LA’s first bus line got rolling 100 years ago today: here’s to a century of innovation and
In May, 1923, Los Angeles voters passed a referendum asking for better transit in their rapidly growing city. Traffic congestion was out of control, and the streetcar lines only went so far. In response, the two major streetcar companies in Los Angeles, Los Angeles Railway (LARy) and Pacific Electric (PE) put their heads together and formed a joint venture. The name? The Los Angeles Motor Bus Company.
The first bus route debuted on August 18, 1923, exactly 100 years ago today. The city held a ceremony and a parade attended by dozens of civic leaders. The new bus line ran down Western Avenue between Los Feliz Boulevard in the north and Slauson Avenue in the south. At the northern end, it looped from Russell Street to Los Feliz Boulevard at Hollywood Boulevard. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone –– it covers much of the same ground as Line 207 today.
Western Avenue made a lot of sense for a bus route. It was no longer the western edge of the city by that point, but it was incredibly congested. Automobile ownership was surging in LA –– one in three Angelenos owned a car by that point, which was more than twice the national average. The intersection between Western Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard was the busiest in Los Angeles … and it didn’t have a streetcar line.
The buses were scheduled on ten to fifteen minute headways. Within two weeks of opening, the Western Avenue buses were carrying 10,000 passengers a day. The line was so successful that a second route –– this time down Wilshire Boulevard –– debuted a few months later.
Wilshire was also a smart choice for a bus line. Not only did the boulevard also lack streetcar tracks, but it was the only street in Los Angeles that had permanently banned surface rail altogether by having a law written into the city’s municipal code. The bus, therefore, was the only transit option available. (Do you ever take Line 20 or Line 720? Something to ponder the next time you ride!)
More bus lines shortly afterwards:
- Sunset Boulevard (today’s Line 2)
- Griffith Park (today’s DASH Observatory / Los Feliz Line)
- Vine Street / Rossmore Ave (today’s Line 210)
- Vermont Avenue (today’s Line 204)
Wherever the city grew, bus lines followed. When the Wilshire Line debuted in late 1923, it stopped at La Brea Avenue. By 1925, the line was extended to Fairfax Avenue. By 1928, the line went all the way to Beverly Hills, another city entirely.
By 1925, Los Angeles had 53 miles of bus routes, lagging only behind Chicago. “The motor bus experiment,” the Los Angeles Times declared in 1925, “has been carried as far as any other city in the country.” And ‘experiment’ was right. Buses hit the streets at the same time as a slew of other roadway innovations, such as traffic lights (1920), red stop signs (diamond shapes in 1924, octagons in 1927) and pedestrian push buttons (1929). Sure, New York City and Chicago had larger bus fleets, they were also much larger cities. In 1925, the Los Angeles Times estimated that bus lines carried 1.5M passengers each month.
Perhaps the strongest evidence of the bus’s success was the fact that Pacific Electric and Los Angeles Railway never laid any new streetcar track after 1923. Whenever they planned a new route or a line extension, both companies depended on buses instead.
When we think about transit in Los Angeles, rail usually comes to mind first. It’s newer, shinier, and more expensive to build –– so it attracts the most attention. But buses comprise the vast majority of our service. We have six rail lines. We have 120 bus lines. We have 108 rail stations. We serve almost 12,000 bus stops. We have 439 rail operators. We have 3,896 bus operators. Three quarters of all rides on Metro are taken on the bus.
Buses take us to work, school, daycare, doctors, parks, clinics, and the grocery store. You’ll find them in every corner of the city. They’re so common that we can often forget they’re there –– this unassuming, hard-working, motorized glue that binds thousands of daily routines together.
Today, we don’t think of the bus as a technology, but in the early days, it was. I don’t mean this in a strictly mechanical sense, although Los Angeles has always had a thing for alternative fuel, pioneering hybrid gas electric motors in the 1920s, steam power during the 1970s, compressed natural gas (CNG) in the 1990s, and today, electricity (Metro has set a goal of transitioning the entire fleet to zero-emissions buses by 2030). More revolutionary was the flexibility buses afforded. Dubbed “trackless transportation,” they promised cheaper, more elastic, and all around better service than your standard streetcar. This has helped buses come through for us in times of crisis––fires, floods, earthquakes, civil disturbances––helping thousands of passengers find their way home.
Before Los Angeles had the resources to build rail, moreover, buses were rapid transit. They adapted to the transportation infrastructure at hand in order to provide alternatives to driving. The ‘Freeway Flyer’ service that got rolling in 1959 promised to “melt miles and minutes off the map,” exhorting riders to “live closer to your job without moving.” The El Monte Busway, the first eleven mile bus rapid transit system in the nation that debuted in 1973, shaved over twenty minutes off commutes. Their legacies are present in the J (Silver) Line and G (Orange) Line that still run today.
But celebrating the bus’s centennial means little without acknowledging our challenges. Because our fleet travels such large distances over so many jurisdictions, bus service brings our system’s pain points into focus. We know that too many bus stops don’t have adequate shelter or lighting, forcing riders to wait in the dark, the cold, or the searing heat. It isn’t an easy fix –– as Metro doesn’t actually own the bus stops or any related amenities –– only the sign and the pole. Solving this critical issue, therefore, requires creative collaborations with local jurisdictions. That’s why we’re asking for input from advisory councils and advocacy groups, we’ve assessed lighting and shade configurations on existing bus stop poles, and we’re developing new tools, such as an online portal that will provide resources for cities and jurisdictions who need assistance in improving their bus stop locations, among other projects.
We’re also working hard to make service faster. While we’ve hired 1,000 new bus operators over the past year and have returned service to pre-pandemic levels, too many buses are getting crippled by Los Angeles gridlock, leading to inefficiencies and delays. We can’t add bus priority lanes single-handedly, as Metro doesn’t own the public right of way. That’s why we’ve partnered with LADOT and other local leaders in order to come up with solutions. We’re excited about debuting Phase 1 of the La Brea Avenue Bus Priority Lanes later this month, located along a 2.8-mile segment of La Brea Avenue between Sunset and Olympic Boulevards. Soon thereafter, we’ll open more bus priority lanes on Sepulveda Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley. As of September 21 this year, 40 lane miles of bus priority lanes will be fully operational, increasing speed and reliability by up to 15%.
For decades and decades, the quality of bus service has been a powerful barometer of social and racial equity. As early as 1947, the Los Angeles Sentinel reported on the vast disparities in bus service in white versus Black neighborhoods, citing poorly routed buses, lack of shelters, benches and woefully inadequate service. After the Watts Rebellion in 1965, the commission dispatched to explain the rebellion turned bus service into a hot button equity issue. To ride the bus is to look at our greatest urban challenges dead in the face.
Today, when nearly 89% of Metro’s bus riders fall below the poverty line, and nearly 50% make less than $15,000 a year, it’s clear that without clean, efficient, and high quality bus service, we cannot provide meaningful opportunities to the millions of hard-working people who have made Los Angeles their home. Given that only 22% of Metro’s bus riders have regular access to a car, we know that buses are more than transportation –– they’re gateways to opportunity. So, we need to strengthen our partnerships with legislators, planners, engineers, and activists throughout the dozens of municipalities that Metro serves.
So if you’re reading this, come join us. Let’s take a moment to honor our buses, our operators, and the people who ride. And then let’s get to work.