by Joe M. Walcek, MPL 2010
Think you need a car to go anywhere in LA? Are you one of the people who says public transportation is horrible yet you’ve never set foot in a bus? Are you scared of bus drivers?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you need to learn some bus basics.
First, let’s give a general overview of the various operators in Southern California.
Metro, aka the MTA, aka the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, aka all those orange and red buses you see everywhere, is the largest transit operator in Los Angeles County and the second largest in the country. They comprise both Metro Rail and the Metro buses. Metro is different than Metrolink.
Metrolink is the commuter train service operating throughout LA, Orange, Ventura, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Riverside counties. Their trains are more like the “choo-choo” type: modern diesel-electric. (If you’re from the Bay Area, think of them as the Caltrain or Altamont Commuter Express of Southern California.) Because Metrolink is commuter rail, they primarily operate on weekdays, with less frequency in off-peak hours.
DASH is operated by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT). Those are the little buses that are only thirty-five cents. Commuter Express is also LADOT, but their buses are large and only serve specific “commuter” routes to Downtown LA.
Other municipal operators: Santa Monica Big Blue Bus, Culver CityBus, Long Beach Transit, Beach Cities Transit, OCTA (Orange County Transportation Authority), Montebello Transit, etc. All these guys operate buses around their cities and sometimes to Downtown.
Remember: Metro is county, DASH is city [of LA], and Metrolink is inter-county.
Next let’s go into detail about Metro’s bus lines, since they have the most coverage. Each line has a number that signifies the bus’s service area:
1-99: Local to/from Downtown LA
100s: Local east/west routes in other areas
200s: Local north/south routes in other areas
300s: Limited stop routes
400s: Express routes to/from Downtown LA
500s: Express routes in other areas
600s: special circulators
700s: Rapid routes
800s: Metro Rail
900s: BRT (Orange Line, Wilshire Rapid Express, Silver Line, etc)
On the bus display board (that electronic sign on the top/front of the bus) after the number is the final destination and sometimes the main road it follows. So the bus that goes west down Adams should flash “38 Washington/Fairfax” “Via Adams”. I say “should” because sometimes the display is broken or does not show the “Via Adams” part. But don’t worry, Metro operates their buses in a hybrid grid and hub-and-spoke system, which means the Local, Limited, and Rapid buses will generally follow a straight route as seen below.
Along most significant streets (for example, Adams, Vermont, Beverly, Venice, etc.) there are usually two bus lines: a Local and a Limited or Rapid. As the name implies, the Local will make all stops, but the Limited or Rapid will only stop at major intersections. What’s the difference between Limited and Rapid? Not too much: Rapids can be tracked at RapidBus.net, and they also have signal priority that allows them to travel a little faster. That’s why I group the two of them together.
Metro tries to organize the numbers further by geography. For instance, some of the major east-west streets have descending numbers for Local buses: 3rd Street has the 16, 6th has the 18, and Wilshire has the 20. The same holds true for north-south streets: Normandie has the 206, Western has the 207, and Arlington has the 209. (You really need to be familiar with where the major streets of LA go or at least look at map in order for this to make sense.)
So if you wanted to go from USC to Koreatown to get some spicy-delicious kimchee, you can either take the 204 (Local) or 754 (Rapid) up Vermont. The Rapid 754 is usually faster than the Local 204, but will only stop at the larger streets: Exposition, Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Pico, Olympic, Wilshire, etc. The Local 204 can pick you up at all the other stops in between, which offers more convenience. Either way they both go up and down Vermont from Hollywood Boulevard all the way down to the Green Line in the middle of the 105 freeway. You really don’t have to memorize the route because they do not deviate from Vermont Boulevard. Sometimes the Rapid and Local are not at the same bus stop – one may be on the other side of the street due to space and/or frequency constraints.
Sometimes the Local bus runs a shorter route than its Limited/Rapid bus compliment or vice versa. For instance, the Rapid 733 (recently promoted from the Limited 333) that goes from Santa Monica to Union Station mostly along Venice Boulevard, has its little brother – the Local 33. This Local does not go all the way to the Santa Monica Pier or Union Station, but rather stops at Venice/Main near Abbot Kinney in Venice or 7th/Main in Downtown LA. Although they both serve the same areas, make sure you check the final destination on the sign or ask the driver.
Once you get the concept of the grid system and how streets in LA are laid out, you really don’t need to know the exact bus routes to get to a destination. Let’s say that you wanted to go to Canter’s deli on Fairfax for a nice afternoon lunch. Start out with a northbound bus on Vermont, either the Local or Rapid. Which one? It really doesn’t matter, since they both go up Vermont. The Rapid should be faster, but a drawback is that you have to catch it at a major street – Exposition or Jefferson. (Side note: Why not take a bus on Figueroa? Why am I obsessed about Vermont? Figueroa actually does not go in a purely north direction, but instead veers diagonally to the northeast. This increases transit time.) Just make sure it travels up Vermont, since there are lines that veer on and off the major thoroughfares. If you’re not sure, just ask the driver – most are friendly!
Once you approach Beverly, pull the chord and get off. Find the bus stop for the Beverly buses, which could be on the other side of the street. There should be both a Local and a Rapid/Limited (bonus: guess the number of the Local). Take it west to Fairfax, get off and walk a couple blocks north along Fairfax for some delicious deli delights!
Yes, it is possible to go from Long Beach to Sylmar on public transportation with only six dollars. Sure, it might take a while and require some knowledge of where you’re going, but it is possible. Thankfully, few people have to make such long journeys on a bus or train. This guide is intended to assist those who are going shorter, more moderate distances. With the basic information here, I encourage you to become more familiar with the Metro website, which has updated bus schedules and maps. Plan out your trip ahead and remember to leave yourself extra time. (It’s not the bus’s fault it takes an hour to get to beach from Downtown… the bus has to fight through traffic AND pick up people every hundred feet.)
Bottom line, buses are everywhere in LA and you should at least try it out if it’s not too inconvenient. Don’t try a long distance route for the first time. Maybe find a little restaurant or cafe that’s a few miles away and close to a major street so you can get familiar with the Local and Limited/Rapid concept.
If I have more time, I’ll write another article that addresses some of the more frequent complaints about public transit, such as “why doesn’t Metro have decent bus stops or shelters?” and “how do the TAP cards work?” Until then, enjoy exploring LA via public transit!
Joe Walcek lives in Wilshire Center/Koreatown with his wife and dog, and is a Transportation Planning Analyst with SANBAG. He recently graduated from USC last May with an MPL in transportation/infrastructure planning and a Graduate Certificate in Transportation Systems. Joe has lived in LA for the past twelve years, including the neighborhoods of Westwood and Mar Vista. Although the Red Line is his best friend, the 333 still has a special place in his heart.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and not of any agency.