Pop quiz, hotshot: Transit ridership is declining all over Los Angeles County. If bus speeds drop, more transit passengers switch to cars. What do you do? What do you do?!
In the movie Speed, Dennis Hopper’s character places a bomb on a freeway commuter bus. Once the bus reaches 50 mph on the freeway, the bomb is armed. If the speed drops below 50 mph, the bomb goes off. Even in 1994, staying above 50 mph on an LA freeway during the 8 a.m. rush hour was a challenge.
In the movie, our LAPD hero played by Keanu Reeves is able to evacuate the passengers in an action-packed scene at LAX. The bus explodes, but the people are safe.
When UCLA ITS staff and students recently watched Speed in preparation for the movie’s 25th anniversary, I thought about how much slower Southern California buses are today than they used to be.
It turns out 1994 is a great base year for analysis, as it was the first year that all agencies reported data to the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database. I compared some key metrics versus 2017, the most recent year for which data is available.
In 1994, Santa Monica Big Blue Bus had an average systemwide speed of 12.42 mph. In 2017, it was down 27 percent to 9.00 mph.
Buses spent an extra 152,228 hours to offer 2017 service levels at those reduced speeds. Put another way: that’s 17 extra years of service or enough time to watch Speed 78,738 times.
Extra time means extra costs. The slower speeds meant that in 2017, the Big Blue Bus spent an extra $12.1 million on vehicle operating costs in 2017 to offer service that they would have at 1994 speeds.
And the Big Blue Bus can’t count on fares from increased ridership to address those extra costs. In 1994, Big Blue Bus had an average occupancy of 17.26 passengers, about as many as were riding the bus in the movie. By 2017, average occupancy fell to 10.22 passengers.