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A Los Angeles Primer: Wilshire Boulevard By Bus

Should you get in the mood to read a book on public transit for nonspecialists, I unhesitatingly recommend Jarrett Walker's "Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking About Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives." Though Portland-based, the transit consultant Walker makes many a clear observation about Los Angeles, its transit, its communities, and its lives. Toward the end of the book, he imagines the tantalizing street of one day this city's future, which "feels more like a Parisian boulevard in many ways, including generous sidewalks, shade trees, and of course a transit lane" in which "bus and streetcar technologies have converged into a long snakelike vehicle lined with many doors, so that people can flow on and off as easily as they do on a subway," which is "guided by optical technology" and which, "mostly transparent above waist height," "feels like a continuation of the sidewalk."

That day, alas, has yet to come. "I thought about the bus in Los Angeles," narrates Richard, the hapless young Englishman in Richard Rayner's novel "Los Angeles Without a Map." "It was the way to travel. Once I had waited for over two hours at the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights Boulevard when a driver with a cowboy hat and and a drawling voice like Harrison Ford decided he was sick of his job. His solution to the problem was to stop the bus and make everyone get off." Richard goes on to tell of enraged aisle-prowlers, robberies by prepubescent thugs, and passing motorists shouting "Lo-sers, asshole losers!." His blonde, über-Angeleno girlfriend asks him if he really likes riding the bus. "It's democratic," he replies. She snorts and asks whether democracy arrives on time. "'Never had to wait more than five minutes,' I lied."

Rayner, of course, wrote that book in the mid-eighties, and Los Angeles transit has, on the whole, come an astonishingly long way since then. Still, when unable to walk, cycle, or take a train, I've boarded a few buses in this town myself, but when I do it, I usually ride a Metro Rapid, where Richard had to deal with the poor old fleet of the Los Angeles RTD -- whose R stood for "Rapid," but never mind. Specifically, I ride the line Metro Rapid 720, a long red bus that goes up and down Wilshire Boulevard, from downtown to Santa Monica and back again. Get crowded though it may -- standing-room-only seems more rule than the exception, even though they occasionally really do turn up every five minutes -- I value the 720 as an unusual way to see what Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne recently called the boulevard we think of "as synonymous with Los Angeles -- as our Main Street."

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A ride on the 720 from downtown to the coast -- or to Santa Monica's Ocean Avenue, anyway -- takes you through Koreatown, Hancock Park, the Miracle Mile, Park La Brea, Beverly Hills, Westwood, Century City, and Brentwood in between. The branding of Rapidity notwithstanding, you'll have time to get a decent look at them; I clocked one such trip of my own at about an hour, and I took it on a Sunday morning. The same experience at rush hour I would prefer not to imagine. Hence Metro's newly announced opening of a dedicated bus lane on Wilshire, which comes, a full twelve years after the 720 entered service, not a moment too soon. Riding this Rapid bus, especially when I have to do so all the way to Santa Monica, I've often felt -- not lied to, exactly, but not not lied to, either. While undoubtedly faster than whatever ran before it, it nevertheless invokes the language of the systems of bus rapid transit, known as BRT, without quite having earned it.

I once spotted a poster advertising Metro's Rapid lines depicting a twentysomething girl naming the places they go and asking, rhetorically, "What's not to love?" I couldn't resist tweeting a few suggestions: its lack of an offboard payment system, its lack of all-door boarding, its lack of its own lane -- all recognized features of BRT systems going back to the first in mid-seventies Curitiba, Brazil. Metro tweeted back that they guessed they would add me to the "not in love list," a response so dismissive I began trembling with rage. The lane should one day materialize, but for now we have only 1.9 non-contiguous miles of it, and then only during certain hours. The brochures announcing it read like brochures announcing proudly that in June 2013, man will discover fire, but to be fair, the 720 has its advantages: it spaces its stops quite far apart, and I've heard tell of an electronic device in use that keeps green lights green a bit longer than they would have stayed without a bus approaching.

Whether and how the latter actually works has provided the stuff of near-Talmudic debate among bus-riding Angelenos -- we only know for sure that it definitely doesn't work within Santa Monica city limits -- but it makes for an interesting echo of Wilshire Boulevard's earliest innovation: synchronized traffic lights. Those went up in the twenties, thirty years after prominent capitalist and socialist Henry Gaylord Wilshire originally envisioned his eponymous fifteen-mile boulevard connecting downtown to Santa Monica. Much else has grown up from it in the interim, as a westward ride reminds you: the average height, density, and newness of the buildings steadily rises right up until you find yourself deposited into eastern Santa Monica's now-retro fading colors and low-rise eighties architectural style of quasi-beach-adjacency. A little has even gone on under it, with the Purple Line subway scheduled to begin making its way from the intersection at Western Avenue to the one at La Cienega any year now. This gives reason for excitement that the many, many parts Wilshire Boulevard puts on display, impressive even when glimpsed through a smudged bus window, might in our lifetimes come to a sum.

Photos by Colin Marshall.

About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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