V&R Stories: Memories of Riding the Old RTD

Back in the day, I got around on our local public transit system, Metro Transit. Taking the bus and light rail made things easier plenty of times, especially if I was working in downtown Minneapolis or attending an event where parking and traffic were severely impacted.

The local public transport system was no stranger to me. It was a guide to the outside world before I got my license in 1980.

My introduction to public transport was in 1975 when the Southern California Rapid Transit District reconfigured its bus service in the San Fernando Valley. They called it the GRID system, which created a network of bus lines across the Valley to operate on all major streets in a…grid…crisscrossing entire Valley from Burbank to Chatsworth.

By riding the bus, I discovered a whole new world by venturing across the Los Angeles Basin and beyond. (Today, we call these rides "non-essential travel")

Initially, I did not make the decision to take the RTD as a way to be free. It was mom's idea. She received a mailer from the RTD one day announcing the GRID system. She turned to Matthew and I and basically said, "kids, you're on your own. Here's the mailer. Now, don't ask me for a ride again!" Well…something like that.

What was a typical bus ride in those early years? It's not unlike some of the rides you can do within the Twin Cities. Then again, we're talking the Los Angeles Basin – an expansive sprawl of about over 5,000 square miles and a population of over 10 million people.

Whenever I took the bus to go somewhere adventurous, I would start early – sometime before 7:00 AM. Mornings in the San Fernando Valley were crisp sometimes – even in the summer. You can feel the sun. You could also feel the smog. My lungs were fine and I never felt sensitive to the brown layer that obscured the mountains for most of the year.

At the intersection of Victory and Reseda Boulevards, I would stand on the southwest corner, facing north, for the next 35 bus (currently called the 240) to rumble down the street. There was no shelter to stand under. Those days, you simply had benches. If it rained, you could stand under the awning of the Mobil station, but the owner would frown on you doing so.

The 35 bus would arrive on Reseda Boulevard. Normally, it would be a Flxible "New Look," a GMC "Fishbowl" or one of the new AM General (New Flyer) buses that would pick me up. Sometimes, you could open the windows, other times you couldn’t as they were tinted. It depended on the bus number. Seats varied depending on the model, but mostly it is a combination of vinyl and some tweed-ish cloth. You tried to get comfortable for the long ride ahead.

The 35 bus made its way down Reseda to Ventura Boulevard, before making a left to the east. The bus was an excruciating ride down Ventura as it stopped practically every other corner while bounding towards Lankershim Boulevard, right at the north end of the Cahuenga Pass.

Paying your fare was not the same as with a local line on the RTD. Since the 35 bus jumped on the Hollywood Freeway towards downtown Los Angeles, you paid a base fare, plus Freeway zone charges. Once you paid your complete fare, you get a small ticket as a receipt of your freeway zone fare. We would stop somewhere short of Lankershim for what was called a "zone check." This where the driver would go to everyone and pick up their tickets of their freeway zone payment before jumping on the freeway. For someone in a hurry, this was a bit annoying. Yet, I knew this was part of the routine if I wanted to explore the world beyond the San Fernando Valley.

At Lankershim, we get on the Hollywood Freeway. In the days before the Metro Red Line rail service was built, getting to downtown Los Angeles by bus was done on the freeway. There were stops along the way, but we had restrictions when we got to those stops. At a freeway exit, the bus would follow a path to the stop. Depending on the direction, you could either depart or board. For example, if you were heading to downtown, you can exit at the Vermont Avenue stop, but not board.

About an hour-and-a-half later, you arrived onto Hill Street in downtown Los Angeles. Where this gets tricky is to figure out which stop to make a transfer for the next bus going to your general direction. On First Street, you caught any bus headed on the El Monte Busway towards the San Gabriel Valley and beyond. On Seventh Street, you can board what could be the most magical bus of all – the 802.

The 802 was one of the "Summer Fun" buses that ran to all the key tourist destinations beyond downtown Los Angeles. The 802 (renumbered as the 460 in the early 1980s) took me from downtown Los Angeles via the Santa Ana Freeway with diversions into Downey, Norwalk, Buena Park, and Disneyland finishing up its run in downtown Santa Ana. In later years, the line would stop at Disneyland.

Orange County was always a curious place for me. It was stoked by some home shopping my father attempted to do in and around Costa Mesa – perhaps to keep our family together. Though we never made the move behind the Orange Curtain – not to mention the marriage of parents dissolving – my curiosity of Orange County was fueled by the chances I had to make it down there. Normally, that meant connecting to the Orange County Transit District's (now the OCTA) bus system. The RTD helped out its customers by having reciprocal agreements for discounts when transferring between systems. It did help, but still, it would be the freeway zone charges on the RTD that would put the damper on the pocketbook before you paid a fare on another transit system's bus.

While the RTD serviced many communities throughout the Basin, some local services were operated by municipal transit agencies (as they continue to do so today). In my time, I dealt with Long Beach, Santa Monica, and Culver City's bus systems. Before the Blue Line light rail (now called the Metro A Line) was built, an RTD bus was restricted from discharging or picking up passengers at every stop in the city of Long Beach. If you wanted to get to a certain intersection, you got off the RTD bus and transferred to a Long Beach bus running down the same street.

Having left Southern California for good in 1996, public transit in that region had advanced to include both subway and light rail, along with commuter rail, bus rapid transit, and improved regular and express bus service. You can get to many places easier now through the region's rail network. The Orange County run was made easier from Reseda using the Orange Line bus rapid transit, the Red Line subway, and Metrolink commuter rail. Only if we had these back in the 1970s…

This change has not been possible without a paradigm shift in the way public transit is operated and promoted in Southern California. Metro, the current transit agency for Los Angeles, is on the cutting edge of providing public transit service. Their engagement with the public is truly a 180-degree turn from the days of the RTD. This is truly a serious change for the better.

Engagement is the key for a transit operator to connect to its patrons. The public transport systems in Los Angeles and the Twin Cities utilize social media to engage and alert its patrons on service issues or just simple messages promoting events involving access by transit. Of course, this was not around in 1978. Who knew the world would become so connected as it is today back then?

Over the past 45 years, the bus, rail, and other public conveyances not only provided a mode of transport when a car is not present. They also helped in opening some new landscape only the imagination would dream of. To be able to have stretched my want to travel throughout a wide swath of Southern California would not have been possible if I had not discovered the possibilities the RTD provided to the curious wanderer.

And, to think that was possible before they re-introduced urban rail travel in Los Angeles.

All photos by Randy Stern

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