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The band Missing Persons famously sang, "nobody walks in L.A," and it's true that southern Californians generally live an automotive lifestyle. But the situation isn't as grim as our own Matthew Richard Poole paints when he complains reports when he writes that "we can't honestly recommend" L.A.'s public transit system. Sure, it's no New York City subway, but with 1.2 million people boarding the bus each day and the second-largest fleet in the nation, public transportation in L.A. doesn't quite "suck."

I'm not being an environmentalist Pollyanna here. I can't drive, yet I have family members and business interests in L.A., so when I head out there I take the bus. The L.A. bus system, already pretty comprehensive, has been getting better, faster and more frequent over the past five years with the appearance of more and more rapid Red Line busses that zip down L.A.'s boulevards.

Why take public transit in L.A.? Like me, you may be a member of the can't-drive-won't-drive crowd. You could be too young to rent a car, or too old to feel comfortable amongst the region's aggressive drivers. Or you could be on a strict budget: where a car rental may run you $30 or $40 a day, a day's Metro pass is $3. You can mix bus days and car days, too, in case you can only afford one day of that beautiful convertible. There's still nothing like cruising around the Hollywood Hills on your own or driving at your own pace up the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu.

Tips For Busing L.A.

  • Don't ask locals. Angelenos who don't ride the bus are convinced it doesn't exist or is "nearly invisible," to quote Poole. A few weeks ago, I asked a receptionist in a Westwood office building where the nearest bus stop was. She had no idea. But a block away there was a clearly-marked stop for a fast, frequent bus to downtown and Santa Monica.
  • Divide to conquer. L.A. is big, so divide your trip into segments and take L.A. neighborhood by neighborhood. Transit-wise, I'd divide the most tourist-friendly parts of L.A. into three segments: Downtown and Hollywood; The Westside and Beverly Hills (basically, from La Brea to Sepulveda boulevards primarily along Wilshire Boulevard) and Santa Monica/Venice. Consider booking two hotels: one downtown or in Hollywood, and then moving to one in Santa Monica after a day or two.
  • Take the fastest bus you can. Poky local buses are quite slow. So try to take the rapid "red buses," whose numbers all start with 700, whenever you can. "Limited stop" buses, whose numbers start with 300, fall in between the two other kinds.
  • Fire up your printer. There is a complete, comprehensive system map (Adobe Acrobat Reader required) of all the buses and trains in L.A. on the MTA's website (www.mta.net). It also has schedules for most routes and a nifty, automated trip planner. Print out the map and all the schedules you can stomach before getting to L.A.
  • Celebrate diversity. The main transit system, Metro (www.mta.net), runs most of the buses in the area but not all; the L.A. region is covered by more than two dozen separate bus systems run by cities and towns. This can be terrifying, but also a very powerful thing to know. For instance, to check out the art galleries in Culver City you catch a green Culver City bus; to speed to Santa Monica, take a blue Santa Monica bus. All the lines are on the main MTA map and in the automated trip planner.
  • Banish spontaneity. Many buses only run once every half an hour during mid-day. Maps are hard to find. Plan your journeys out in advance using the Internet -- and take note of alternate routes or buses you could take before you set out. If you absolutely can't plan in advance, print out Metro's 12-Minute Map (Adobe Acrobat Reader required) which shows all of the most frequent bus lines.
  • Don't be a night owl, at least not too much. While many key bus lines run sporadically until midnight, and a few even run 24 hours, buses get a lot less frequent after 8 or 9pm. While buses, subways and subway stops are safe at all hours (and I've ridden the 1am Venice Boulevard bus, which is packed with restaurant workers), I can't vouch for standing on darkened corners, especially if you have to transfer buses. Try to enjoy nightlife near your hotel (another reason to switch around your lodgings.)

Five Lines To Know

Scared of bus maps? That's OK. I've picked out the four bus lines and one train that can get you to many of L.A.'s top destinations. All these buses are frequent enough that you don't need to worry about schedules, at least before about 8pm. Most links below require Adobe Acrobat Reader.

  • The #720 Wilshire Boulevard Rapid bus is the king of LA buses. The first in the "rapid bus" lines that come every few minutes and stop every half mile or so, it connects downtown with Westwood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, LACMA, the Petersen Automotive Museum, the La Brea Tar Pits, and leaves the Farmers' Market and Grove a short walk or 5-minute DASH shuttle ride away. It's frequent and reliable from 5:30am until midnight. Really, you can enjoy a two-day trip to L.A. with only this bus.
  • The Santa Monica #10 bus is a high-speed, freeway express bus between downtown and Santa Monica. It's the fastest way to get from downtown to the far West Side.
  • The #2/302 Sunset Boulevard line. Yes, you can cruise Sunset Boulevard without your own car, though it isn't as glamorous as doing so. Still, the #2 and its faster #302 cousin hit all the sights along Sunset on the way to the sea, including the neighborhoods of Echo Park, Silver Lake, West Hollywood, Bel Air and Brentwood.
  • The #33/333 Venice line. Not only does it let you zip between Santa Monica and Venice, it'll take you straight from Venice to downtown, grazing Sony Pictures Studios on the way.
  • The Red Line subway. Much maligned by Angelenos, it's actually helpful for tourists because it connects downtown, Koreatown (at the Wilshire/Western stop), Universal Studios and Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood for Grauman's Chinese Theater and the Walk of Fame. It's also a sight in itself, having appeared in many movies.

Going Where You Want

Yes, you can hit all the L.A. attractions by bus if you're savvy and wield your schedules with pride. Here's a guide to busing it to many of the regional attractions that I didn't mention above.

Disneyland: Believe it or not, there's a $1.75 express bus from downtown L.A. to Disneyland. It even leaves every 30 minutes most of the day. The catch is, it takes an hour and a half. Still, nothing beats the price of the MTA #460. You can shave half an hour off of that trip by taking a Metrolink Orange County Line train from Union Station to Fullerton and switching for the quite frequent and busy OCTA #43 bus, for a total of $7.25 each way on weekdays or $5.75 on weekends.

Everything downtown, including Little Tokyo, Union Station, the cathedral, etc: The Red Line subway shuttles between downtown and Hollywood, with three stops downtown; within downtown, a network of 25-cent DASH buses can take you pretty much everywhere.

The Getty Museum: Hop off the #720 at Westwood Blvd. for the 15 minute ride on the #761, which leaves every 10-30 minutes depending on time of day.

Griffith Park and the Autry National Center: It's a half-hour ride on the #96 bus from downtown, or a much shorter trip if you're already in nearby Los Feliz (see below) and connect from the #181.

LAX airport: If you're staying in downtown or Hollywood, the Union Station Flyaway bus leaves the green bus stop outside each LAX terminal, every half an hour, for $3. You can transfer at Union Station for the Red Line subway to the rest of Downtown and Hollywood. Make sure to get on the Union Station bus, not the similar-looking Van Nuys bus. If you're staying in Santa Monica, take the "LAX Transit Center" shuttle bus to the big bus stop where you'll switch to the Santa Monica #3 bus to downtown Santa Monica, about a half-hour ride. During weekday rush hours, grab a "Rapid 3" bus, which makes express stops on the way to Santa Monica, speeding the trip.

Los Feliz: Between 7am and 7pm, this hip neighborhood near Echo Park and Silver Lake is served by an every-15-minutes DASH shuttle loop from the Vermont/Sunset Red Line Station. At other times, take the #180/181 buses from the Hollywood/Western Red Line station.

Malibu: Yes, there's a bus to Malibu! The #534 express takes only half an hour from Santa Monica to wind up the fabled Pacific Coast Highway, and leaves every 10 to 30 minutes throughout the day. Once you're there, you can take the National Park Service's ParkLink shuttle to other nearby beaches or to go hiking in the mountains.

Melrose Avenue: The #10/11 bus runs frequently between downtown and West Hollywood along this boulevard, and there are plenty of easy connections at major intersections to bring you up to Sunset or down to Wilshire.

Pasadena: Scenic and well-preserved downtown Pasadena is a 25-minute ride from downtown L.A. on the new Gold Line train.

Finally, why not get on a tourist bus or take an expert walking tour? That's the only way you're going to get to see the "homes of the stars" without your own flashy convertible, anyway. See our Los Angeles Destination guide for our full list of tours.

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