On its centennial, LA’s bus system looks to the future

By Zeke Reed

LA’s first bus route opened 100 years ago to much fanfare. Photo courtesy of Metro.

Streetcars dominated public transportation in turn-of-the-century LA. Then came the rise of the private automobile, which brought new autonomy — and congestion.

In 1923, voters passed a referendum to revamp the rapidly growing region’s transit system. Enter the sleek, new city bus.

“Buses were considered these very innovative technologies that were very nimble and flexible,” says India Mandelkern, who wrote about the bus centennial for Metro. “They promised much more elastic service than the streetcars.”

The first route ran along Western Boulevard from Slauson Avenue to Loz Feliz Boulevard, a busy corridor that lacked streetcar infrastructure.

The introduction of buses started as an experiment, but the response was enthusiastic out of the gate.

“They were carrying 10,000 passengers a day,” explains Mandelkern. “Within a couple of months, they introduced a second bus route on Wilshire Boulevard.” 

Soon, buses supplanted streetcars as the dominant form of public transit. It didn’t hurt that riding the bus felt like a luxury. “Buses were considered very classy. They were more like cars. They had these fancy leather seats and spacious aisles,” says Mandelkern.

LA’s early buses were built with style and comfort in mind. Photo courtesy of Metro.

In the 100 years since then, LA’s bus system may have lost some luster, but it continues to provide an essential lifeline to hundreds of thousands of Angelenos. According to Metro, 89% of bus riders fall below the poverty line and half make less than $15,000 per year.

For Mandelkern, stats like these demonstrate the essential role of buses. “[The] bus has always historically had this very, very strong connection to equity. And a big reason for that is that as LA became more car-centric … [the] bus was the only game in town for the car-less.”

Unlike private automobiles, the bus forces people into direct contact with each other. “Bus riding is a collective experience. I think that there's a shared humanity on the bus,” Mandelkern asserts. 

Today, Metro continues to invest in upgrades to make bus ridership more convenient, affordable, and enjoyable. It recently hired more bus drivers and introduced fare-capping so that no rider would have to pay more than $5 a day. The agency is also working alongside municipalities to expand bus priority lanes, 40 miles of which already exist.

“We're still trying to create ways to make bus service faster, more efficient, and ensure that … it's something that's just as useful and seamless as getting around in a car.”