Blue State Blues: 135 Miles, 18 Buses, 13 Hours, 4 Dollars, 1 Day
On Thursday, June 19th, I rode every single bus in the “Big Blue Bus” system run by the City of Santa Monica, California. That's 18 individual bus lines (a nineteenth, which serves Santa Monica College, has closed for the summer).
I accomplished the feat without riding any individual line more than once. From dawn to dusk, over more than 15 hours, and 135 miles, I traveled the length and breadth of the Big Blue Bus network and the west side of L.A. for the single-day fare of $4.00, seeing the city from within its highly underused public transport system.
Well, first of all, like any challenge in navigation, to prove that it could be done.
The helpful clerk at the Big Blue Bus transit store, on 4th and Broadway in downtown Santa Monica, had been amused the day before when I told him why I needed the individual maps for every single bus route in the system.
(Those maps proved invaluable—as did the Big Blue Bus online trip planner, the LA Metro trip planner, Big Blue Bus customer service, and—of course—the drivers.)
I studied the system map, and used my intuition to craft an efficient route—while using the schedules to make sure there were about 15 minutes to spare for each transfer.
I wanted to leave myself the option of taking earlier buses if they arrived, without relying on them. And I planned to finish with the second-to-last bus of the day; that way, if I missed earlier buses, I would not have to abort the trip.
Another reason I attempted the challenge was simply to show my friends and neighbors what public transportation in our car-obsessed, traffic-plagued city is really like.
My friend, mentor, and former boss, the late Andrew Breitbart, found it bizarre—and perhaps a bit suspicious—that I showed up to work every day by bus.
It wasn’t just that our conservative news website was highly skeptical of government-run industry, “green” transportation subsidies, and utopian planning. It was also that Andrew had grown up in L.A. and, like many others, had come to know the city from behind a steering wheel. I don’t think he had ever been on a bus in his life.
Yet California is a state whose immense entrepreneurial energies were unleashed, in part, by wise investments in public infrastructure: dams and aqueducts especially, but also rail, roads, and public conveyances, like the ubiquitous cable car of San Francisco.
Our Big Blue Bus has certainly made life easier for me in the three years I’ve been living here, and there are days when I’ve navigated my entire day’s tasks on a few buses.
So—why not take it to the next level?
What follows is a chronicle of my day's journey--written entirely along the duration of the ride.
5:30 a.m. - Rapid 10 - Downtown Santa Monica to Union Station - 6:13 a.m.
The starting point for my journey is the Rapid 10 line, which is an express bus that runs from the famed Third Street Promenade in downtown Santa Monica to Union Station in downtown L.A., making only a few local stops before hitting Interstate 10 (which runs the width of the southern U.S.).
The Rapid 10 is actually my starting point on many other work days, when I appear on an Canada's Sun News on a live feed from Hollywood, which I reach via a link to the Red Line subway.
The first bus of the day is at 5:30. It starts out almost completely empty—with one or two familiar faces—and fills quickly with commuters heading into the city center.
It is a quiet ride, a ride of working men and women preparing for the day, reading the newspaper, listening to the radio.
I usually set up my mobile wireless modem and edit the Breitbart California website while I prepare for my 6:00 a.m. conference call. By the time I have to speak, I’m typically off the bus already.
In the winter, with the late sunrise, it is a commute in darkness. This particular summer morning should be overcast, owing to the typical “June gloom” that hovers over the southern California coast at this time of year. Yet aside from a few low wispy puffs, the sky is clear.
The sun begins to emerge early over the mountains, throwing bright shadows through the still-calm streets. Police keep watch near coffee shops; homeless people rise from their overnight perches and gather their belongings silently.
Inscription: "The Vision to See, The Faith to Believe, The Courage to Do"
We end at Union Station, a dignified Mission Revival building celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.
Unlike central train stations in many other big cities, Union Station is not only a place to pass through but also a place to meet, with coffee shops and mosaic-tiled garden courtyards.
It is still part of L.A.’s urban grit, however: on this particular morning, LAPD officers are arresting two men across the street, and a fistfight nearly breaks out in the passage to the rail platforms.
6:30 a.m. - L.A. Metro Purple Line to Wilshire/Western - 6:43 a.m.
My only deviation from the Big Blue Bus network today is the Purple Line subway, which connects Union Station with the Wilshire/Western station in Koreatown, and my next bus.
The Red Line, Blue Line, and Expo Line trains also connect with the Big Blue Bus system at various points, though none yet in Santa Monica. Construction is under way to extend the Expo Line from its current terminus in Culver City to downtown Santa Monica, linking downtown L.A. to the sea.
It is unfashionable, among my Santa Monica neighbors, to welcome the Expo Line as a good idea. Locals are nostalgic for a quieter time, when Santa Monica felt cozier--a beach town in its own space, with less traffic and lower rents. And perhaps it is not worth the public expense to satisfy what is largely a vanity project for big-city politicians who thought riding a bus to the beach just wasn’t good enough.
Still, I can’t help liking the idea, which I expect to simplify my own commutes.
6:48 a.m. - Rapid 7 to Rimpau Transit Center - 6:55 a.m.
The Rapid 7 starts in Koreatown and clatters through Mid-Wilshire along Crenshaw and Pico Blvd., past signs in foreign languages, picking up workers heading west.
The bus I am riding happens to be one of the extra-long variety, which are theoretically more spacious, but which always feel cramped because the unforgiving seats are arranged in such odd configurations.
I get off at the Rimpau Transit Center, which has—helpfully—a Starbucks and a corner view of Pico Blvd.
7:24 a.m. - Route 13 to Pico and Westwood - 8:02 a.m.
Bus 13 is the oddest route in the entire Big Blue Bus system. The clerk at the Transit Store almost seemed to discourage me from taking it: it runs only a few times a day, heading west in the morning and east in the evening. The Transit Store does not even keep paper versions of the route map, though there are maps and timetables online.
The passengers appear to be domestic workers going to wealthy homes in Beverlywood or gleaming offices in Century City. Small groups of women gather at the boarding platform, exchanging gossip, sharing exotic foods, selling knickknacks and international calling cards.
It strikes me, after a few minutes, that the only time I have heard English in the time since I arrived at Rimpau was in the Starbucks, where the baristas switched into, and out of, Spanish.
I am reminded that to ride the public transportation system, whether the L.A. Metro or Big Blue Bus, is to enter a cultural and economic world often shrouded from public perceptions of L.A.
The bus—one of the newer, miniature models, funded by the controversial federal stimulus in 2009—rattles to life.
I am the only Anglo on the packed bus—and, for several minutes, the only man as well.
Ironically, the neighborhood is somewhat familiar to me, as Pico-Robertson is the heart of L.A.’s Jewish community, with occasional Hebrew and Persian storefronts. Yet inside the bus is an entirely different world: a Mesoamerica passing through a makeshift Middle East.
We turn south along Robertson, then west again along Airdrome, back to Pico and past Avenue of the Stars—Century City’s main thoroughfare—before turning south to wind through the greenery of Cheviot Hills.
The bus slowly empties as we make several stops near gallant mansions with lush gardens. I am the lone passenger when we finally emerge into humbler surroundings and reach Pico and Westwood.
There is no return journey on Route 13 until the day’s shift is done.
8:13 a.m. - Rapid 12 to UCLA - 8:25 a.m.
As I wait for the Rapid 12 across the street from the Westside Pavilion, I note that every bus I have taken thus far today—in the middle of morning rush hour—has been on time. The Rapid 12, too, shows up bang on the dot.
It is full, as the Route 13 was for most of its route, but the clientele is strikingly different: almost everyone on the bus seems to be a student. The mood is pensive and quiet as people browse their smartphones, listening to their own soundtracks.
The bus continues north through the heart of Westwood, past banks and retail stores and coffee shops. We pass the Jules Stein Eye Institute, where my wife drove me for an emergency late last year, after my daughter—then just 22 months old—accidentally scratched my eye as she stretched, having woken up in the middle of the night. I was literally seeing triple, not double. The ophthalmologist laughed sympathetically and told me it would heal after a few days’ rest.
We turn east, entering the UCLA campus itself. This is familiar territory: my brother studied here and graduated summa in 2005, having majored in Economics and Classics. He now owns two grilled cheese restaurants—an enterprise for which, apparently, Latin is excellent preparation.
The campus has been rocked lately by political turmoil. Anti-Israel students have pushed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the forefront of student council elections. Debate also continues to rage around UCLA’s alleged use of race in college admissions. And Hillary Clinton kicked off her presidential campaign early with a lecture in March.
Personally, the best speech I’ve heard here was by then-Sesame Street CEO Gary Knell at my brother’s graduation. He brought Cookie Monster along, who suffered an onstage breakdown in his effort to transition from cookies to broccoli.
The message to students: be the best you can be, but always be true to who you really are.
8:31 a.m. - Route 1 to Venice - 9:56 a.m.
The Rapid 12 arrives at its destination ten minutes early. A short walk uphill and across an intersection, and I’m at the Hilgard bus terminal, the departure point for half a dozen Big Blue Bus lines that service the UCLA campus.
I make the Route 1 bus—again, on time—and the driver poses for a picture.
We talk about my bus odyssey, and he says there is less traffic than usual throughout the system because school is out; during the school year, he says, delays can run up to 20-30 minutes.
The bus heads south along Westwood, and west along Santa Monica Blvd., one of the main streets throughout Los Angeles. Driving to Hollywood by car, it is often quicker to take Santa Monica, a “side street,” than it is to take the congested freeways.
Even the buses have a rough time during rush hour, though—as I can attest from having traveled Route 1 many times before (my company’s two previous headquarters were both near Santa Monica and Interstate 405).
Route 1 is reliable enough, even with delays, to rely upon for everyday errands, simply because a new bus leaves every 15 minutes or so. There are a few fantastic stores along the way: the Nu Art and Laemmle Royal art theaters; a Persian kosher supermarket at Santa Monica and Colby, an outstanding piano showroom at the corner of Santa Monica at Centinela. And as the bus nears downtown Santa Monica, the enticing Pacific Ocean appears ever closer.
From downtown, the bus heads south along Ocean Boulevard, providing passengers with one of the most beautiful views in the United States: the vista from the Santa Monica bluffs over the bay, with the iconic Santa Monica Pier in the foreground, the Malibu coastline to the north, and—on a smog-free day—the twin mounts of Catalina Island in the distance to the west.
This is where the road literally ends, where Route 66 stopped at the coast, a Manifest Destiny fulfilled again.
Santa Monica Pier--note the interior bus lights reflected in the window
Route 1 then heads south along Main Street, Santa Monica’s trendy hipster alternative to downtown, and on into Venice. On a busy weekend afternoon, there is no better way to avoid traffic and parking near the beach than tot travel by bus.
When she had just learned to walk, I took my daughter on Route 1 for her first bus trip. She was eager to catch it--then frightened by the cavernous interior and the PA voice from nowhere announcing the stops. Soon, she delighted again in the ride.
When the bus reaches Venice Beach, I hop off—I’ll catch the next one—for a quick detour to the Venice boardwalk.
The boardwalk stirs late, especially on a weekday, but the hawkers and barkers are already out, and there are a few pickup basketball games in the gentle morning sunshine.
I pause for a tub of tart, freshly-chopped fruit before returning to the bus stop, where I catch the next bus, an extended Route 1 service that winds into Venice itself along artsy Abbot Kinney.
10:13 a.m. - Rapid 3 to LAX - 10:41 a.m.
For the first time all day, a bus is late—and not by much (only four minutes). The Rapid 3 bus is preceded, unexpectedly, by the regular Route 3. Both travel to the airport along Lincoln Blvd., which—while lively—is possibly the least scenic stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway along its entire route.
The Rapid 3 stops less frequently, and saves a few minutes if you have a flight to catch. On this occasion, while the Route 3 is standing-room-only, the Rapid 3 that follows is nearly empty.
There are only five other passengers on the entire extra-long bus, including a young man in a green muscle tank top who is accompanies by two gorgeous dark-skinned girls in bright bikinis under loose-flowing tops.
They disembark at Marina Del Rey, an upscale community that always feels remote from the rest of Los Angeles, self-contained in its world of yachts and beachfront flats and luxury high-rises—though the Marina also has the only Home Depot for miles around.
On the other side of the inlet is Playa Del Rey, with new high-tech headquarters and condos, then Loyola Marymount University.
I can’t pass LMU without remembering the basketball player Hank Gathers, who died suddenly in 1990—during a game—from a heart condition. He had just slam-dunked the ball, turned to run, and fell. His team honored him by reaching the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament that year.
It is a vivid, though sad, memory from a childhood of watching sports.
We turn into the sprawling airport complex as commercial jets fly overhead.
The bus driver has compensated for leaving Venice late by arriving at LAX early. If I had a flight to catch, I would be thrilled.
However, since I am only taking in the view, and waiting 20 minutes for another bus back to Santa Monica, I must endure a few extra minutes at the windswept Green Line Aviation Metro station—a terminus where, regretfully, I have waited for more than a few late buses.
11:01 a.m. - Route 3 to Montana - 12:06 p.m.
While waiting for the Route 3, I note an ad for a film plastered on the side of a Rapid 3 bus parked at the station.
The issue of advertising on buses is a contentious one, as I learned by watching a debate on the Santa Monica City Council’s cable channel a few years ago.
The AIDS Walk was about to be staged in Los Angeles, and local activists showed up at the City Council, demanding to know why they were barred from advertising the event on the Big Blue Buses.
The Santa Monica city attorney patiently explained the reason for the ban—which applies only to non-profit groups (a further irony in a town whose political climate has earned it the nickname, “People’s Republic of Santa Monica").
Suppose, she said, just hypothetically, a “traditional values” group wanted to use the buses to advertise their views on marriage—wouldn’t there be some in the community who would be offended? Wouldn’t there be a public outcry to take the ads down?
The history of First Amendment jurisprudence allows government restrictions on the “time, place and manner” of speech, so long as such restrictions are clear, limited, and completely impartial with regard to the content of speech.
The same holds for the regulation of religious expression—and, indeed, the city had resolved a recent atheist challenge to the decades-old traditional Nativity scene in Palisades Park by banning all permanent religious displays on park grounds.
So public service ads, political ads, and ads by non-profit organizations in general had to be kept off the city’s bus fleet--for everyone.
That explanation actually seemed to satisfy the activists who had come to complain. Since some could not handle free speech, no one could have it.
Today we seem to regard the right not to be offended as superior to the right to freedom of expression. We expect so little resilience from individuals, so little tolerance for real differences—so little of what was once called “character.”
I don’t blame the buses, though.
The Route 3 makes its way northwards, after several stops in LAX and Westchester, the area near the airport. Passengers—some lugging suitcases, others merely hopping on the bus to commute to afternoon-shift jobs or shopping trips—quickly fill the seats.
A woman in an Islamic hijab boards and attracts almost no attention. Nor do the black teenagers, with fashionable sneakers and brand-name emblazoned shirts, joking and bantering in the back of the bus. A snapshot of diversity.
The sky remains a brilliant bright blue, the traffic heavy but fluid as the bus finally reaches downtown Santa Monica, swinging left around Samohi, the high school that has produced a wide variety of celebrities, from actor Sean Penn to Watergate’s John Ehrlichman.
We run into the lunch-hour crunch near the Promenade—a mini-jam that lasts through the evening on summer nights—before finally reaching the residential neighborhood north of Wilshire Blvd.
The Route 3 turns right at Montana Ave., and cruises through what is one of the loveliest and most laid-back high-fashion districts in the country. Gourmet coffee shops alternate with designer dressmakers. Friends meet for lunch on outdoor tables at Italian restaurants. Children flock to the frozen yogurt store across from the school.
In this placid commercial idyll, Route 3 has once again—miraculously—arrived on time, leaving me the chance to quaff a quick skinny latte.
12:21 p.m. - Crosstown 41 to Santa Monica College - 12:32 p.m.
The Crosstown 41 is one of two “Mini Blue” lines in the Big Blue Bus system. Nominally, they assist commuters in reaching Santa Monica College, but practically their purpose is to allow people to switch between the main east-west routes without having to go all the way downtown.
Along the way, the City Council has begun erecting new bus stop signs, which look like stiff plastic toadstools and function (for one or two people, at least) as shelters from the sun and (rare) rain.
Heading south from Montana, the Crosstown passes several interesting landmarks, and crosses Olympic Blvd. several blocks west of the artists’ compound at Bergamot Station.
Recently, the City Council overturned a prior decision to allow a developer to build a joint office and residential complex there. A group of residents organized an effort to fight the project, ostensibly because the complex would mean an extra 7,000 vehicles per day on local roads.
Their efforts succeeded earlier this year when the City Council abrogated the contract. The jubilant residents, now embracing the term “residocracy,” looked forward to exerting even greater power over local development—and, through Santa Monica, the world in general.
The vexing question of how to build affordable housing in Santa Monica, where rents are controlled but sky-high, and purchasing is out of the question, will no doubt be dealt with by the "residocrats." One day.
12:38 p.m. - Sunset 44 to Santa Monica Airport - 12:49 p.m. (return: 1:06 to 1:20)
Santa Monica actually has an airport. And it’s fantastic.
Not only is it available for use by civilian pilots, but it also provides public amenities in the form of a little aviation museum, a center for small business, classroom space for Santa Monica College, and more.
The Sunset 44 serves the campus, not the hangars, but once you are on the grounds you can walk to the Museum of Flying, or drop in on any one of several aviation companies offering private flying lessons.
Museum of Flying, Santa Monica Airport
A committed group of local activists is determined to close the airport and turn it into a park. Santa Monica is already teeming with parks, including miles and miles of spectacular beach. The real motives are concern about global warming, local air pollution, and property prices—probably in that order.
On April Fools’ Day, the local newspaper ran a front-page story about how activists had carved up the airstrip using bulldozers, in the style of Chicago’s Mayor Daley.
Yet the airport has a surprising amount of local support as well. Though few people in Santa Monica actually use the facility for flying, many residents regard the airport with a mixture of civic pride and wonder. A recent ballot initiative to require any future changes to the airport to be approved by referendum gathered over 15,000 signatures—6,000 more than it needed to qualify for the November vote.
Perhaps people like the idea that you can ride the bus to your private jet!
1:22 p.m. - Route 7 to Pico-Robertson - 1:51 p.m.
Either running late or early, the Route 7 is ready to go when I alight from the Sunset 44 at Santa Monica College.
The bus stop is not too far from the point where, a year ago, a crazed gunman arrived on campus, having killed his father and brother and set his house on fire, and attempted to shoot innocent students in the library. The wounds from that event are still fresh, and the incident is still discussed in the ongoing national debate about how to deal with the threat of mass shootings.
Pico Blvd. is one of the most important arteries in Los Angeles. Two large neighborhoods are named according to where they intersect with Pico: Pico-Union and Pico-Robertson, which are Latino and Jewish, respectively.
The Big Blue Bus system does not serve Pico-Union directly—the closest it comes are the Rapid 10’s downtown stops on the eastern side of the 110 freeway—but several major routes serve the Pico-Robertson area, along with other municipal buses.
Already today, I have traveled along Pico twice before boarding the Route 7: first on the Rapid 7 from Koreatown to Rimpau, then along Route 13’s zigzag through the residential areas nearby.
This eastbound trip is a straight shot through the neighborhood officially known as West Los Angeles (as opposed to the more general geographical term, “west side”). It is a trip I make often—especially when I am too tired to cook, and the many kosher restaurants of Pico-Robertson beckon my appetite.
Why are there so many kosher restaurants in L.A.? Chicago, after all, has more Jews, but far fewer kosher restaurants—a handful, rather than several dozen.
The reason is simply that the large Persian and Sephardic (Jews of Spanish or Middle Eastern origin) communities in L.A. are more interested in eating kosher food when they dine out, even if they are not otherwise religiously observant.
It is largely a cultural, first-generation immigrant phenomenon—and thank God for it.
Kosher food, Arabic script, Pico-Robertson
There’s more than food to Pico-Robertson—although I will make a beeline for the kosher sushi counter when I arrive. There are also countless small retailers, selling all manner of furnishings and Judaica.
One fascinating nearby intersection is at Doheny Drive—named for Edward L. Doheny, the first person to strike oil successfully in L.A.. Today, L.A. produces about 1.5 million barrels of oil annually—some at pumpjacks, others from wells disguised in the urban landscape.
Nearby is an Orthodox Jewish girls’ school run by the Hasidic movement known as Chabad. The school is contstructed in the style of 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, the residence and academy of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, otherwise known as the “Rebbe,” the seventh and last leader of the Lubavitch movement, which continues to grow even twenty years after his passing.
2:32 p.m. - Route 5 to Sawtelle - 2:53 p.m.
I pick up Route 5 on Pico Blvd. But the secret to this route is Olympic Blvd., the next major artery to the north.
Olympic tends to avoid major congestion, partly because it does not have on-ramps or off-ramps to the 405. If you are simply trying to travel east-west during rush hour, Olympic—and Route 5—offer the best alternatives.
I am also partial to this route because its terminus in downtown Santa Monica is a bank whose parking lot hosts the local ice rink in the winter.
Route 5 also runs right into the heart of Century City—which is where seemingly every talent agent, entertainment lawyer, or programming executive in L.A. seems to work.
I have fond—yes, fond—memories of taking the three-day-long California bar exam at the Hyatt Century Plaza, retiring at the end of each day’s eight-hour ordeal to the outdoor bar at the top of the Westfield Mall, slowly drinking Coronas and waiting for the afternoon traffic to settle.
Unfortunately, Route 5 is the first bus that is seriously late today—so late that it did not, in fact, show up for its scheduled stop. (The next scheduled bus arrived up exactly on time.)
One of the passengers I chatted to on board—a regular, apparently—said that Route 5 has been having service problems.
One we left Century City, we seemed to fly through West L.A., the distant silhouette of the 405 overpass hanging over the seven-lane boulevard, the promise of Santa Monica beyond.
3:07 p.m. - Route 4 to Santa Monica Civic Center - 3:53 p.m.
Route 4 is special to me, because it was the first Big Blue Bus route I ever rode. It stopped right outside the first office that Andrew Breitbart ever had, aside from his basement, which is where I joined him in 2011 when I started working for him. (It’s close to the present-day headquarters of Breitbart News, as well.)
There is a tremendous amount to see along the route as well, if you know what to look for as it traces an arc north, east, and south from Sawtelle to Santa Monica.
The westward route starts on the corner of Sawtelle Blvd. and Olympic Blvd., in the heart of a part of L.A. that once resisted joining the city proper, and where early generations of Japanese immigrants settled in the twentieth century.
That Japanese presence is still powerful: there are Japanese schools along Sawtelle, Japanese supermarkets, Japanese bonsai nurseries, and even summer interns from Japan who travel to L.A. to work for Japanese companies.
Shortly after I started working in the neighborhood, the tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster struck, and the Japanese grocery near our office was festooned with handwritten posters asking for contributions to relief efforts. Inside the store, the television was permanently tuned to Japanese satellite news channels. The street seemed mournful, gripped by the fate of friends and relatives on the other side of the beautiful yet destructive Pacific Ocean.
Once, I happened to sit at the local Starbucks next to a man who had grown up in the area prior to the Second World War. He and his family had been interned in camps, he said, and they came back to a neighborhood that was never truly theirs again in the same way.
But he loved the neighborhood, and took great interest in its rapid changes—changes so sweeping that you can almost miss the Japanese influence if you fail to pay attention on the short first leg of Route 4’s journey.
At the top of Sawtelle, Route 4 enters the Veterans Administration facility in West L.A., a sprawling campus that includes the local V.A. hospital. For that reason, there are often several vets on the bus, nursing old war wounds or new ailments.
The V.A. campus is attractive but threadbare, and there are efforts to urge Congress to invest in it as a living facility for the thousands of homeless veterans who live on the streets and beaches in southern California.
On the other side of the V.A., Route 4 hits San Vicente Blvd. in Brentwood, one of the trendiest areas of L.A. and a prime local spot for shopping and celebrity-spotting. Further west, in Santa Monica, the bus turns south on 26th Street, passing the rural-chic Brentwood Country Mart (since when did the classic general store serve cappuccinos with elaborate milk foam art?). The bus turns west again through the quiet residential streets that run parallel to San Vicente and include some of the most beautiful and tasteful homes in Los Angeles, and indeed the country. (The eastbound Route 4 simply follows San Vicente, which widens to include a lush, exercise-friendly median.)
At 4th and San Vicente, Route 4 turns south towards downtown Santa Monica. A few blocks north, however, are the infamous Santa Monica stairs: a long, elaborate stairwell down to the canyon below. There are several different sets of stairs, in fact, each of which offers a convenient way to exercise--and to be seen doing so. Models in yoga pants abound, as do celebrities like hip-hop billionaire Dr. Dre, and ordinary folks in old sneakers simply hoping to get a few flights in on their lunch hour.
Finally, Route 4 crosses over the Interstate 10 at its starting point, and concludes at Olympic and Avenída Mazatlan, in between police/fire headquarters and the courthouse, near City Hall and the civic administration.
Santa Monica City Hall
Across Main Street sits the Rand Corporation, once of the world’s most prominent think tanks—and where my wife happens to work. Nearby is the brand-new Tongva Park, and the beach and the Santa Monica Pier are only a short, leisurely walk away downhill.
Tongva Park, looking out across Ocean Blvd.
4:23 p.m. - Route 9 to Pacific Palisades - 4:54 p.m. (return: 5:01 p.m. - 5:24 p.m.)
The Big Blue Bus that leaves Santa Monica for Pacific Palisades a route like any other. And yet it transcends the entire system. Not just because it passes along a brief but breathtaking stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, from which you can see surfers and even dolphins in the ocean. Not just because it climbs the hills among tidy mansions and ambles down the village-like center of one of America’s richest neighborhoods.
No—Route 9 is special because of where it ends.
The terminus is at the corner of Sunset—yes, the same Sunset Boulevard that runs through the bright glitz of Hollywood—and Marquez Ave. The intersection itself is rather nondescript. Yet it is perched above the last hairpin bend before Sunset dips and winds toward the Pacific, down the curve of a dramatic valley.
At the center of that valley are the sculpted lake and gardens of the Self-Realization Fellowship, whose meditation shrine preserves a peace where road meets sea.
I have spent many afternoons with my daughter at that shrine, after fetching her from her day care nearby. Usually we take our car, but there are days when we walk through the gardens, up a long staircase, through the foyer of the white-and-purple-domed sanctuary, out through the top gate and around the hairpin to the Sunset/Marquez stop where Route 9 begins.
Sometimes we hop off in Pacific Palisades for a snack, and hop on again. Sometimes we go straight home. Route 9 stops mere steps away from our front door, which means that we know the serenity of that vista is but one ride away. And the thought of being carried to that mountainside, rather than driving through traffic, is redemptive in itself.
Route 9 delivers what high-end airlines promise their first-class service provides: you arrive at your destination feeling better than when you left. Not because of creature comforts, but because you have touched something sublime.
5:26 p.m. - Route 2 to West Los Angeles - 5:42 p.m.
Wilshire Blvd. is the mother of all side streets in Los Angeles. It is Santa Monica’s main drag, the central artery of Westwood, the only street that divides Beverly Hills without (like Santa Monica) being itself divided. Like Pico, it has bestowed its name upon neighborhoods.
Yet Wilshire is more powerful than Pico: in Mid-Wilshire, for example, the boulevard remains the noun, the neighborhood the adjective.
Other streets have multiples. There is really only one Wilshire.
And yet the Big Blue Bus devoted to Wilshire is number 2—secondary.
Santa Monica Blvd. has number 1—and it is clear why: it runs right through the middle of all the other routes, nearly as far northeast as any other, nearly as far southwest as the airport-bound 3.
Route 1 is primary to the entire network in a way that Route 2 simply is not.
But Route 2 still manages to seem imposing, superior, definitive. It is not so much a secondary route as a kind of route emeritus.
To transfer from Route 9 to Route 2 is jarring. One leaves behind the sacred and confronts the mundane--on a grand scale. As Route 9 is defined by the ocean, the mountains, and the homes, so Route 2 is defined by traffic, skyscrapers, and government property.
The defining feature of Route 9 is the shrine that just beyond its reach. The key landmark on Route 2 is the sepulchral Federal Reserve Bank across the 405, before the bus turns—reluctantly—off Wilshire to UCLA.
As the bus leaves the boundary of Santa Monica proper, it passes underneath an arch, a stark steel curve with a sharp zigzag at its apex. The abstract shape recalls the iconic arch of the Santa Monica Pier—along Route 1, this morning—but does not pay homage to the pier as much as indicate, in that zigzag, Wilshire's contempt for hedonistic pleasures.
Wilshire is worldly but austere, defined by duty: the corporate office towers, the highway interchange, the national cemetery. Its only nod to the spiritual is the icon of Santa Monica at Wilshire's westernmost point.
Likewise, Wilshire is indifferent to where you want to go. I have sat, in my car, on the final eastbound stretch between Wilshire and the highway, crawling at a few feet per minute.
Today, I am lucky: not only do I catch an early bus, but it arrives at my next transfer point even further ahead of schedule. Wilshire is wide open.
Yet the sun dips behind a low cloud drifting in from the coast, chilling the asphalt canyon between the buildings. A reminder of the fragility of fortune.
6:23 p.m. - Route 14 to The Getty - 6:44 p.m. (return: 7:01 p.m. to 7:32 p.m.)
I stop at the Literati Café at Wilshire and Bundy to enjoy some fruit, coffee, and water—and the recharge my computer and cell phone, both of which are nearly depleted. Refreshed, I cross back over Wilshire and wait for the Route 14 bus to arrive.
Route 14 is a puzzling line. Like the Crosstown 41 and Sunset 44, it runs north and south, crossing and connecting the main east-west routes. Yet unlike other north-south routes, it connects to nothing in particular on either end.
After stepping out of the bus to stretch my legs and take in the evening air, I board again for the return trip southbound, towards Culver City and the humble sprawl of West Los Angeles once again. We hit another bad spot of the traffic near the 10 freeway—the one and only time I have been worried today that I might miss my next bus.
The traffic on Bundy is more intense than anything I have seen yet today, and the bus starts at a crawl. The bus picks up speed again once it is north of Montana, and seems to recover its pace as it reaches the Brentwood Village at the corner of Barrington and Sunset.
Ahead, on a hill, stands the J. Paul Getty Center, the art museum that crowns the west side and holds commanding views of virtually everything between the Santa Monica mountains and the Pacific coastline.
We drive along Church Lane, parallel to the 405 just north of the Sunset interchange, as the great highway winds to and from the Sepulveda Pass and the San Fernando Valley beyond. We pass a large round apartment building that towers over the highway and park, and finally, at Moraga and Sepulveda, reach the end of the line and the entrance to the exclusive community of Bel Air. All around are hills crowned with houses beyond reach. The Getty rests on a hill all its own.
It is possible to reach the Getty from the Route 14 terminus. However, it is a serious hike—and the museum is closed this late in the day. After stepping out of the bus to stretch my legs and take in the evening air, I board again for the return trip southbound, towards Culver City and the humble sprawl of West Los Angeles once again.
We hit another bad spot of the traffic near the 10 freeway—the one and only time I have been worried today that I might miss my next bus.
7:39 p.m. - Route 8 to Palms - 7:45 p.m.
Luckily, that bus, the Route 8, is also running a few minutes behind schedule in the late evening traffic. The bus is full, carrying students and workers and seniors, all of whom seem to be going home. People are quiet, but seem content.
A few are wearing jackets: the chilling June gloom is slowly creeping east, and the clouds glow in the light of a hidden setting sun.
I arrive at the intersection of National and Sepulveda Blvd., a cacophony of strip malls, supermarkets and discount stores.
7:48 p.m. - Route 12 to Culver City - 8:08 p.m.
I manage another quick transition, this time to the Route 12, which winds its way anxiously through the cozy domesticity of the Palms neighborhood, a community of small apartments and single-floor bungalows spread out along flat terrain. This bus, too, is carrying people back from wherever it is they were for the day.
“Where are we going?” a small girl, two or three years old, asks her plump, red-haired mother brightly.
“We’re going home,” she answers matter-of-factly.
We pass the intersection of Palms Boulevard and Motor Ave. There is a television studio near here, one that cable networks occasionally use for interviews. The building is shaped like a flying saucer on stilts, a pancake suspended above an array of parking slots. Yet it is well-managed, despite its odd dimensions.
At a recent interview, I met Larry King in the green room. He still films a television show, with a set that resembles his old CNN perch almost exactly.
8:12 p.m. - Rapid 20 to Santa Monica - 8:24 p.m.
The bus empties of passengers. I am the only one left as we approach the Culver City Expo Line train station. I walk forward to the driver, a plump Mexican fellow.
“Excuse me—where do I get off at Venice and Robertson?” I ask.
“Where are you trying to go?” he asks me.
“To the Rapid 20.”
“You missed it,” he says.
“Really?” I ask.
“Can I walk back? My bus leaves in a few minutes.”
“Stick with me,” he says. “I’ll take you there. Too many drug dealers, gang-bangers.”
“Really?” I ask. “I’ve never had a problem around here.”
“No, bro, I’m just kidding with you,” he says. “This bus actually turns into the Rapid 20. When some buses are on their last route to Culver City, they become the Rapid 20 to get back to Santa Monica.”
“You’re not pulling my leg again?” I asked.
“No,” he says. Sure enough, we turn a sharp corner at Robertson and Venice, and after stopping at the Route 12 stop, creep forward several yards to the Rapid 20 sign.
We leave a few minutes later. I remain the only passenger as the bus turns onto the freeway and races toward the reddish-gray sky in the west.
I know now that I have done it—that there are no buses left to catch or miss, that the day-long commute is over—and that no commute has ever been quite this much fun.
We turn off the freeway at 4th Street and roll past the construction site where the new train station is being built, following a trail of brake lights.
Before long, we are at Broadway and 4th Street—as bustling this evening as it was empty this morning. The light is the same—in the west, not the east; dusk, instead of dawn. I check my odometer app on my iPhone: 135 miles, in 15 hours, for 4 dollars, in one day.
I am amazed that I did it—and I ask myself again:
Well—I’ve given my reasons. And now, I know this public transportation system inside and out—every schedule, every route.
But there’s another reason for the trip, I suppose, and one that defies rational explanation: the simple love of the journey.