31. Need to know

Using the vast network of public transit provided by L.A. taxpayers isn't easy. There is, in fact, a very big transit map, but only for the Metro portion of public transit. And that map was only a snapshot in time. The Metro map was out-of-date the moment it was printed, which helps to explain why it wasn't easily available, even at the Metro transit center downtown at Union Station.

Metro doesn't publish a booklet of all its routes and schedules. The OCTA does. So does Long Beach Transit. But these are relatively small systems compared to Metro, with over 500 lines of bus and rail transit. Metro would have to print something resembling a phone book to cover all its lines.

Maps and schedules of individual lines only hint at the connecting lines that intersect it. But don't expect the bus you're riding to have schedules for connecting lines. Be grateful that it has the foldout brochure for the line you're on. More often than not, the only route guide on board is for some other line, answering to some other need but not yours.

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Metro does have an on-line trip planner: cranky and famous among users for its bad advice. The bad advice is available only in English, however, and it's not fully compliant with federal standards for public information systems that must be used by the visually disabled. (The Times rightly called Metro a "technological backwater" in November 2008.)

As Zack Behrens points out in a recent laist post, there is a solution to the "need to know" problem. But Metro, fearing the loss of a future revenue stream through advertising, won't give riders what they need to know if they read only Spanish or if they're unable to read a computer screen.

Metro's economic interests stand in the way of a Google-based transit information product that is widely used by big city systems, well managed, and compliant with federal accessibility regulations. It has at least some transit information available in 27 languages.

Metro claims to be looking into Google's transit planner . . . a long look that goes back at least a year.

Meanwhile, there is another source of transit information online, through a system originally managed by the Southern California Association of Governments. TranStar (now part of the Traffic News Advisory Network) offers basic schedule information for Metro buses and many other transit systems in Los Angeles County. Google's system is clearly better.

I had to plan a trip to the top of Laurel Canyon in early March to be on time for a MAK Los Angeles Center dinner. I fooled with the Metro trip planner and TranStar, tweaking start locations and times to find a combination of bus and rail that would get me to my stop at the top of Laurel Canyon Boulevard.

Neither planner could comprehend that someone might want to go from Lakewood to the intersection of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Mulholland. Neither system offered to help. I picked a stop on Sunset Boulevard that I knew how to reach and used the Metro planner to get from there to my destination.

Assembling this expedition required that I consult Google Maps, a Thomas Guide, the Metro map, the Metro website, the TranStar trip planner, and the passengers on the line 218 bus that rattled up Laurel Canyon. Only they could tell me when my stop was near (since the maps in Metro schedules only show major streets and points where lines connect). The driver didn't call the stops and, frustrated by the poor condition of the bus and badly behind schedule, he was in no temper to offer his help.

I got to dinner on time, having taken just under three hours to go from my office door to the front door of the house on Woodrow Wilson Drive. I rode three buses, the Blue Line, and the Purple Line subway. But I didn't ride them back. The last bus down Laurel Canyon leaves about 8:00 p.m., and dinner was just beginning. I depended on the kindness of a stranger, met over dinner, to take me the long and winding road to home.

The image on this page was taken by Flickr user Marshall Astor. It was used under a Creative Commons license.

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