From Bus Riders Union to Bus Rapid Transit: Race, Class, and Transit Infrastructure in Los Angeles

Metro Orange Line BRT | Photo: Dan Reed/Flickr/Creative Commons
Metro Orange Line BRT | Photo: Dan Reed/Flickr/Creative Commons
In episode four of the much maligned season two of True Detective, writer Nic Pizzolatto made an odd reference to one of Los Angeles’ more notable moments of transit conflict. As a bevy of cops and the doomed trio of detectives walked into a hail of gunfire and official cover up, behind them dozens of Angelenos picketed city transit service reminiscent of the Bus Riders Union in the early 1990s.  Judging from the demonstration the issues aggrieving ridership remained much the same: overcrowded buses, poor service, and a failure to serve working Angelenos.  When nearly all the protesters end up dead as the nearby police raid  goes so very wrong, one might draw some negative conclusions regarding Pizzolatto’s view of Los Angeles bus service and its patrons.  Then again, as numerous commentators have noted, very few people really knew what was going on in the second season as its nourish elements subsumed clear story telling; who knows what Pizzolatto’s aim was in this regard. Ultimately, the dozens of dead and injured protesters that served as human collateral driving home the desperation of the show’s three main characters, however flawed, in many ways symbolizes debates about bus transit in LA and elsewhere: critical to city fortunes, but treated as an afterthought by planners.

Since former Mayor Tom Bradley’s late 1960s efforts to find funding for a subway and Kenneth Hahn’s successful advocacy for and eventual construction of the Blue Line, rail transit has dominated debates and funding streams regarding the expansion of L.A.’s transportation infrastructure. Yet, during these debates the city’s bus system bore the lion’s share of ridership, while receiving a paucity of funding.

In 1994 the Bus Riders Union (BRU) sought to raise the public’s consciousness regarding the city’s bus system, its ridership — often the most economically vulnerable and persons of color — and the inequities therein. Gaining a court order injunction two years later in 1996 that required the MTA to reform its bus service, for better or for worse, the BRU forced a reassessment of L.A. transit policy. As transit expert Ethan Elkind has noted, what became known as the “consent decree” forced the agency to think “more creatively.”

While today’s Metro Orange Line Bus Rapid Transit might not be wholly a result of these efforts, no doubt it benefited from these debates, and with new discussions regarding the possible conversion of the Orange Line to rail, today serves as the perfect opportunity to examine the city’s recent bus history, the attitudes that underlie bus transit, and its present and future.

Riding the Bus in the 1980s and early 1990s

When Kenneth Hahn brought Proposition A to the public in November of 1980, he purposely included the bus system within its funding mechanism. Though he wanted to build the Blue Line light rail, he knew that earlier initiatives in 1968, 1974, and 1976 had failed because they had forgotten about bus riders. The general public would never approve spending for rail transit alone if it didn’t include buses.

Bus ridership boomed in the mid-1980s in the wake of Prop A’s passage, going from 354 million to 497 million annually. However, the number of buses in service only rose by 1.5 percent. Prop A successfully prevented fare increases until 1989, when a more expensive fare and service reductions resulted in an 8 percent decline in ridership system wide over the next four years. The Blue Line had been completed by 1990 and its opening sparked a new wave of construction for light rail and further support for the burgeoning subway. By 1992, some local observers believed that the transit pendulum had swung too far in the direction of rail; though at the time, the bus system still ferried roughly 94 percent of the MTA’s patrons. 1

Enter the BRU

In 1992, the Labor/Community Strategy Center (LCSC), under the leadership of Eric Mann and Manuel Criollo, formed the Bus Riders Union, a project aimed at drawing attention to the class and racial inequality at the heart of MTA transit policy. Both Mann and Criollo came to realize the impact of these inequities through their work fighting environmental racism for LCSC. While trying to organize residents in and around Los Angeles County they kept encountering the same issue: their constituents worried about local oil refineries and air pollution, but what impacted even more directly was their two to three hour commutes to work from places like Wilmington to the Valley or Los Angeles. “That was a transformative moment for us,” reflected Criollo years later. “The buses would have forty people sitting and forty people standing, no air conditioning, completely messed up … And on Metrolink, people were riding like Disneyland.” 2

In many ways, the BRU’s constituency encapsulated the changing economy of late twentieth century Los Angeles and, by extension, the nation. Its demographics embodied the kind of multicultural Los Angeles that many celebrate and a few deride: 50 percent Latino, 25 percent black, 20 percent white, and 5 percent Asian. “[T]he cumulative total of janitors, maids, child care personnel, food service workers, clerks, secretaries, and day laborers riding the buses of Los Angeles on any given day,” wrote USC scholar George Lipsitz in 2005, “produced the kind of critical mass that formerly only existed in the factories and fields.”

Spoken word poet and Eastside resident Marisela Norte has documented this milieu in her work. Writing on the #18 Bus during her commute to downtown L.A., Norte symbolized how L.A’s buses embody contradictory but vibrant impulses: sites “of containment and connection, of incarceration and affiliation, of solitude and solidarity.” 3 Indeed, the BRU seemed to suture a divide that existed between some of L.A.’s most prominent minority communities, enjoying the support of both the Korean Immigrant Worker Advocates, and the greater Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, while joining forces with the NAACP’s formidable Legal Defense Fund (LDF). 4

At a controversial MTA July 1994 meeting, when transit officials advocated raising bus fares to make up for an operating deficit of $126 million, Mann, Criollo, and the BRU took action. The BRU’s fundamental goal focused on what it considered social justice and equity. “While revenues from suburban train riders provided the district with constant deficits, they received the best vehicles and the best services,” argues Lipsitz. When the BRU and LDF brought their lawsuit in 1994, they deployed the 14th amendment and 1964 Civil Rights Act, citing that the MTA had violated the tenets of both by “intentionally discriminating against racial and ethnic minority groups in the delivery of transportation services” while also using federal monies to operate a discriminatory transit system in contravention of DOT regulations. 5

Early 90s RTD Bus | Photo: Metro Library and Archives/Flickr/Creative Commons
How did the BRU and LDF demonstrate this alleged racial bias? Using MTA data, LDF lawyers noted that 80 percent of bus riders were people of color, while in the county less than 60 percent of the population were minorities. According to the same data, by 1993, whites made up 73 percent of Metrolink riders. Though Metrolink makes up less than 2 percent of the MTA’s annual budget, in 2002, MTA funding to the regional rail system accounted for $37,000,000; roughly four years later the expenditure increased to over $40,000,000.

The disparity in spending illustrates why the LDF and BRU had been so animated by the case. Buses carried approximately 94 percent of the MTA’s ridership but received less than one third of MTA capital and operating funds. Roughly 29 percent of the MTA’s budget went to its bus systems, while nearly 71 percent went to rail transit, which only served 6 percent of its ridership. Other statistics, like spending per passenger, furthered the BRU’s argument. According to 1992 statistics, the Blue Line enjoyed $11.34 of subsidy per passenger, the Red Line, $2.92, Metrolink, $21.02, and buses $1.17. The numbers looked even worse when one considered that buses operated at an average passenger load 43 percent above its “peer transit agencies.” 6

To be fair, as transit scholar Elkind points out, several factors needed to be considered before damning rail transit all together. At this point rail transit remained in its infancy, with a great deal of the system still under construction, a time when expenditures would be at their largest and ridership at its lowest. Second, in terms of subsidies, if one averages them out on a per mile basis, the disparities shrink and appear less yawning, though admittedly disparities do persist. 7 In the intervening years, due to the system’s expansion and boost in ridership, noticeable improvements could be seen. By 2010, argues Metro blogger Stephen Hymon, rail costs less per passenger mile than buses: $.36 per passenger mile for the Blue Line, $.38 for the Red Line, $.55 for the Green Line, $.73 for the Gold Line. In comparison, Metro Local and Rapid buses cost $.63 and the Orange Line $.56 per passenger mile. 8

On September 1, 1994, Judge Terry Hatter ruled for a temporary injunction in favor of the BRU and LDF. Though the order merely delayed a more permanent injunction, the ruling severely damaged the MTA’s position and strengthened the BRU’s position as new supporters came to the fore, including numerous conservative scholars who questioned the efficacy of rail transit. Harry W. Richardson and Peter Gordon, right of center USC scholars, contacted the anti-capitalist BRU, making the coalition fighting the fare increase and rail transit one of the more bizarre sets of bedfellows in recent Southern California history. Hatter wanted the MTA to negotiate with the BRU and LDF, and even lifted the injunction to allow for a fare increase for the daily pass but kept the monthly pass injunction in place.

The ruling forced the MTA’s hand with a lawsuit hanging over the agency; it made completing the Red Line subway that much more difficult. “MTA needed money to complete the Red Line, and a couple of key Congress people told them: ‘What you need to do is settle this lawsuit and then we’ll be happy to talk to you about getting your funding for the Red Line,'” suggested former MTA employee and expert witness Tom Rubin. Equally problematic, the injunction confirmed stereotypes about MTA incompetence and waste, while establishing the idea that the agency’s rail program came on the backs of the poor and those of color. As Roger Christensen, vice chairman of the MTA Citizens Advisory Council, then summarized, “it was now racist to build subways.” 9

Not everyone agreed with the BRU’s accusations of transit racism. Responding to the BRU’s arguments five years later, several Angelenos were skeptical about Mann’s claims about rail transit. “How could the construction of a rail line that services the heavily ethnic communities of Chinatown, Lincoln Heights, Cypress Park and Highland Park be considered racist,” asked Highland Park’s Matt Marchand. “As a person of color, I am offended by such an accusation.” Santa Monica’s Darrel Clarke agreed, arguing that “the Pasadena Blue Line corridor [future Gold Line] is 66% minority, and it’s this corridor’s residents who wanted the quality and speed of light-rail service enough to get their own agency to build it.” Alhambra’s Santiago Rojas demanded better service for Eastside residents, asking where Mann had received the “right to speak for the Latino community? What gives him or anybody that right who is not voted into that position?” 10

Late 90s Metro Bus | Photo: Ian Fuller/Flickr/Creative Commons
Late 90s Metro Bus | Photo: Ian Fuller/Flickr/Creative Commons
The LDF encouraged the MTA to settle — after all, the case remained about improving service and bringing tangible results for the city’s most vulnerable workers. Moreover, a lengthy trial could take years, carried financial costs, and didn’t necessarily guarantee any real improvements.

The key point of negotiation focused on what is known as load factor, a calculation based on the total number of passengers divided by the total number of seats on the bus. If the number of standees on buses rose to 1.2, than the MTA would have to purchase more vehicles. Under pressure to provide some sort of compromise to the LDF and BRU, the MTA unwittingly agreed to a formula that would result in the agency purchasing over 200 new buses. “They thought they would be adding a hundred busses, instead they ended up adding hundreds,” noted Rubin. “We were going to lower fares and we were going to relieve overcrowding,” which would then add more riders hence increasing load factor. “And so the frequency goes up, and we had that multiplier effect.” 11

The LDF agreed that the load factor provision would be ultimately beneficial to the cause and encouraged the BRU to accept the MTA’s proposal. However the BRU wanted to convict the MTA of civil rights violations, proving it racist and thereby airing all the evidence to the public. The BRU split with the LDF and retained only the SCLC as its plaintiff. It subsequently lost, as two years later in August 1996 Judge Hatter agreed with the LDF and ordered what became known as the consent decree into action. The decree itself more or less stabilized fares through October of 1998 and limited fare changes in accordance with the consumer price index from 1998 to 2003. As noted, it also sought to ensure that overcrowding in buses would decline due to the load factor; if this metric increased, then the MTA would have to purchase new, energy efficient and more environmentally sound busses.

In order to oversee the decree’s implementation, the LDF and BRU reunited. Over the next ten years, before Judge Hatter lifted the decree in 2006, the BRU and MTA battled over numerous aspects of the ruling, but especially the addition of new buses and the load factor. Compliance with the decree would cost the MTA $1 billion. 12

To some the decree proved a success. Observers like Lipsitz maintain that the consent decree saved riders $25 million annually, reduced overcrowding on buses, and forced the MTA to buy 233 compressed natural gas buses with a promise to buy 55 more for only $89 million. For the USC professor it was about more than just cleaner air and better transit. “[I]t entailed a transfer of wealth and resources from rich to poor, from middle management suburban commuters to inner city low wage workers and from subsidies for private auto dealers and suburban rail contractors and builders to direct expenditures on safe, efficient, and ecologically sound services for office workers, janitors, teacher’s aides and other unskilled workers.” 13

To others, the results of the consent decree seem far less apparent. Though it reduced crowding, it failed to increase ridership and burdened the already economically strapped MTA. In 2005, the MTA’s CEO Roger Snoble actually blamed the decree for making traffic worse, “We’re not taking cars off the street, in fact we’re adding busses to the street, which is causing more traffic jams.” 14 Despite a 42 increase in bus service, by 2008, ridership slipped by 5 per cent. 15

Though the BRU remained active in transportation politics for years after, a 2001 Supreme Court ruling severely curtailed their ability to challenge transit policy. When the BRU hired the National Resources Defense Council to challenge an increased bus fare on environmental grounds, a 2008 California Supreme Court decision issued them a defeat, thereby demonstrating the increased difficulty of judicial challenges. In 2010, the BRU opposed the MTA’s 30/10, a proposal that sought to use federal loans and revenue from 2008’s Measure R to accelerate construction of 12 mass transit projects so that they would be completed in 10 years rather than 30. However without the leverage of the legal system, the BRU has not influenced transit politics as significantly since the consent decree was lifted. Still, the 1996 decision inspired numerous similar suits across the nation by environmental justice activists and in Los Angeles, contributed to changing the debate about rail and even delaying its progress. 16

Bus Riders Union protest against fare hikes at Union Station, 2010 | Photo: Bus Riders Union Facebook
Bus Riders Union protest against fare hikes at Union Station, 2010 | Photo: Bus Riders Union Facebook
The Rise of the BRT

For the next decade, issues raised by the BRU’s protest, the ramifications of the consent decree, and skepticism from some Angelenos regarding light rail contributed to debates and ideas regarding local transportation options. One could argue that these debates made more likely the eventual adoption of a new bus service in the San Fernando Valley, which combined the best aspects of bus systems with the benefits of a light rail model. In October 2005, San Fernando Valley’s Orange Line Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) opened, which over time emerged as a celebrated part of MTA’s larger transit policy.

“It’s much easier to ride this than it is to drive,” Gale Johnson, a retired security worker in San Fernando Valley, described the Orange Line 2012. “It’s like a train on wheels.” 17 L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslovsky designed it on the back of a napkin after touring Curitiba, Brazil’s own BRT in 1999: “it took me thirty seconds to say this will work on the Southern Pacific railroad tracks’ along Chandler Boulevard”. The MTA completed the Orange Line route in 2005, which at the time included 13 stations with five miles of sound walls, anti-graffiti coating, and rubberized asphalt. The agency also planted 5,000 trees and 800,000 plants, all efforts to beautify and reduce noise pollution along the route, which took two years to complete and cost $330 million. Rail transit would have taken longer and cost much more.

In its initial couple years, the Orange Line did struggle with crashes and fare evasion. Regarding the former, five crashes in five weeks at the end of 2005 elicited a response from Ted Rubin of Valley Glen in which he blamed the accidents on the “epidemic of light running at intersections” rather than the BRT itself. 18 Fare evasion too presented the Orange Line with a new obstacle when studies in 2013 and 2014 reported that more than 25 percent of passengers had failed to pay or paid incorrectly. A renewed emphasis in 2014 by local law enforcement reduced evasions to 7 percent and incorrect payments to about 5 percent. 19 Despite the hiccups, the Orange Line has proved to be a great success, with ridership having tripled within a year of its opening. And since its completion, Los Angeles has emerged as the national leader in bus rapid transit, with 23 lines covering 400 miles and ferrying 240,000 passengers on a daily basis. 20

Yet, as evidenced by Gale Johnson’s comments, the Orange Line’s success as a form of public transit rests in part on its resemblance to light rail. Some Valley residents pined for rail transit, like Northridge’s Charles Rozner, who argued that the MTA built the Orange Line because of “myopic politicians who could not see further than the original cost of construction.” Other residents, like Valley Village’s Jack McGrath, cautioned observers to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The Orange Line, he wrote, “will give thousands of commuters a safe, quicker alternative for work or play. It is not light rail or subway, but it is one small step to help make Los Angeles a more livable city.” Serving schools like Valley and Pierce Colleges and communities like Reseda, the BRT certainly provides significant numbers of Latinos, Asians, and blacks quality public transit — a central goal of the BRU’s 1990s protest.

Still, for all its success, talk in recent years and months has turned to the possibility of converting the Orange Line into Los Angeles’s newest light rail. The fact that during its original construction officials took precautions to make its conversion later to rail possible obviously helps. While the San Fernando Valley’s BRT remains undoubtedly popular, as light rail it could carry more passengers while “shaving about 15 minutes off a cross valley trip,” noted the Los Angeles Times in April, 2015. Then again, upgrading bus service, which would improve travel times by 10 – 12 minutes, would be far cheaper, around $350 million, less than a third of the cost of converting it to rail. 21 As noted converting the Orange Line to rail would shave off 15 minutes of travel time – a difference of only two or three minutes when compared to upgrading current service and at far greater cost. Longer and more buses could help cut down on travel times, but traffic lights remain an issue. As Steve Hymon pointed out in April, “it was hardly a secret that buses were spending too much time waiting at red lights in recent years.” 22

As noted above, how much of the Orange Line’s creation can be credited to protests like those of the BRU is certainly debatable. Even without the BRU, many Valley residents chafed at the idea of a light rail or subway as did many of its political leaders. Yet, the BRU’s efforts did force the MTA and others to think about public transit from more than just a rail perspective. The Orange Line merges aspects of bus and rail transit and appeals to pro-rail sensibilities while delivering arguably cheaper service, though outside of construction costs, even experts debate this last point. Also, like the Blue Line, the Orange Line and other BRT lines depend on right of ways established under earlier rail transit such that even Yaroslavsky and MTA officials admit that with few rights of way left, future BRT’s may not be possible. 23 In the end however, nearly twenty years since the consent decree and almost ten since the Orange Line’s debut, L.A. transit seems be getting better and perhaps more equitable too.  Even if bus riders end up as tragic background noise in HBO television shows, at least they are now given a role.  Maybe next time, they can be more than fodder for tales of neo-noir Los Angeles’ that too, perversely, would be progress.

1 Ehan Elkind, “Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City” University of California Press, 2014: 163-165; Ari Bloomekatz, “Orange Line busway is Metro’s quiet success story,” Los Angeles Times, June 27, 2012
2 Elkind, “Railtown,” 159-160
3 George Lipsitz, “Learning from Los Angeles: Another One Rides the Bus,” American Quarterly, 56.3 (Sept 2004): 512, 524
4 Elkind, “Railtown”
5 Ibid., 163
6 Ibid., 163-164
7 Ethan Elkind, Interview with author, February 5, 2015
8 Steve Hymon, “
Our Response to Bus Riders Union allegations that Metro can’t afford 30/10 initiative,” The Source, September 13, 2010
9 Elkind, Railtown, 167-168, 171
10 Darrel Clark, Matt Marchand, and Santiago Rojas, “
Pasadena Rail Line,” Los Angeles Times, February 6, 1999
11 Elkind, “Railtown,” 170
12 Ibid., 171-173
13 Lipsitz, “Learning from Los Angeles,” 525
14 Elkind, “Railtown,” 171-173
15 Steve Hymon, “
Our response to the Bus Rider’s Union allegations that Metro can’t afford 30/10 initiative,” The Source, September 13, 2010
16 Elkind, “Railtown,” 174-175
17 Ari Bloomekatz, “
Orange Line busway is Metro’s quiet success story,” Los Angeles Times, June 27, 2012
18 Elkind, “Railtown,” 197
5th crash on Orange Line; no injuries,” Los Angeles Times, December 5, 2005; Ted Rubin, “Orange Line, red lights,” Los Angeles Times, December 9, 2005
20 Laura J Nelson, “Fare Evasion on the Orange Line has fallen, transit officials say,” Los Angeles Times, February 26, 2014
21 Laura J. Nelson, “
California Commute: Metro to study convertin busy Orange Line busway to a rail line,” Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2015
22 Steve Hymon, “
Should the Orange Line be a rail line?” The Source, April 21, 2015
23 Ari Bloomekatz, “
Orange Line busway is Metro’s quiet success story,” Los Angeles Times, June 27, 2012

A version of this article appeared on the KCET Departures website under the Intersections column in May 2015.