A Bus Fight or Sign of More Transit Conflicts?

The Long Beach buses that have been rolling to Main Street in Seal Beach for decades will stop -- perhaps permanently -- on August 26. This bus bust is the result of a squabble pitting the small, Orange County town against big Long Beach. Accusations of racism, cross-border snobbery, insensitive planning, and thirst for transit funds are implicated in the service cut.

But it's bus riders and the transit dependent who will be put out and further marginalized.

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Local bus riders are hoping Long Beach Transit officials and Seal Beach council members can get past a bizarre encounter at a public meeting in May where Seal Beach residents were invited to comment on route changes. Although what was said -- or implied -- at the meeting are disputed, some Long Beach city council members are convinced that Seal Beach residents and at least one council member don't want "those Long Beach people" (teens, the elderly, people of color) on Seal Beach's Main Street.

Initially, Long Beach Transit officials blamed "angry, rude and unprofessional behavior" toward LBT staff members and the "colorful" comments of Seal Beach residents to justify ending service. Now, they say the decision was purely economic: that the 300 riders (on average) who take the bus each day aren't enough to justify service and that transit funds would be better spent in Long Beach. LBT also said it will have to spend upwards of $800,000 to improve a layover facility because Seal Beach residents don't want buses passing their neighborhood. Cutting bus service will pay for the improvements.

For Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster, an economic spin isn't the whole story. He locates the root of the problem in the early 2000s, when Orange County declined to coordinate future improvements to the 405 Freeway with Los Angeles County. For Laurence Jackson, the long-time chief executive of Long Beach Transit, the problem goes back further -- 30 years further -- when Seal Beach city officials, he said, kept LBT buses from bringing Long Beach kids to summer programs in Seal Beach.

For whatever reason -- operating costs, racially charged attitudes, cranky council members, peevish mayors, or OC distain -- riders from Los Angeles will soon have to take three buses (or two buses and a train), each run by different transit agencies, each with different fares and rules for discounts, each with different schedules and days of operation, to get to Seal Beach. They'll have to pay each time they transfer, too, and then do it all over again to get back home.

That's bad enough for those who must ride the bus. But "discretionary riders," who are the target of state legislation designed to coax (or compel) drivers onto public transit, won't even try.

Southern California's transit systems are turning away from equality of service and uniformity of access to something quite different.

The shedding of marginal bus lines is well underway in the huge Metro network, along with the imposition of a system of rail and express bus lines fed by local buses that mirrors, in many ways, the "hub and spoke" structure of passenger air traffic. And we all know how convenient that is.

Soon, new state laws will begin redirecting transit funds to densified "transit corridors" and away from other communities, making some cities/neighborhoods winners and some losers. Less money will cause needed (but low-revenue) bus lines to disappear, leaving the old, the young, and the working poor standing at the curb.

In recent days, LBT offered to restore one of the Seal Beach lines, but only if the city pays a $123,000 annual subsidy. Currently, no Orange County city contributes directly to the either county's transit agency, although several cities in Los Angeles County (including my own) pay to subsidize some transit services here.

If LBT's succeeds in arm-twisting Seal Beach, LBT will surely demand larger subsidies in future years. And if they haven't already, you can expect that other transit systems will make the same demand of L.A. County cities.

All of which highlights the contradictions in transit planning in California: antagonistic competition for funding, accelerating disparities in access to good transit, and an emphasis on construction projects rather than boring local buses.

The bitterness between Long Beach and Seal Beach may be about money. It may be about race. But it's also about the kind of "transit oriented" region we're likely to get and the conflicts that California has built into transit planning, all in the name of getting drivers out of their cars.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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The Seal Beach situation is certainly unfortunate. To a large extent, it derives from the fact that transit in California is funded and structured on a county level, rather than a metropolitan/regional level. There is also undeniably racism and elitism directed at bus passengers, though I have no idea whether Seal Beach engaged in that or not.

DJ Waldie has been a terrific chronicler of life using transit. He's one of the few literary figures--especially in California--to write as a transit rider, and I respect him greatly for that. But I have to disagree with his disdain for cutting back low ridership bus lines. Unless you think that a lot more money is going to flow into the transit system, there's really no choice. For the foreseeable future, one choice is to spread service thinly and give everybody poor service. The other choice is to focus more service on well used lines and provide good, fast, frequent service on those lines. I'd choose the latter.