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Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock keep a local bus moving in Speed.
MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

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25 years after ‘Speed,’ can LA get its buses moving again?

Los Angeles desperately needs to boost ridership on buses, but they’re not a very appealing choice when they move 10 mph

Twenty-five years ago today, Speed hit movie theaters across the U.S., redefining an action movie template set by Die Hard and proving that it’s possible to make an exciting film about express bus service.

Speed’s high-octane action sequences repeatedly defy reality; at various points in the film, characters fight on top of a train and a bus jumps a 50-foot gap in the under-construction 105 freeway.

But the movie’s most unbelievable element might be its central premise: A criminal mastermind (played by Dennis Hopper) places a bomb on a bus bound from Santa Monica to Downtown LA during morning rush hour. The bomb is armed when the bus hits 50 miles per hour and explodes when the speed drops below 50.

If the movie were made today, heroic cop Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) probably wouldn’t have much to worry about. It’s difficult to envision any vehicle, let alone a bus, reaching and sustaining 50 miles per hour at 8:30 a.m. on the 10 freeway. In a recent report, traffic analyst Inrix ranked the roadway as one of the 10 most congested in the nation.

A more realistic scenario might involve keeping the bus above 9 miles per hour, Juan Matute, associate director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, writes in an article for Transfers Magazine.

That’s the average speed of a vehicle in Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus, the operator featured in the film. In an analysis of Los Angeles-area bus performance since 1994, Matute finds that Santa Monica’s bus fleet has been particularly impacted by traffic.

In the last quarter-century, average speeds have dropped more than 3 miles per hour, or 27.5 percent. Metro, the county’s largest transit provider, has also seen service get significantly slower. Buses traveled 1.53 miles per hour, or 12.6 percent, slower in 2017 than they did in 1994.

Metro buses now travel at an average speed of 10.8 miles per hour, slightly better than those in Santa Monica’s system, but not by much.

Slowdowns like these can have a big impact on overall service, frustrating passengers and making for late arrivals.

As Virginia-based transit analyst Mobility Lab points out, bus riders are generally most impacted by worsening congestion, since even slight delays can create a domino effect that makes buses run behind schedule for much of the day.

At the same time, buses carry far more people than cars, and getting more passengers on the bus could be a key part of addressing congestion in Los Angeles and beyond.

Delays also create problems for transit agencies themselves. Bus schedules don’t change when there’s bad traffic, so in order to ensure on-time arrivals, agencies must add more buses to a route as regional congestion worsens.

That drives up system costs. Between 1994 and 2017, bus operating costs rose 16.3 percent in Santa Monica and 6.6 percent for Metro.

Meanwhile, the slower buses move, the more likely passengers are to find alternative modes of transportation. Matute also finds that ridership is down on both Santa Monica and Metro buses since 1994, meaning that both agencies are losing out on fare revenue at the same time that service costs are going up.

Speeding up bus service would ensure local agencies get the most bang for their buck. It could also draw passengers back to transit, after years of declining ridership.

The question is how to do that. Matute tells Curbed that local officials could try two things to make Los Angeles-area buses faster: Build a network of bus-only lanes, or roll out a region-wide congestion pricing system.

“The other option is to give up on ridership and service quality,” he says. “That seems to be the option they are choosing now.”

Still, Metro is cautiously exploring the possibility of both solutions, and in February, the agency’s Board of Directors ordered a study on congestion pricing. But the proposal, under which drivers would be charged either for miles driven or for using traffic-clogged roads during peak hours, is still in the early stages and faces likely opposition from car commuters and those concerned about its impact on low-income drivers.

That leaves bus-only lanes as the most immediate option for improving service on busy routes.

Right now, a handful of lanes across LA County are reserved exclusively for buses during peak traffic hours. That includes part of Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica, much of Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, and Figueroa Street approaching Downtown LA.

It’s a start, but Matute points out that enforcement of the bus-only restrictions has been spotty. On Wilshire Boulevard, cars can frequently be found traveling, and even parking, in the bus lanes.

Bus lanes like these also generally take years of planning and preparation to roll out. Part of that is because of required outreach and environmental review that agencies and local governments can’t escape, but Matute argues this places added pressure on projects to produce immediate results.

He says cities and transit agencies should be more willing to partner on quick test projects to find out where bus-only lanes will be most effective.

“It’s as simple as picking a week during the summer, putting out cones, and measuring the difference in travel times,” he says. “Then use onboard surveys to see if [bus riders] like it.”

Regardless of what passengers think, it might be tough to get drivers to support such projects longterm.

In March, when Metro directors began considering four options for a new bus-only lane within LA County, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti joked that the lanes were “only slightly less controversial than congestion pricing.”

Shortly after that, Metro’s proposal became controversial. Strong criticism of a potential bus-only lane on Van Nuys Boulevard from two Los Angeles city councilmembers led the agency to remove that option from contention and postpone discussion of any new bus-only lanes.

“The political challenge of bus-only lanes, is that the time savings would be greatest in places where motorist delay is already greatest,” says Matute.

More simply put, drivers stuck in traffic are unlikely to be pleased by the sight of buses speeding by in their own dedicated lane. That could lead to a lot of angry phone calls to the office of a local representative—but it could also lead a few of those drivers to try taking the bus.

Matute points out that improving bus service would also be a huge benefit to low-income passengers, who make up the vast majority of bus riders countywide.

“If more elected representatives saw improving transit service as an equity measure, that would help get us toward solutions,” he says.

In the meantime, transit agencies may be handcuffed by what he calls a “classic tyranny of the majority.” Most Los Angeles residents don’t take the bus, so there’s little incentive to make improving service a priority.

That means until Big Blue Bus hires Sandra Bullock as a driver, its fleet may be stuck at 9 miles per hour.

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