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In Transit: From S.F. to L.A. via Public Transportation 

Wednesday, Jun 22 2011

Page 4 of 4

Tinker and Perry hang with me for an hour in downtown San Luis Obispo until the No. 10 Santa Maria pulls up at 8:33 p.m. The sun sets as the bus navigates past the silhouettes of landscaped suburbs, then mountains, and finally motors alongside the Pacific, which reflects chichi seaside resorts' neon lights in an orange and purple glow. I am the last passenger off the bus at 9:30 at the Santa Maria Town Center Mall Transit Terminal, which is actually just a bus stop in front of a fenced-off section of the mall. After 19 hours of travel and layovers, I am 225 miles from my front door. I settle on accommodations located, conveniently, next door to a bail bondsman. The television, when switched on, begins showing professional wrestling. Dinner duplicates lunch: granola bars and hard-boiled eggs. I sleep in my clothes.

I am the only pedestrian in Santa Maria at not quite 4 a.m. on a Tuesday. It's a four-mile walk to my next bus stop, and I veer off Broadway and into the industrial section of town, which also features a 24-hour "pay-n-play" racquetball court. I bear left for a 1.4-mile stroll down a pitch-black bicycle trail alongside the railroad tracks. Hagerman Softball Complex, the disembarkation point for the Clean Air Express, literally emerges from the fog.

The Clean Air Express, created by the Santa Barbara Air Pollution Control District, and Muni are both modes of public transportation in the manner that beagles and mastiffs are both dogs. The Express recoups 81 percent of its operating costs from fares, which is roughly four times what Muni does. And it transports some 200,000 riders a year, which is roughly one-fourth what Muni does — in a day.

Riders don't line up for the 5:50 a.m. bus, but instead reserve spots by placing their bags in a queue before heading off to parts unknown. Some leave bottles of water or diet soda. One woman tosses her rosary beads out of a moving pickup truck.

As has been the case for so much of this trip, the scenery outside the windows — hills, beaches, a railroad bridge framing the Pacific — is gorgeous. But this crowd has grown accustomed to it, and spends the trip sleeping, reading, or, in the case of the gent behind me, singing along with his iPod in unintelligible, falsetto bursts. This most unwelcome Neil Young impersonation lasts 90 minutes.

After a short wait in the heart of Santa Barbara, I ascend an onboard spiral staircase — yes, really — to enter the Coastal Express bus. A driver who croons along with the country music on her radio drops me off at the Pacific View Mall in Ventura, where the 101 Connection hops on and off the eponymous highway en route to the Thousand Oaks Transit Center. As we do not pick up any elderly passengers at our Leisure World stop, I manage to make my transfer with a luxurious three minutes to spare. I am now rolling downhill, literally and figuratively. I can smell the finish line. On the Metro 161, I can also smell the crotch sweat and liquor-through-the-pores odors you associate with urban transport.

The bus slowly navigates through leafy green suburbs on Los Angeles' periphery. At one point a young resident attempts to bluff his way onto the bus with some manner of bogus pass. The driver methodically tears it to shreds in his face, a moment startlingly reminiscent of Mr. Hand doing much the same to Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

I catch the Orange Line bus in Woodland Hills and, for the first time on this trip, a vehicle fills up. It's also the first time I've ever thought to complain that a bus smells too good. The vehicle is stocked with young women in sundresses and takes on the scent of berry shampoo. At North Hollywood station, I stumble past patchouli salesmen to my last transfer — the much-filmed Los Angeles Red Line subway. The disembodied voice piped through the coach kindly requests riders to keep their feet off the seats. The woman next to me actually follows this directive — it was her first time on the subway, too. We pull into Los Angeles Union Station at 12:18 p.m. I have finished my voyage at the exact time Nelson's itinerary said I should. To the minute.

There is no welcoming committee on the platform, unless you count the woman cursing every last passenger and dancing along to music only she can hear. I clamber aboard the escalator, navigate the vast Depression-era rail station, and exit through the grandiose, Art Deco foyer. I then literally bump into Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The mayor is a charming man. Too charming. But then the former Mrs. Villaraigosa could tell you that.

I wander off into the heart of downtown L.A. beneath a staggeringly bright midday sun. Doing the math, I have just taken 16 buses or trains operated by seven public agencies. Transportation costs totaled $41.25 for a trip that took exactly 32 hours and seven minutes and covered some 480 miles. And was it crazy? Of course. But traversing the state via public transit allows you to meet people and see places you'd never encounter in any other way. You share a seat with a cross-section of California.

But, yes, still crazy.

The ride home on the Amtrak Coast Starlight, incidentally, costs not quite three times as much and takes a little less than half as long. Yet, counterintuitively, sitting among the same people in the same seat of the same train car for the whole journey makes the voyage home feel longer than the one there.

On the Coast Starlight, however, it's a good bet no one will steal your teeth.

Follow a map of this journey with photos at

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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