Q & A With the Big Blue Bus

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Since February 21st this year, route changes within Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus network has seen Route 1 buses now traveling down Ocean Avenue. These changes came as a surprise to those living on the street and now the neighborhood is not happy.

For an article in the print edition of Yo! Venice, that came out today, Melanie Camp interviewed Suja Lowenthal, the Planning & Community Engagement Manager at Big Blue Bus.

Lowenthal provided in-depth answers to the questions posed. Yo! Venice has decided to publish these answers in full, as a supplement to the newspaper article…

First off, on the meeting held Wednesday March 9th people against the Big Blue Bus route changes felt the attitude coming from Big Blue Bus was, ‘the law says we can put buses wherever we want so that is what we’re going to do,’ what can you say to this? 

It is important to make clear that Big Blue Bus is not breaking the law. Big Blue Bus shared that the law does permit us the legal right to be on any street. We also shared that we take in to consideration many variables through our service planning process. This was done in direct response to a few attendees’ immediate call to remove all new service from those streets on the following day.  This call comported with the sentiments of many residents who wrote to us under the impression that because some streets have weight limits for trucks, that we must be breaking the law.  It is important for folks to understand how the rules apply to this conversation about routes.  An honest expression of the law in the entire context of the conversation does not suggest that we don’t value public input. Our responses throughout the evening included a simple one that we have not broken any rules or laws in our route structure.  While this may be painful for some to hear, we want to empower a conversation based in reality, rather than have either group waste time chasing misinformation.

What about the 3 calls that were made to the Venice Neighborhood Council, that were never answered. What would you say to residents against the new routes who feel not enough was done by Big Blue Bus to gain community feedback?

There seems to be a notion that there is somehow an easy way to get people’s attention in advance of change.  But the truth is that there isn’t an easy way.  What we want is to engage a community on these questions because we nearly always get a better outcome when we do.  Local residents, business owners and stakeholders help us understand dynamics that aren’t necessarily visible to outsiders. We engaged neighborhood associations in our entire 51-square mile service area with the request that they allow us to make presentations at upcoming neighborhood association meetings. We also provided neighborhood associations with links to BBB’s online survey as well as to our BBB-Expo Service Integration webpage, requesting that this information be forwarded to all those who receive communication from them.

We also engaged elected officials in our 51-square mile service area and asked them to push out the survey and proposed Expo service integration plan to their constituents. There is no reasonable way for BBB to communicate directly with all residents along all routes and that is why we depend on opinion leader organizations and individuals to extend the information they receive from us to their respective constituencies.

Folks said we should have written in advance to those who live along these routes.  There are two problems with that.  One, it would not get us a cross-section of community involvement; only the attention of those living on the proposed routes, and that is still not a guarantee that you would get folks’ attention.  To that point, we mailed letters in late December and early January of this year to households that were within a few houses on either side of the street of the proposed bus stops and received almost no feedback.  Even this did not register with folks as impacting them.

We don’t blame residents for this. Everyone is overwhelmed with mail, email and messaging.  It is an ongoing problem trying to determine a way to garner participation.  That is why the online survey is so important.  Unlike other surveys, ours let people zero in on their geographic area of interest.  You could skip as many questions as you want, answer only about your community, and your opinion still counted.  We received over 500 surveys regarding Route 17 alone, and subsequently had a meeting with interested stakeholders attended by approximately 75 people.  We were able to find common ground and moved forward. This is how it is supposed to work, but it took community leaders taking note of the survey, sending it out to their lists, and people forwarding the link.  We didn’t have that happen in Venice, and we are sorry that it didn’t.

Why didn’t we do more?  We are adding six new routes and over 225 bus stops across the county.  Ocean Avenue and 7thStreet represent approximately 4% of the changes we are making and it was not self-evident to us that there would be this reaction.  Prior to this set of changes implemented in February, we had 40-foot buses driving on Penmar Street between Carlton Way and Victoria Avenue in the area just across Lincoln Blvd from Venice.  That street is barely 25 feet wide, and yet the service had been operating there without incident (as many at the meeting noted) for more than 50 years.  We have introduced service on other streets similar to Ocean or 7th with little to no feedback. It isn’t always easy to determine exactly where reactions will appear.

Surveys were conducted outside of Venice, why was this? 

Survey links were put out to all stakeholders we could identify through our research of neighborhood associations, chambers of commerce, business districts, school districts, elected officials, and others throughout the 51-square mile service area we operate.  There was no geographic prejudice.  We sent the link everywhere, which is why we received a lot of responses.

What were the deciding factors behind selecting the new routes?   

There are so many factors that go into route planning, that you can’t say there is a deciding factor.  It is a combination of examining where we are trying to go, who we are trying to serve, and what destinations we want to get near, and then looking for routes that are physically possible, that give people short walk distances, that are reasonably direct, and that offer good transfer opportunities to other routes. In cases where there are significant changes, we engage the community. In other words, it is a robust and thoughtful process.

Sometimes in working with a community, folks will suggest a zigzag shaped route that hits every destination that folks can imagine might need service.  The problem with that structure is that it takes too long to use if you are travelling any distance, customers become frustrated, and ridership falls off.  Other times, folks suggest that we just stay out on the main streets.  But, if the walk distances are long, then you effectively abandon residents and key destinations that aren’t near a main street.  The route may work, but you have not necessarily improved things for folks in the areas where there is no transit.  So, in answer to your question, service planning is done the same way anyone does route planning, except with more inputs.  If you were going to work, and had to stop at the day care, the dry cleaner, your child’s school and then reverse it and add a grocery store on the way home, there are probably many ways you could execute that.  Except that we are trying to connect with a lot more destinations, and trying to find the compromise positions that make service useful and viable.  Sometimes a near perfect route alignment doesn’t work because it requires a left turn where there is no left arrow and so we are back to the drawing board.  It is a very complex and thoughtful process.

Why were narrow residential streets chosen over wider commercial streets?

In the case of Seventh Street, it is because it gets us closer to a large area with long walks to transit and many folks who need transit.  In the case of Ocean, it is because it was the shortest distance between Venice Circle and the west side of Marina Del Rey and it also offered good access for folks walking out from neighborhoods.  Pacific does not have ADA accessible crosswalks, and it is already a Culver City Bus route.  Abbott Kinney is a significantly longer route to Marina Del Rey.  Some attendees of the meeting said, “It’s only a mile.”  But that is a long way when you are making the trip many times a day.  This translates in to tens of thousands of dollars in extra costs just for that segment. This does not mean we aren’t listening or taking this alternative in to consideration; just to share why we chose what we chose.

Does Big Blue Bus stand to gain more revenue from the new routes and would residents be correct in thinking this was only about profits?

Big Blue Bus doesn’t make a profit.  Like all American public transit systems, we lose far more than we take in at the fare box.  The balance is made up by taxes.  What we look for is efficiency, which is to say moving the most folks we can for every dollar spent.  So, shorter routes do matter.

Would Big Blue Bus change their routes again in the face of a large public outcry or are these new routes really the only way moving forward towards a greener, less congested traffic situation in Venice? 

We came out to listen and we plan to continue listening and analyzing what has been said.  No decisions have been made.  We are looking more closely at what was presented as alternatives.

Disgruntled residents say they will fight the route changes not just for their neighborhood but for any other neighborhood that is adversely affected by transit route changes in the future. They are talking about protesting as human barricades and also slowing buses by riding bicycles in the lane ahead of the buses. What do you say to this?

Sadly, protesting through human barricades places life and limb in harm’s way. This cannot be what residents want. Obstructing traffic jeopardizes everyone on the road whether they be pedestrians, riders on a bus, motorists, cyclists, or riders or motorbikes.

Folks are angry about traffic and we don’t blame them.  The state of California is estimating the population of LA County to rise by an additional 550,000 people by 2025.  We know that what we are doing is seen by some as making matters worse, but we ask here that they reconsider that position as public transit eases single-occupant vehicle congestion and improves overall quality of life. We hope folks will join us in our effort to ensure that congestion can be reduced in their neighborhood and others through effective mobility options such as public transit. If folks stop buses from running while we seek answers, all they will do is convince people not to ride them.  Then these riders who were riding the bus will be back in their cars or an Uber.  We need to work together to make transit better, and that is what we are trying to do.

Do you know if Big Blue Bus was testing alternate routes over the weekend? Some locals thought this may be the case.

No. Big Blue Bus was not testing alternate routes over the weekend.

 

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