It was the summer of 1974. President Richard Nixon had just resigned, inflation rates were rising, and Patty Hearst was on the run with her abductors, the Symbionese Liberation Army. But while the adult world reeled, hundreds of inner-city kids and teens in Los Angeles rolled down Pacific Coast Highway to the beach, in 10 custom Southern California Rapid Transit District buses designed just for them.
The buses, nicknamed the “Street Fleet” and painted to resemble submarines in the surf, were a result of very real adult problems. With the gas crisis deepening and facing a world-wide recession, Los Angeles was finally being forced to look at the sorry state of its once-grand public transportation system. As the Los Angeles Times reported in July of that year:
For years, rapid transit in this city was a dinner table joke. Angelenos recounted stories of half empty buses that rolled past waiting passengers, of schedules that went awry, of fares that jumped alarmingly at each new zone. But now faced with the gasoline shortage and increasingly congested freeways, Los Angeles has begun to grapple with the problem of building a mass transit system. There is a certain irony in that. For only 50 years ago Los Angeles had one of the most advanced rail transit systems in the country…
To tackle the problem head-on, in early 1974 the RTD, Metro’s predecessor, launched a massive rebranding effort, along with a new slogan, “RTD is Going Places!” In April 1974, a flat 25 cent fare was introduced (with 10 cent rides every Sunday). But the real changes were to begin in the summer.
“A series of events will take place in June which will shape the future of mass transit in the Southland,” Thomas Neusom, president of the Southern California Rapid Transit District declared at a meeting of the Institute of Rapid Transit in Los Angeles. “Because of the nature of the crucial decisions involved, we have invited the City, County and State to join the RTD board of directors in calling attention to June as ‘Transit Progress Month.’”
New improvements, like contraflow lanes and paid park and ride services were initiated or expanded. But no program got more attention than the Street Fleet.
“RTD has thrown four summer ‘life preservers” to kids who live in the inland areas of Los Angeles county by establishing… the District’s ‘Street Fleet,’” the RTD proclaimed in Headwinds, the agency’s in-house magazine. “Specially decorated coaches resembling battleship-grey submarines churning through the waves—complete with conning tower-no less—will make their way into the interior of the county and transport their young cargo to the beachfront in Santa Monica.”
Funded partly by the Board of Supervisors, the 10 buses ran four lines, eight hours a day, seven days a week during the summer months. “Line 605 picked up its ‘crew members’ throughout the San Fernando Valley, Line 606 served Pasadena and Altadena, Line 607 departed from East Los Angeles, and Line 608 carried riders from Compton and Watts,” writes Kenn Bicknell for the Metro Transportation Library.
Getting the community involved in the Street Fleet was a multi-pronged public relations effort, according to an in-house marketing packet:
Activities include bus painting, posters in area schools, skywriting, retail tie-in promotion, a special student beach pass, an informational brochure, letters to school principals, sleeves over bus stops making the beach runs, letters to area chambers of commerce and youth groups encouraging their utilization of the service by youth in their community. A special offer is being made by area radio stations on behalf of the RTD for a free Street Fleet poster. Persons sending for the poster will receive an entire promotional kit together with complete beach service information.
A celebratory promotional video, featuring happy children was produced. It was in keeping with the RTD’s new marketing strategy, which was outlined thusly in in-house literature:
Reflect a no-nonsense, “straight dope” attitude in all written and verbal public contact, with emphasis on maximum information—about routing, about RTD, about future plans, about what we can and cannot do, about the funding we are seeking.
The RTD even splurged on a catchy theme song for the commercial. Titled “Come Ride On The RTD With Us,” and written by Alan Barzman and Bob Bain. It was pure ’70s kitsch:
Come ride on the RTD with us!
We’ve got a better way to get you there.
A special car, that rides with special care…
Where ever you’re goin’ in this town,
You take it easy while we get you around.
But the RTD wasn’t stopping there. If the promise of a decorative periscope and a custom life preserver adorning the bus weren’t enough to get the youth paying their 25 cents, maybe the fact that surfboards were allowed would. There were also promotional photos of bikini clad models, featuring Muriel Small, “Miss Transit Progress” of 1974.
“Beach-goers throughout much of the southeast area have the opportunity to expand their surf-and-sun activities this summer with the inauguration of special rapid transit district beach bus runs,” the Los Angeles Times reported on July 4.
The Street Fleet was a success, and soon became known for its wet seats, rambunctious atmosphere, and sandy floors crowded with volleyballs and surfboards. “The Beach Bus!” Louise Woo remembered to Hidden Los Angeles in 2013. “We loved it. Picked up at Figueroa and York in Highland Park. I was 14 when it started, and it was perfect since none of us could drive.” Susan Bays agreed. “I remember, used to ride them, was fun with friends getting together just to do this.”
Sadly, the Street Fleet lasted only one glorious summer, before being shuttered due to lack of funding in 1975. “We were just victims of inflation like everyone else,” RTD spokesperson Alice Tolbert told the Los Angeles Times. Beach bus services would reappear over the years, but the Street Fleet’s psychedelic paint job would not. Stone cold bummer.