a mile from the beach. What these two places have in common is that they are among the worst spots in all of Los Angeles County for bus delays. An analysis conducted by The top two stops for bus delays are both in East Los Angeles. Three of the top ten stops where buses run most behind the schedule are in Santa Monica.

Ayala’s 20-mile trip through Downtown Los Angeles is going to take two hours. That is, if the bus runs on schedule.

“It’s a long time, but what can you do,” Ayala says and shrugs her shoulders.

The former East Los Angeles resident has been visiting her friends and family and is now on her way to meet her husband in Santa Monica, where he works. The family has only one car, so Ayala has to hop on the bus. They will continue the trip together back to their home near Bakersfield.

In a county that is notorious for its chronic congestion and dependence on cars, around one million people ride Metro buses on an average weekday. The 720 is one of the longest and most crowded lines.

But delays impact residents in East Los Angeles much more for the simple reason that they ride the buses much more than people who reside in Santa Monica.

According to the 2010 Census, 97 percent of the people living in East Los Angeles, a swath of the city nestled between Boyle Heights and Montebello, are of Hispanic or Latino origin. The area’s median household income is $38,000, with a quarter of the population living below the federal poverty line. In comparison, people in Santa Monica have a median household income twice that of East Los Angeles, and three out of four are white.

In Los Angeles, as in other parts of the country, public transit is primarily the domain of the poor. Los Angeles Metro’s bus customer survey shows that the median household income of the respondents was just below $15,000. In addition, over 80 percent of survey participants did not have access to a car.

Ayala says that buses are usually packed in East Los Angeles because public transportation there is crucial for people. “The rent is high in East Los Angeles. It’s hard to afford a car or multiple cars and a house at the same time.”

Prof. Brian D. Taylor, the director of the University of California, Los Angeles, Luskin School’s Institute of Transportation Studies, says most riders are at the mercy of the bus system, even if it has chronic delays, because they simply don’t have other options. Public transit is in the US an inferior good. "It means that in general, as your income goes down, you consume more of it,” Taylor says

Bus driver Albert Ballin knows the route of 720 by heart. He used to live in East Los Angeles and has been driving the line for six months now. One shift takes 11 hours, which means he drives the 20 miles route back and forth twice.

“There is a lot of construction and detours on this route. And traffic. We are now running 20 minutes late. That’s quite normal on a Friday morning,” Ballin says.

Metro’s bus schedules are revised every six months. If the on-time performance of the route is low, the schedule might be adjusted to make it more realistic. That can mean that a bus is technically “on time” even if it is crawling through traffic. Still, the 720 struggles to meet its mark on a regular basis.

According to Metro’s own statistics, the 720 is on time nearly 70 percent of the time. For Los Angeles Metro, buses are considered on time when they depart from the bus stop one minute early or five minutes late in relation to the schedule.

Ballin says that passengers get upset by the frequent delays, but there’s not much he can do about it. “The traffic in Los Angeles doesn’t stop. There’s just too many cars.” The 720 is a Metro Rapid bus, which is supposed to guarantee that patrons get to their destination more quickly than locals. Rapid lines have fewer stops, more frequent service and a transit signal system that is designed to reduce the time buses spend waiting at red lights.

Buses that mix with road traffic are most vulnerable to delays. Thus, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has tried to improve the reliability and travel times of the rapid buses with dedicated lanes during rush hour.

There are people who rely on public transportation in Santa Monica too. One in 10 Angelenos who are employed say their main means of getting to work is public transportation. Bryan Plumer travels from Santa Monica to Downtown daily to his job in phone sales. He does not have a car because he trying to save.

Today Plumer had to wait for the bus for nearly half an hour before it showed up, 20 minutes late.

“As I was waiting, I saw four or five 720s pick people up on the other side of the street,” Plumer says. He notes that in the mornings, the service seems better westbound to Santa Monica than eastbound to downtown.

In fact, between 6 am and 7 pm there are a dozen buses leaving from East Los Angeles compared with four that start their journey from Santa Monica.

There is a reason for that. When the bus leaves from Santa Monica in the morning, it is half empty. More and more people hop on the bus as downtown approaches. After Wilshire and Vermont, there is an influx of Spanish-speaking patrons who fill the bus with a pleasant chatter. Soon, there are no seats left.

There is no display that indicates when the next bus will arrive at the most delayed bus stop in the whole of Los Angeles County, the Whittier–Hoefner stop in East Los Angeles. Emily Renteria, who is heading home with her nephew, uses one of many mobile apps that tell when the bus is supposed to arrive.

“Usually it’s not correct,” Renteria says.

That does not matter because the buses run frequently enough to satisfy her needs.

Taylor, the UCLA professor, says that knowing when the next bus arrives is even more important to riders than running on schedule. Thus, the emergence of next bus indicators and apps that estimate the next arrivals.

Apel Bravo lives in East Los Angeles and rides the 720 bus daily to work at a seafood restaurant in Koreatown. Bravo knows that it is hit-or-miss whether the bus is delayed or not, so he leaves his house early to make it to work on time. If he needs to be at work at 4 pm, he has to leave at 2 pm. The 10-mile trip can take from 45 minutes to an hour and fifteen minutes depending on traffic. Despite the delays, Bravo isn’t complaining: “At least they’re working on it. They’re building more subway rails, adding lines, changing the schedule. But what can you do about traffic?”