They Beat the Bus
Venice neighbors got Big Blue Bus to change a ‘nightmare’ new route by helping them find a better one
By Stephanie Case
On an October Sunday in Venice’s Canal District, a gaggle of kids take turns at bat. Each grips a broomstick, winds up, and then swings at a piñata shaped like
a Big Blue Bus.
As the bus rips open, candy raining on the pavement, neighbors cheer. It’s a moment of catharsis for the residents of Ocean Avenue, who gathered to celebrate the end of a six-month battle against a public transit route they say wreaked havoc on their street.
Starting Feb. 21, the Big Blue Bus changed its routes as part of an effort to connect more pockets of West Los Angeles with the Expo Line. The new Route 1 was a streamlined path from Marina del Rey to Santa Monica’s Expo Line terminus and beyond, with buses cutting through Ocean on the way.
“The first day they came, it was a nightmare,” says Sarah Shoup, who lives in a house at the junction of Ocean, Venice Boulevard and Mildred Avenue, where one of the bus stops was planted.
Starting before dawn, buses would line up by her front yard. Because Ocean is a narrow, single lane street, they easily blocked traffic.
“Everything was stopped for three blocks going south and two stoplights going north,” she says. “It was the most dangerous intersection that you could ever imagine coming into existence, because there were pedestrians, bicyclists and vehicular traffic in every which direction.”
Cars and bikes would continually cross double-yellow lines to dodge buses, creating a domino effect of near-collisions.
“I would hear shouting, horns honking, breaks screeching,” says Shoup. “It was terrifying, and it was all day long.”
For Shoup and the majority of her neighbors, the route change was an unwelcome surprise – one they only became aware of when signs were posted two weeks prior to the buses’ arrival.
According to Suja Lowenthal, Big Blue Bus’ planning and community engagement manager, the bus company sent out three online surveys, invited input from neighborhood councils and sent letters to homeowners adjacent to bus stops, among other initiatives, but many of those efforts went unseen and unheard.
The route change, although met with outcry from some, Lowenthal says, was Big Blue Bus’ best attempt to accommodate as many commuters as possible.
“When you look at what public transit is designed to be, it’s a public service,” says Lowenthal. “So trying to reach the greater good at times can inconvenience a few individuals — and that’s unfortunately unavoidable.”
Part of that greater good is keeping bus fares inexpensive for all. In that regard, she says, picking the most efficient street routes, like Ocean Avenue, is paramount.
“If we take the longer way to get from Point A to Point B” — even just one additional block — “that can add tens of thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands, of dollars a year to providing that service,” says Lowenthal.
With that in mind, Shoup and six other neighbors organized a plan to get the route off their street while still meeting Big Blue Bus’ needs.
“Everyone has the right to be angry neighbors, and scream and shout and voice their opinion, but that’s not going to get anywhere. We knew that working with the bus company was going to get the change,” says Zelda Lambrecht, one of the seven, who now work under the banner of the Ocean Avenue Residents Group.
The group got to work: compiling video evidence of gnarled traffic, calculating the insufficient width of their street with measuring tape, disseminating signs of protest throughout the neighborhood.
One morning, Eva Greene, a longtime Ocean resident, jumped in her car and drove around Venice, testing out alternate routes. She clocked the travel time and extra distance of each, mindful of Big Blue Bus’ mileage concerns.
To coalesce their fight, Ocean Avenue Residents Group met with other local organizations. They also worked with merchants committees on Abbot Kinney and Washington Square, streets they agreed could benefit from a Big Blue Bus line outside their shops.
“We don’t want to just shove our problems onto somebody else,” says Shoup. “Our goal was to make a positive change, and bringing business to Venice would be positive.”
A mere 17 days after the bus route began, L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin held a community meeting at Westminster Avenue Elementary School, where Big Blue Bus and its detractors met in person. Hundreds of residents were in attendance as the seven Ocean Avenue organizers presented their case: to divert the bus to an equally efficient route down a wider, commercial street.
“Having had that feedback, and having had the opportunity to go back out and vet with other community groups and business organizations about shifting service, Abbot Kinney became a clear alternative,” says Lowenthal.
On Aug. 21, Big Blue Bus debuted a truncated Route 1 which kept off Ocean Avenue. Route 18 picked up the slack, now extending from the Marina Peninsula to Westwood with three stops on Abbot Kinney.
Ocean Avenue considered the reroute a victory and invited their neighbors — plus the merchants from Abbot Kinney and Washington Square — to eat, dance and take a whack at the bus-shaped piñata.
“The expression on everyone’s face is one of ‘I can breathe,’” says Lambrecht, surveying the party. “It’s that relief of knowing the problem is gone, and that it’s quiet. But I think it’s also that feeling that we can do something.
“There’s always that sense that you’ll never fight the government and win. Well, we did. You can achieve something if you work with people rather than against people and find something that’s good for everybody.”
NOTE: The transit director of Big Blue Bus penned a response to this article that was published in the Nov. 3 edition of The Argonaut.