Riders who depend on the Big Blue Bus lose service while those who gain access say they don’t want it

By Gary Walker

Changes to public bus routes often draw complaints but rarely cause widespread community outcry.

Unless, of course, that community is Venice.

On March 9, a panel of Santa Monica transportation officials got an earful from Venice residents who are angry about the elimination of two bus routes in Oakwood and the addition of a route that travels along narrow Ocean Avenue.

The complaints are as disparate as the two neighborhoods impacted. In historically working-class Oakwood, the loss of service is making life harder for people who depend on the bus. Meanwhile, more affluent residents in and around the Venice Canals are concerned about safety and traffic congestion.

Nearly 200 people attended the community meeting at Westminster Avenue Elementary School organized by Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin and the Venice Neighborhood Council, with many in attendance asking out loud why Big Blue Bus “invaded” the largely residential area around Ocean.

With the opening of east-west Expo Line light rail service in Santa Monica less than two months away, officials are trying to connect as many bus lines to the train as possible
and reach potential Expo riders in Marina del Rey, Big Blue Bus Director Edward King told the crowd.

On Feb. 21, Big Blue Bus Route No. 1 discontinued stops along Main Street, Windward Avenue, Venice Boulevard and Walgrove Avenue in favor of service to the marina. Other routes impacting Oakwood were discontinued or reconfigured.

Audience members expressed outrage after Big Blue Bus Transit Planning Administrator Tim McCormick said that during a three-year route study his team conducted an online survey about potential new routes — namely because no one in attendance had heard about the survey.

McCormick said Big Blue Bus had reached out to community groups and the Venice Neighborhood Council, but council Vice President Marc Saltzberg said he hadn’t heard about it.

Members of the South Venice Neighbors Group made a video presentation of what they described as near misses between the Big Blue Bus and motorists on Ocean Avenue, adding congestion, noise and even the threat of pollution from clean-fuel buses to their litany of safety concerns.

“Ocean simply isn’t wide enough for a bus route,” said Allen Spiegler, a member of the neighbors group. “Firetrucks cannot pass when there are buses ahead of them.”

The group called for diverting the bus to retail and commercial centers such as Abbot Kinney Boulevard and Main Street.

Longtime Oakwood resident Bertha Williams, who lives on Broadway Street and has ridden the Big Blue Bus since childhood, used to be able to board the old Route No. 1 near her home but now must walk five blocks to take the new and more circuitous Route No. 18.

“My major complaint is that somehow Venice and definitely Oakwood never got the notification,” Williams told Big Blue Bus officials. “My first notification of a major route change was when I was standing at my normal stop for the No. 1 and saw a sign tacked to the pole that said the route would be discontinued.”

Oakwood resident Jean Harrington had relied on the old Route No. 1 for shopping and other errands. Because the new Route No. 18 doesn’t take her to Lincoln Boulevard, she’s now forced to lug whatever she buys for several blocks.

“It’s a very long walk with groceries from Whole Foods, the 99 Cents store, Smart & Final and Ralphs with a cart. So if there was the possibility of the bus going all the way to Lincoln and Rose [Avenue], then down Lincoln and back to California, I could get home and only have to walk two and a half blocks to my house,” Harrington said.

Asked whether the loss of bus routes in Oakwood is a matter of economic injustice, longtime community leader Naomi Nightingale said “yes, but the true injustice was not holding a public hearing about the changes — period.”

Carolyn Ríos, who has lived in Venice for 40 years, noted that students who take the bus to Venice High School or Mark Twain Middle School are now being forced to go out of their way.

“Now we have no way to get our students to school,” Rios said. “How do we remain a community that’s vital and has a civic heart when we’ve been gentrified and kids are going more and more to private school?”

What happens now isn’t clear, but Bonin asked King and McCormick to consider readjusting bus routes and stay in touch with his office.