CITY HALL — In what many considered an unusually frank report, Ed King, director of the Big Blue Bus, laid bare what he saw as deficiencies in Santa Monica’s award-winning transit system to the City Council Wednesday night, revealing weaknesses in on-time arrival, bus maintenance and employee absences.
Buses arrive as scheduled only two-thirds of the time, they break down 1,400 miles before they should and employees are absent from their posts 18 percent of the time, or twice as much as what King called the “industry standard” in his report.
“Those are issues we need to address. It’s basic Transit 101 stuff,” King said Thursday.
Today, a Big Blue Bus rider has a 67 percent chance that their chariot of choice will arrive when they expect it to, if they can puzzle out arrival times from the opaque bus schedules.
Industry standard is 85 percent, King said, although the bus system could be considered successful if it managed to raise its numbers to 75 or 80 percent on-time arrival, given the notorious traffic many buses must slog through in Los Angeles.
That has to do with scheduling buses more efficiently to eliminate long lines at bus stops that slow down service, he said.
Old buses break down, and at least a handful of Santa Monica’s fleet have been on the road since 1997. King told council members that previous leadership had used money earmarked for new buses and other capital improvements to pay for operational costs, leaving old buses on the road.
The Big Blue Bus bought 21 new large buses using a contract approved in 2009, and have the option to buy 30 more through the end of that contract, according to a March 2013 report.
Finally, the Big Blue Bus system has the unfortunate distinction of running an 18 percent absentee rate, which equates to 30,000 hours a year in which an employee is supposed to be at work but does not show up either because of illness, injury or other reason.
If that amount were cut in half to the industry standard of 8 or 9 percent absenteeism, the system could put seven more buses on the road every day without any budget increase, King said.
He hopes to achieve that through the use of a wellness team and attendance program, among other initiatives.
Although council members did manage to get in a few questions about the state of the bus system and future technological improvements, they seemed largely unarmed by the raw honesty of King’s report.
“Ed King gave the most stand-up, unvarnished, honest report on the state of a city department that I ever recall hearing,” Councilmember Kevin McKeown said the next day. “If the turn-of-the-century glory days of the Big Blue Bus have eroded, I’m glad to have a straight-shooter like Ed in place to make right what’s been lost, and to lead us into a visionary rethinking of Big Blue’s role … .”
King plans to do more than just clean up house, however.
He and his team want to put in place a number of other changes to make the BBB easier for people to use and run more smoothly.
High up on that list are modifications to the major routes along Pico and Lincoln boulevards, specifically Route 7, Rapid 7, Route 3 and Rapid 3.
Route and Rapid 7 lines begin in the Downtown and run on Pico Boulevard by Santa Monica College. The regular bus ends at the Rimpau Station in Los Angeles, and the Rapid connects with the Metro Purple Line at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue.
It sees a lot of traffic from people traveling into Santa Monica for either work or to attend Santa Monica College, with people packed onto the buses in what some delicately call “popularity” and King calls “overcrowding.”
“SMC is a huge market for us,” King said Thursday. “We provide service to a lot of students and staff, and a lot of commuters use that route as well.”
On June 16, both the local and Rapid 7 lines will operate every 12 minutes, what King calls a “memory schedule” for its ease and clarity. He plans to put more buses on the roads during peak morning and evening hours, which he hopes will help out with the crowded bus conditions.
King is confident that his team can do that without raising rates, increasing the budget or cutting service on other lines. Fares are expected to stay the same, at least through the next two years.
Changes to the Lincoln routes have not yet been planned, but the prospect of new buses along Pico Boulevard already seem like a boon to students, said Don Girard, director of governmental and institutional communications at SMC.
“Any increase in additional capacity in both lines will benefit students,” Girard said. “It’s just like educational opportunity — if it’s available, they’ll make the most of it.”
King also emphasized greater integration with the Los Angeles Metro buses, particularly through the use of that system’s TAP card on local buses.
The system also plans to roll out new technology at some bus stops to give real-time information about bus arrivals.
Even as things move forward at the Big Blue Bus, the system must be ready to adapt to the arrival of the Exposition Light Rail Line, which is expected to arrive sometime in 2015.
That, along with the results of the announced initiatives, could spell major change in how the Big Blue Bus is used and operates.