Area Mobility Advocate Exhausted by Bus, Makes Decision to Buy Car

Erick Huerta checks his phone as he waits for the bus on Western Ave. at Exposition Blvd. At this point he has already taken one bus and one train and has been in transit for an hour and fifteen minutes. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Erick Huerta checks his phone as he waits for the bus on Western Ave. at Exposition Blvd. At this point, he has already taken one bus, one train, walked three-quarters of a mile, and been in transit for an hour and twenty minutes. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

What was I writing about, a woman wanted to know.

She had heard me explain to a gentleman passenger on the bus that, just because I had a camera with me, I was not also a model. Nor was I a stripper. I was a journalist.

That news seemed to have disappointed him. He had fond memories of taking fifty dollars’ worth of one dollar bills to the Gold Digger and “ballin'” as a young man. So much so that even when I explained I was interested in seeing more investment in the bus system so people could get to their destinations in a reasonable amount of time, he kept taking the subject back to the ladies of “extraordinary talents” that he had once known.

I turned to the woman that had asked the question, gestured toward my friend, social justice advocate, and noted Boyle Heights resident Erick Huerta, and said, “His commute.”

“Commute” did not seem like the right word to describe a trek that involved two buses, a train, just under a mile’s worth of walking, and anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours of transit time for one trip. Coming home was more of the same, adding as many as four hours to an 8-hour (but sometimes longer, as Huerta is in the non-profit world and there are often community meetings) work day. And that’s when service wasn’t held up because of a bus or train breakdown, something which happened far too often for his taste.

“It shouldn’t take me two hours to go 12 miles,” he said as we boarded the first bus at 8:08 that morning.

He’s right.

By bike, the commute takes under an hour. And when he’s gotten a lift in a co-worker’s car (or on a rare occasion, a very costly Uber/Lyft ride), it takes just half an hour.

It was so crazy getting a ride after work one day and realizing he had the time to meet a friend for dinner and just hang out, he said.

It’s the reason he has decided to buy a car.

Not to drive it every day, he reassured me. But to be able to have the option of doing so when he wanted to have time to have a life outside of work and commuting.

You see, Huerta has never owned a car.

Brought to the U.S. as a young child, his undocumented status meant that, until recently, he couldn’t get a driver’s license. And because of his status, the struggle to find stable work and even stable living arrangements, at times, meant that a car would have been out of reach, anyways.

Growing up, his family owned one car and it was mainly for his father to use for work and special errands, like runs to the grocery store. For everything else his family did and everywhere else Huerta needed to go, there was the bus.

And it kind of sucked.

Bus infrastructure in L.A. is lacking or, in some cases, non-existent. A bus stop at Gage and Western is marked only by a pole. Passengers board from the grassy parkway. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Bus infrastructure in L.A. is lacking or, in some cases, non-existent. A bus stop at Gage and Western is marked only by a pole. Passengers board from the grassy parkway. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Back in the day, you would hold your breath every time the bus stopped to pick up someone in a wheelchair, he said. Often the ramps would fail, shutting the whole bus down. Passengers would be stuck waiting for another bus to come and replace the first. And hopefully that one had a working ramp.

And then there were the passengers — those that started drinking early in the morning, those that perhaps struggled with hygiene, and those that purposely blocked people from sitting down, even during rush hour. The lack of lighting, too few bus shelters, benches, or trash cans, and the poor maintenance of the stops that did have street furniture also made (and continue to make) the wait for transit unpleasant. And the infrequent service at off-peak hours, the challenge of getting bikes on trains or buses at peak hours, having to be vigilant and avoid snatch-and-grabs, and the harassment of folks of color by the Sheriffs all added insult to injury.

Oh, and dating, he shook his head.

“That’s another f*cking pedo!” (hassle)

Not having much control over your schedule can make it hard to meet up with people. And, he had found, there were some women that simply were not impressed by the idea of going on dates by bus or bike.

These are the things many advocates for car-free and transit-oriented lifestyles tend not to understand, he explained.

They generally have the privilege of being able to set themselves up in an area that makes transit use attractive. And their better-paying, more centrally-situated jobs often reward them for doing so. When transit is the faster, more convenient choice and you are rewarded for taking it, then of course it is the option that makes sense. But when you’re lower-income and have limited options for housing near your job or are forced to move farther and farther away from transit centers as rents rise and communities near those hubs gentrify, then transit becomes the burden folks are eager to shed as soon as they can.

Our transit system, in other words, fails to adequately meet the needs of those who rely on it the most while catering its messaging to attract those that have the greatest number of options at their disposal.

Despite all this, Huerta said, he still felt a bit guilty about making the decision to get a car. Like he was turning in a badge that he had earned for finding a way to make the bus work for him.

“Why not just ride your bike every day?”

I had to ask. Huerta is a volunteer with Multicultural Communities for Mobility, an organization that advocates for safe, alternative transportation access in underserved communities of color in L.A. He has been active in advocating for bike lanes in Boyle Heights, doing outreach around mobility issues in the community, teaching others bike safety (he was recently LCI certified), and speaking about how to incorporate equity in transportation advocacy at various forums.

He did ride at least once a week, he said. But his route through Boyle Heights and South L.A. were along roads that lacked infrastructure and were in poor shape. It was uncomfortable, stressful, and could take a toll on your body, he said.

“Not to mention the road rage,” he texted me later in the day. “Someone along Expo and Vermont was run over today…They’re saying it was [intentional].”

It was.

According to KCAL9, witnesses watched an ugly physical struggle between a cyclist and a driver of an SUV end abruptly when the driver, who threatened to run the cyclist over, actually did exactly that, killing him and fleeing the scene.

While those sorts of rage-fueled incidents are rare, hit-and-runs are unfortunately not. And lower-income cyclists of color in South L.A. tend to rank among the highest number of victims in the city.

Leaving Huerta at his workplace and walking back up Western, through the former killing fields of the Grim Sleeper, I passed several women out working an early shift on the street. I thought about stopping to wait for the bus, but I had already been followed by a few cars and overtly solicited for sex by one driver. Standing next to a pole for more than a few minutes and risking having to fend off johns in what is a well-known zone of prostitution — even at ten in the morning — just didn’t feel like something I was up for. I’d already met my daily quota of speculations about my suitability for stripperhood by 9:30 a.m.

It’s amazing how adept Los Angeles’ transit system is at defeating its own advocates, I sighed to myself.

I kept walking.

  • Andy Chow

    But with an automobile your commute range increases as well as your choice of employment or residence. You could say live in Fullerton and work in Gardena where they are connected by the a single freeway but require transfers among multiple transit agencies. You could for example only look for work in Orange County so that it is within commute distance on OCTA, but if the pay is better enough for a job further away, just buy a car, which you should be able to afford.

    A lot of TODs is not quite affordable at this point, and also with two income households, people also consider the employment arrangement of his or her partner. You could move to Carson to be close to your job in Gardena, but what about your spouse and his or her career needs?

    May be without all these automobile infrastructure people’s choices of jobs and residences would be more within transit range, but they are all there, and many people will eager to sell you a car, and get a loan for you if you can’t afford to buy it outright. If suddenly HSR comes, or the cost of flying goes down significantly, may be a daily commute between LA and Fresno would become feasible.

  • Phantom Commuter

    Erick is a smart guy who did the right and sensible thing for his life. Most car free “millennials” come from similar backgrounds and will do the same !

  • Andy Chow

    I don’t know whether it is “right” or “sensible.” I think it is more of as giving into the societal pressure. Essentially the society is built for people to own cars, and so if you want to be in a better position you would own cars. For plenty of folks they would either not want to own cars or own cleaner cars but not in a position to do so.

    But for these folks, including myself, at least we know our transportation choices, make smart transportation decisions (like not driving in congested areas when options available), support good projects to reduce auto reliance. May be that won’t eliminate cars everywhere, but can address the excess of auto reliance (traffic congestion, parking shortage, crashes, etc).

  • Salts

    Sometimes I wish I had access to a car but that’s not an option for me. I just anticipate my transit commute will take 2 hours and try not to be too bothered by it. If I knew I could cut that time in half by taking a bike I would do so, but unfortunately the bike takes almost as long in my case and leaves me exhausted (I’ve tried it out of desperation of a faster option).

  • Alexander Vucelic

    SoCal people who are able to go Car Free are, at this time a Minority perhaps only 5-7% of the population. I view the current Period as a Transition period with the goal of getting as Big a percentage of household to go Car Lite.

    If 50% of households could Transition to Car Lite Over next decade, tremendous benefits could be realized. Instead of Household VMT averaging 30,000 annually; Imagine a average household VMT of 15,000.

    The benefits would be huge

  • neroden

    Watch out. Erick is now a guy with a car and a grudge, who will do his damndest to support public transportation and take funding away from your precious roads. Just you wait.

  • neroden

    I’ve watched low income people bleed money on cars. Sucks huge amounts of money out of their lives. But without proper public transportation systems, what’s their alternative?

  • neroden

    That’s a difference, but it’s not a ridiculous difference. (Did you check the driving times?) There’s “it takes somewhat longer by public transit”, and then there’s “it takes ridiculously longer”.

  • neroden

    Seriously, the problem *you* are having with prostitution is partly sheer misogyny (why would the men in the area assume that a woman who dresses professionally is a street prostitute?!?) and partly due to the situation where the community is in such poverty that all the prostitution is on the street. Frankly, prostitution has never been eliminated and probably never will be, but in communities with more money, it takes place in, well, buildings. Street prostitutes are in a particularly terrible situation economically compared to all other prostitutes.

  • neroden

    Metro is definitely trying. Running a bus every 10 minutes is already gobs better than most of the US gets, so Metro is definitely trying.

    The complete destruction of the entire rail network in LA is a case where “you wouldn’t want to start from here”.

    But there’s another thing going on. Most of the cities other than LA were founded for explicitly bigoted or at least antisocial reasons. City of Industry was specifically trying to collect all that sweet, sweet industrial tax base without any of those annoying residents, and that’s only one of the examples.

    Metro seems to be trying… but I would expect that the municipals *aren’t* cooperating.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    easy solution

    create a 2nd HOT lane :)

  • neroden

    “My advice to all is to be nice – even if you’re frustrated, people are
    more inclined to want to help you if you stay nice and upbeat.”

    This is good advice to the customers.. but it’s also a bad customer service attitude, paradoxically. In order to be decent in any customer-facing business, you have to actually be more inclined to help angry people. It seems to be counterintuitive which is probably why customer service is a hard job that only a few people do well.

  • neroden

    Bluntly, an accurately and carefully negative statement like the one you just wrote tends to get a *much* more hostile response from people in power than a “BBB was pathetic” statement.

    I’ve learned that when you’re hitting a stonewall, it’s sometimes better to just yell at people. Perversely, it’s typically more effective at motivating them to *solve the problem* than calmly and politely detailing their shortcomings in cutting detail. Once they start actually trying to help, then you can calm down and be polite.

    Humans are weird.

  • neroden

    The roads in LA are crazy crazy wide. Every single Rapid route could have bus lanes. But they don’t. Why not?

  • neroden

    Your statement “there usually aren’t enough buses to fully use the capacity of an exclusive lane” describes the actual problem quite accurately. In cities with healthy bus systems, there typically *are* enough.

  • Asher Of LA

    I don’t see how that’s possible outside of specific transit hubs. Even running buses every three to five minutes doesn’t consume a whole lane. I looked up photos, and aside from a picture of Seoul, your scenario seems rather exceptional.

    And not every street with bus service in a city can bear enough buses to fill an entire lane.

  • neroden

    How many buses “consume a whole lane” also depends on *how fast the buses are moving*. Obviously they’re more widely spaced if they’re moving faster. Which is good.

    “And not every street with bus service in a city can bear enough buses to fill an entire lane.”
    That’s true. But are there any streets in Los Angeles with long bus lanes? At all? Because some of them sure can carry enough buses to fill a lane.

  • If the buses won’t fill the lane, let taxis use it too. With that being said, a lane at V/C ratio of 1, no matter what vehicles are in it, isn’t exactly ideal either.

  • Asher Of LA

    IMO, the only places where buses could fill a lane in LA is at transit hubs where buses from multiple lines/transit authorities congregate.

    As for speed and throughput, you can add traffic to a lane and not reduce speeds, up to a point. The tolling of course keeps it below that point.

  • Asher Of LA

    Yeah capacity is meant to mean how many can this lane contain while maintaining a given speed.

    I think the optimal arrangement would be free passage for dedicated transit vehicles (public or private, so vans and minibuses would qualify), while charging everyone else the toll necessary to maximize throughput.

  • lunartree

    So now that urban centers are expensive we should treat them like McMansions because rich people live in cities? Ok, you sound like a reasonable individual… /s

  • Joe Linton

    Overall I can agree with this – until you said it should be the goal “of every household” – which doesn’t acknowledge there are actually plenty of car-free households.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    good catch

    the goal of every

    …Multi-Car; 25,000 Annual VMT per adult….


    :) .

  • datbeezy

    I’d be careful – the way you’ve written it seems you consider car free/car-lite as a value choice, rather than, say, equitable policy. 50% is a number unachievable without society-wide violence that would make urban renewal look like winning a free vacation on Wheel of Fortune.

  • datbeezy

    money is replaceable. Time is not.

  • datbeezy
  • Alexander Vucelic

    $10 gas might change the calculus PDQ


  • Phantom Commuter

    Probably retired, unemployed or “working” at home …

  • Alexander Vucelic

    people with kids in school, Living great lives, with good jobs who have Simply arranged their lives to spend very little time sitting in a Private car.

    Its doable, but requires some different thinking.

    my favorite is a Women who manages a ~300 unti complex on the besch. She decided to sell her House about 20 miles away, and buy a condo 1/2 mile away. Instead of fighting traffuc twice a day to/from Work; she has a pleasent walk over looking the Océan.

    better school for the kiddo also.

  • Slexie

    Have you tried Zipcar?

  • Yorkman Lowe

    I dont know about now, but when I lived in LA (1956-71), RTD line 50 ran from Boyle Hts to Southwest LA: South on Soto, W on Slauson, S on Pacific Blvd, W on Florence to Crenshaw.

  • hcat

    Moderate density with good walkability (like some beach communities) is better than high “density without Urbanism,” as Johnny Sanphilippo calls it.

  • hcat

    Do driverless cars just circle the streets forever and never stop?

  • hcat

    People don’t stay in the same job long nowadays. It’s too Much to ask them to move house every time they change jobs.


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