Santa Monica: Improving Bus Service is an Imperative to Meet Our Sustainability Commitments

From "Life-Cycle Assessment for Transportation Decision-making" report by Mikhail Chester, Juan Matute, Paul Bunje, William Eisenstein, Stephanie Pincetl.

This week a UCLA research team (that included our own board member and contributor Juan Matute), published their findings on life-cycle green house gas emissions impacts, energy use, smog & respiratory particulates of public transit compared with driving, using the Metro Gold Line train and Orange Line bus rapid transit corridor as case studies.

Our Santa Monica weekly column is supported by Bike Center in Santa Monica.

In some ways the paper highlights pretty intuitively obvious conclusions, but having the supporting evidence and the details matter. For example new light rail systems in the short term have a greater impact than a BRT busway, but edges out emissions and energy efficiency in the long term. The mix that goes into our electric grids weighs heavily on the operating energy demand of light rail, and if the emissions of the grid can be lowered, it will lower the impact of running electric transit systems. However improvements to the bus system can be made on a faster timeline at lower upfront cost, and rail requires a greater corridor ridership to be justified. These are all important factors to consider in the timeline horizons of various emission goals.

One of my takeaways from this is that if environmentalists and communities with sustainability goals such as Santa Monica has, are really serious, bus systems deserve a lot more attention and resources than they are typically given. Every new electric vehicle, especially “sexy” ones like the Tesla, nets endless fawning attention on so many “green” blogs, while the real work horses of efficient transportation, city buses, are barely given any attention at all. We could reduce the emissions and energy use of transportation a lot more, and a lot faster with striping more dedicated right of ways for buses, than we could ever get waiting for the slow attrition of inefficient private automobiles being churned through over the many years U.S. fleet turn over takes.

One of the great under appreciated local success stories has been the “Any Line, Any Time” program for SMC students, faculty and staff, that was just renewed for another year. The college bundles the cost of bus fare with a deal with the city (and some cost recovery on student fees), and everyone from SMC has free bus fare on the entire BBB system. In effect it treats bus ridership more like the way many businesses and institutions treat providing car parking through bundling costs. The number of students getting to campus without driving has grown to more than half, largely driven by the success of the bus ridership, and an impressive feat especially given how few students of SMC even live within Santa Monica’s borders.

SMC Big Blue Bus Stop At Peak Time
The SMC main campus BBB stop has the highest ridership in the BBB system, and during peak times handles more boarding than some Metro train platforms. Imagine if many of these students drove instead.

It frustrates me when people who ought to know better discuss public transit in Santa Monica in the future tense. That transit oriented development or any measures or policies that relax the mandates that support and favor driving now would be premature until the Expo Line train is running, or not even then because one transit line “isn’t a real system”.

The implications of such thinking are essentially that the bus system doesn’t exist (or at least doesn’t exist to their privileged windshield view). That somehow the people already riding the bus are irreverent or don’t count (BBB alone typically runs around 70,000 trips a day on top of overlapping Metro service). The common practice of transfers between buses & trains aren’t really a thing in this world view. That the bus system can be improved in efficiency, comfort, and convenience to serve a greater number of people at a better level of service isn’t even a thought, let alone on the table. Such thinking is wrong headed on all accounts, but pervasive enough that it obstructs the potential for buses system enhancements that could further reduce transportation greenhouse gas emissions in tandem with the development of longer term investments like the light rail network construction.

Big Blue BusThe city of Santa Monica supports the Big Blue Bus pretty well, and all things considered it’s a good system that I’ve made ample use of since 2002 when I started attending college on the Westside. But when I look at the resources we devote to drivers by comparison, it’s quite a disparity. No expense is spared on new parking garages, parking counter systems way finding, and real time data, while plans to upgrade bus stops and shelters have languished for years with nothing to show for it. When we roll out the red carpet for driving in Santa Monica but most of bus stops don’t even have any shade let alone functional shelter for when our weather does arrive (yes transit station and stop designers, it does rain in Southern California, and shade is nice in the summer), our actions don’t really reflect the values we have down on paper.

Lost in all the center-fold style spreads of costly EV’s all over the U.S. environmental blogosphere, there is precious little honest confrontation with the numerous car culture impacts that transcend energy source; such as sprawling land use, traffic congestion, fatalities and inaccessibility for people who cannot drive, do not want to, or can’t afford vehicle ownership. The car industry has the biggest advertising budgets in the world, they don’t really need any help to sell more cars (and are increasingly pushing debt accumulation to boost sales).

So can we please get some more love for the bus from environmentalists? We’ve passed many documents in this city on a commitment to sustainability, but if we can’t build the support needed to move forward on peak hour bus lanes on Lincoln, or other desperately needed bus system improvements, we’re really missing the boat. Actions always speak louder than words, and transportation is our most significant source of green house gas emissions. We also apparently under count transportation in our present carbon accounting models as I’ve learned in talking with climate researchers like Juan Matute, so our pie graph really should lean even heavier toward transportation. Seeing 400ppm of CO2 recorded at Mauna Loa Hawaii should be a wake up call, the clock is ticking.

  • DC

    Having lived on the West side for 2.5 years and used the BBB and metro systems extensively, I think the biggest missing issue is politics: New rail lines and EVs are fine and politicians are happy to play them up because they don’t get in anyone’s way. The two most effective improvements for transit would be (1) bus-only lanes on major corridors and (2) having off-board fare payment for buses, allowing boarding at all bus doors instead of just the front. But bus lanes get in people’s (well, more specifically, drivers’) way, which makes politicians terrified. Just getting peak-hour bus lanes on Wilshire has been a years-long nightmare and it won’t even be a continuous lane. I’m not trying to be a pessimist, I just think that this is more than an issue of paying more mind to buses (though that would be good), it’s an issue of rethinking what street space is for.

  • I totally agree, it’s the politics. People want techno fixes, just insert the right technology and somehow everything will correct itself. Politics is messy, but everything is political, and that has to be engaged with if we’re going to get anywhere on the timelines the present urgency demands.

  • Anonymous

    The Big Blue Buses are already SO much cleaner than Metro buses. I will give them that love at least.

  • Erik Griswold

    Inside, yes, SMBBB buses are cleaner, but all LA Metro buses run on Naural Gas now, while some 57 of the Santa Monica fleet are still running on Diseasel.

  • Nate

    Excellent post. I think you diagnose a real failing within the progressive community in neglecting to elevate public transportation to a much higher priority. Transporation is an environmental issue, a social justice issue, a public health issue, and an urban design issue. It cuts across so many areas that something like improved bus service is a huge multiplier, and for this reason alone I think public transportation needs to be handed a higher-profile role.

    I know many LA folks who diligently recycle and compost, buy organic foods, avoid styrofoam, own Priuses, etc., and yet they drive everywhere, and have chosen home, work, and school locations that are totally transit-unfriendly. These are well-intentioned people, but they don’t understand things like congestion pricing, the perils of free parking, the public subsidizing of auto infrastructure, or a whole host of other issues.

    It’s easy to get annoyed with people like this, but it’s not productive. They are the low-hanging fruit, and if we can’t get environmentally-aware people on our side, that’s our fault. We have to do better. What can we do to make compelling arguments on behalf of separated bus lanes? How do we discuss the fact that a hybrid isn’t the solution?

    Random thought that just occurred to me: what about a “Transit Tuesday” campaign to piggyback on the increasingly popular “Meatless Monday” trend?

  • ikegawataro

    BBB is nice but they really hit the users in Ocean Park area hard last summer by cutting the 2 south of Pico and not having a single rapid 10 originate from Main st. It’s still a good system but I hate that they make little service cuts that have almost negligible cost saving measures when compared to the overall operating deficit.

  • Anonymous

    Unfortunately BBB’s vaunted introduction of real-time data on their website doesn’t work properly. The bus is great when I know when it’s coming. Now, I don’t unless in downtown Santa MOnica.

  • True Freedom

    I hope bus lines expand and ridership increases. It will leave more room on the road for me and my Tesla.

  • True Freedom

    You stated: ” many LA folks who diligently recycle and compost, buy organic
    foods, avoid styrofoam, own Priuses, etc., and yet they drive
    everywhere, and have chosen home, work, and school locations that are
    totally transit-unfriendly”

    I am one of those (I even have solar hw and electric and rainwater capture, drought tolerant landscape, etc). My problem with the “yet” part of your statement, is that several of those items pass a threshold of what I, personally, am willing to do/ or give up to be green.

    My home is in a non-transit friendly neighborhood. We chose it because we wanted to live in a low density, SFR neighborhood with large lots. I wanted a big yard and a pool for my kids. I want peace and quiet and space.

    Our home is not near my kid’s school. We chose the school because it was the best fit for my children’s educational needs. Our local school was not.

    My work is pretty close to work (I bike most days), though, given that people change jobs on average every five years.. my short commute may change. I work in high tech… and in a reasonably specialized field, so there are not a ton of places to work that are a great fit.

    We drive most places. There are several reasons. I have three kids. We have a bajillion activities (ballet, soccer, music, etc) that are spread out all over the place. Our schedules are tight. 98% of the time, transit is too slow and does not allow enough flexibility (like running errands while kids are in art class). Additionally, with five kids, driving is often much cheaper. For instance, we went to see Alvin Ailey at the Dorothy Chandler center. I really, really wanted to metro in.. but I would have to take two trains.. and with six of us, it was waaaay faster and cheaper to take one minivan.

    My point is: many of us understand the issues, but the realities of how people actually live their lives.. and the realities that not everyone wants to live in a dense urban core trump some green choices. So, don’t get frustrated with us.. come to the realization that folks like me exist, and we’re not going to give up the car or the desire to have a large yard in a quiet neighborhood.

  • Nate

    “True Freedom”:

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply. We actually have a lot of common ground, I think. People such as yourself, who have clearly thought through the environmental issue, are not really who I’m talking about. It’s the people who buy a Prius and think they stand at the top of the environmental food chain that don’t fully grasp the real situation at hand. though I might qualify my endorsement with a caveat: environmentally speaking, I would venture it’s fine to own a car as long as you are willing to pay for the multitude of costs associated with driving and parking it. Most drivers and people who live suburban sprawl are not aware of their externalities in relation to pollution and the degradation of the landscape done to accommodate cars. (See hostility to congestion pricing, addiction to free parking, insistence on wide lanes with high speed limits that keep bicycles and walkers off streets). A true environmentalist is willing to pay a lot more than he/she currently does for the privilege of using of a car.

    And just since the issue of family came up: I’ve got two small kids myself. My wife and I feel the same tension between choosing schools and activities based on their value for our kids vs. their location convenience. There isn’t much getting around this, unless you can afford to live in a super expensive neighborhood right next to a great school, grocery store, etc. Most of us can’t.

    But just from my observation, I think most of my friends with kids place too much emphasis on the quality of the school/activity and too little on how their locations fits into your family’s travel pattern, and this puts both the parents and the kids in the car too much for my taste. I want my kids on bikes or buses or walking to school and to most of their activities at some point- this is a critical part of their health and emotional development. If it means that some home/work/school/activities choices will not fit our ideal scenarios, I’m willing to live with that because we gain a healthier life that better incorporates walking, bicyling, and public transit into our lives.

    Speaking personally, I grew up with a single mother who worked an 8-5 schedule during the week, and as a consequence my brother and I biked everywhere. At ten years old I was responsible for doing my own laundry if I wanted my uniform clean, knowing when and where my baseball games were, and getting there on time myself. Taking different routes to and from school (a 25 minute ride), riding all over town to practices and games, riding around with friends- this is how I got to know my hometown. In retrospect, this was an important part of developing a sense of confidence, maturity, and even a sense of freedom.

    I have no idea if this applies to your situation, but to the extent that parents choose to live in a place where the only way a teenager can go anywhere is to depend on a parent to drive them or get their own car- I just don’t think either of these are optimal. Car accidents are the leading cause of teen deaths, and my time is too valuable to waste shuttling my kids around ALL the time (some of the time, sure).

    If you’ve considered all the options and the large house and pool and quiet neighborhood make you happy, I’m all for that. But at least be aware of what you are missing. There’s no such thing as “true freedom”- everything has some drawbacks.

  • C. Phylis

    “Diseasel”!!! LOL!!

  • C. Phylis

    Hello “Nate”. Are you a public speaker? I’m putting together a mobility forum that will be a part of a Neighborhood Council forum and would like for you to be involved. You hit on every point that needed hitting brilliantly. Contact me if interested at If not, keep educating!

  • True Freedom

    Hi Nate, Thanks for the reply. I definitely hear you. Our childhoods have many similarities. I would love that for my children, however, most of LA is a far cry from where I grew up. The population density; the number of aggravated, stressed out people; the lack of respect for our fellow man .. all keep me from giving my kids the free reign I had. I would love to move home, but for better or worse, I married into this part of California. In the meantime, I try to give my kids as many opportunities as I can to stretch themselves.. and try to instill those values given to me during my childhood.

    Some random thoughts on roads, cars, parking, etc (it’s been a long day, so I won’t try to formulate a cogent argument :)
    Even in uber-dense and transit oriented societies (take Tokyo where the vast majority of people live car-free lives), road infrastructure still exists and is necessary for the movement of goods.

    In LA, I think we should focus on making other modes of transportation MORE attractive, as opposed to making driving less attractive.

    Reduction in parking, or increased parking fees are going to hurt the poor the most. Additionally, if parking is not uniformly difficult everywhere, many will simply start shopping where parking is easier.
    Drastically increasing population density as a means to create dense urban cores where people walk, without improving transit infrastructure FIRST, will result in more auto usage, and more local road miles.

    we need more bike lanes.

    thx. good nite.

  • Nate

    I realize you wrote the last post when tired, so I won’t engage you at length. Let me just say that many of your assumptions about parking and density are not borne out by research. A good place to start on parking is this article about UCLA parking guru Don Shoop:

    Adding bike lanes, bus lanes, and widening sidewalks most often means taking away car lanes. You can’t always have your cake and eat it too- if you want wide lanes that allow high speeds, then you will get very few walkers and cyclists on the street.

    More and more people are seeing that the journey is just as important as the destination, and that streets are not just rote conduits for people
    going from destination to destination, but fantastic destinations in and of themselves. Seeing that you are a cyclist, I bet that in general you wouldn’t mind slowing down a bit in exchange for a safer street. Slower speeds also mean you can have an adult conversation on the sidewalk while your children do whatever kids do, rather than forcing them to hold your hand as traffic rushes past. I’m not against cars, but add up the pros and cons, and the benefits of more inclusive streets outweigh the virtue in cars being able to speed to where they need to go.

  • I don’t understand why they don’t share their data with NextBus – it’s the site I use to check out other cities’ bus systems, and when I’m at a stop that could be served by BBB or Metro I’d like to have one site that tells me when both buses are coming.

  • I’ve often felt that the important thing is to convince people that “technology” doesn’t have to mean electronics – the United States pioneered a lot of the social technology of democracy, and there are all sorts of other social technologies that we could apply to make things better, including bus lanes and congestion fees.

  • Anonymous

    I spent several months contacting various people in BBB in an attempt to get access to the data they pretended would be open at the SMTalks meetings. As far as I can tell everyone’s trying to protect their fiefdom. Their website looks like it was written by somebody who first installed VisualStudio 6 months ago; I can’t believe the taxpayers footed the bill for that abomination.

  • Anonymous

    (This is in no way an endorsement or criticism of VisualStudio or the MS stack as a whole; hiring somebody who had just learned, say, Django and Nginx would also be an irresponsible use of funds).


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