The City Council told the head of the Big Blue Bus and city staff to focus on infrastructure and convenience to tackle declining bus ridership on the Westside during a wide-ranging discussion on traffic and mobility Tuesday. The BBB is currently en route to a structural deficit that could deplete reserves as early as 2021 without a boost in passengers. Ridership declined 12 percent in 2015 and 20 percent in 2016 before showing modest growth at the end of 2017.

“We still carry 14 million people a year and that keeps a lot of cars off the streets of Santa Monica and the Westside and we provide a very valuable service to our customers and this community,” BBB director Ed King told the Council. The Council suggested forming an advisory body consisting of drivers, riders and other stakeholders to address technical issues. Nearly 90 percent of the BBB service is now outside of city limits.

With traffic getting worse, bus service has seen a 22 percent decrease in the average travel speed, King told the Daily Press Thursday. King said everything is on the table to improve public transit, including working with ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft to add flexibility to buses.

“There’s going to be more disruptive factors in the transportation industry and we have to take a different approach with those being partners rather than competitors,” King said.

Two weeks ago, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi told Goldman Sachs tech investors he eventually wants to run bus systems, according to the website Recode. A week later, Uber launched Express Pool in Santa Monica and Los Angeles, a cheaper option that targets commuters by requiring them to walk a few blocks to catch a car filled with riders going the same direction. Because users may be matched with different riders each time, the pickup location and travel times change from day to day, trip to trip. Technology website Gizmodo’s reviewed the service and suggested readers “honestly, just take a bus.”

Last year, BBB overhauled its popular Dial-A-Ride service for seniors with a partnership with Lyft that is anticipated to increase efficiency and save money. King says it could be a model for future changes to the BBB. Uber and Lyft and the Expo Line are just three examples of BBB’s relatively new competition. More people also got behind the wheel of their own car. Between 2000 and 2015, the share of households without vehicles feel 30 percent, according to regional statistics from the Southern California Association of Governments.

“People don’t want to wait,” Mayor Pro-tempore Gleam Davis said Tuesday. Davis sometimes takes Route 3 down Lincoln Boulevard to El Segundo for work. She suggested moving buses off unpopular routes and onto major arteries to increase the frequency and simplify the system. She encouraged the BBB to look at innovative ways to reach riders who live far from thoroughfares. “It’s not a question of reducing service. It’s a question of redeploying the assets we already have.”

The BBB lines that go down Pico Boulevard, Lincoln Boulevard, Main Street and Santa Monica Boulevard have the lowest cost per passenger in the system, according to a recent report. Multiple councilmembers said they would support prioritizing buses on city streets by either restricting lanes or giving them traffic signal priority. Mayor Ted Winterer said he had a call scheduled Friday to talk to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti about extending the new bus-only lanes on Lincoln Boulevard past Santa Monica city limits.

“The bus will be much more competitive, more attractive if it gets people to their destination faster than they can riding in autonomous vehicles, traditional vehicles, etc etc,” Winterer said.

On Friday’s call, Winterer said he would also bring up Wilshire Boulevard, which already has bus-only lanes in Los Angeles during peak commuting hours.

“It would total sense for us that would be a logical next corridor we should address,” King said.

During the meeting, bus drivers and other employees complained about aggressive riders, fare theft, and recent changes in routes that eliminated many east/west lines because of the Expo light rail line which runs along Colorado Avenue.

“Over the three years that I’ve been here, I have seen major cuts in runs and it devastated communities. We took runs away from communities that were thriving for the sake of a train,” said bus driver Christine Ivey. “Those routes should have stayed intact until we were able to get enough information on whether cutting those routes would be feasible.”

If the Council’s discussion is any indication, those riders and drivers will likely see more changes coming to their routes over the next few years as the BBB adjusts to a new reality. The Council said they would also support more perks for riders like sponsored Wifi and more comfortable seating.

Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press