Big Blue Bus will run at 70% service levels this summer. (File photo)

Tuesday’s City Council meeting will focus on the future of the Big Blue Bus service, which is en route for an operating deficit as early as next year. The service could figuratively run out of gas by 2021, as declining ridership will exhaust BBB’s reserves over the next few years if the Council does not implement a major overhaul, according to a staff report. The bus system still moves about 13.6 million people a year to work and play around the Westside.

“The time has come to chart a new direction to ensure a sustainable transit model for our City’s residents, visitors, and the Westside,” said the report by the director of the BBB, Edward King.

The City Council may reconsider the current governance of the BBB since 85 percent of the bus service is offered outside of Santa Monica city limits. Buses travel to Los Angeles, Culver City, and unincorporated LA County.

“A transit board with representatives from all jurisdictions served might create a more effective and harmonious governance and enhance BBB’s ability to confront current ridership trends,” the report said. King also suggests recruiting board members from riders such as seniors, people with disabilities, and minority communities.

Ridership in 2016 alone declined by nearly 20 percent, following a 12 percent decline in 2015. The report said the BBB showed modest growth up to 4 percent this fiscal year, “a positive trend that indicates we may have reached bottom.”

There are several reasons fewer people are boarding the bus. Across Southern California, more people are driving their own cars.   In fact, despite improvements in public transportation, the share of households without vehicles fell 30 percent, according to new numbers from the Southern California Association of Governments. The share of households with less than one care per adult fell 14 percent.

The SCAG and UCLA report found that only three percent of our region’s population rides transit very frequently.

“Frequent transit ridership is concentrated among lower-income people, particularly foreign-born residents. And these households have outpaced the average regional resident in new car ownership,” said the 70-page SCAG report.

In addition, 2016 state legislation allowed about 650,000 undocumented residents of Los Angeles County to obtain drivers licenses. Staff at the BBB believe many of those workers had likely been using the bus to get around before getting the legal ability to drive.

As more people got behind the wheel of a car, traffic worsened, slowing bus travel speed four percent over the last two years. Uber and Lyft services that offer door-to-door transit also take commuters away from public transportation.

Finally, the new Expo light rail service has also played a role, however, not as much as other factors.

“Ridership was lost on every BBB route at nearly every bus stop across the system, not just those directly impacted by the Expo light rail opening, indicating the presence of other forces at work,” the report said.

Overall, BBB staff admits the current model is “not sustainable.”


Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press