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Southern California Transit Advocates is a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion, development and improvement of public transportation in the Los Angeles metropolitan area.

Santa Barbara Day After Thanksgiving Study Tour

-- Michael Ludwig & Dana Gabbard

Our members this year decided to have our traditional day after Thanksgiving excursion in Santa Barbara, exploring the Metropolitan Transit District (MTD) system. It was decided that Greyhound would be our best option to get there (Amtrak service northwest of Los Angeles has been unreliable these past few months due to rail and signal equipment work). So on November 27 at about 7:40 am, five members rendezvoused at the Greyhound station located at 7th and Alameda Streets on the fringe of Downtown Los Angeles: Dana Gabbard, Woody Rosner, Chris Ledermuller, Armando Avalos, and Joe Dunn. Along for the ride was Western Transit editor Edmund Buckley. The station was quite busy for such an early hour with many boarding buses to points all over.

The bus was an express to Santa Barbara, after which it would continue on to the Bay Area with many intervening stops. Interestingly, only about half the seats were taken. Also worth noting is the UTU sticker above the windshield. This is the union that represents Greyhound's drivers. One topic during our uneventful and smooth trip northwest was the recent announcement that Laidlaw plans to acquire Greyhound. How this would affect the industry was hard to pinpoint.

Chris Ledermuller, planner for the trip, huddled with Armando as they finalized our initial trip plans. We arrived on schedule at 9:35. Less than five minutes earlier, member Kymberleigh Richards had arrived on the Greyhound local she had taken from Ventura. Also at the station to greet the party was member Michael Ludwig of the Bay Area, who had come down on Amtrak the day before expressly to join the excursion. The Greyhound Station is a barebones affair - a ticket counter, a few indoor seats, and a small shop that sells pre-packaged food and drinks.

Next door was MTD's Downtown Transit Center. If you can imagine the El Monte Station at street level, right next to a downtown street, with a slightly smaller (passenger waiting) area inside a roadway loop twice as wide, and half the buses loading/unloading on the outside part of this roadway, you have a pretty good picture of this facility. However, it had an impressive building inside the loop, with indoor benches, restrooms, and a machine to sell tokens. Also, customer service representatives sell tickets and answer questions. At curbside, drivers were at hand to assist passengers and answer questions (one was even sweeping up the area!).

MTD has no passes (though the agency does have transfers). Tokens and ten-ride ticket books are sold for convenience, but they provide no discount. The token machine sold five tokens for 5 dollars. If you needed change, it would change a dollar into four quarters.

At 10:00am, we caught our first line, #12 - Goleta Express. Some of the members had gone across the street to find decent coffee. So we had a few hair raising moments making sure everyone boarded before we pulled out. The Gillig Phantom we rode was in good shape. MTD was the first agency to take delivery of Phantoms, and these have been stalwart carriers for some years. After winding a little through downtown, we hit the 101 freeway and sprinted to Goleta. On this segment, there were about 11 riders (excluding the So.Ca.TA members). The driver showed knowledge of the system and answered passenger questions with ease. By the time we had begun going through Goleta, ridership dipped down to 9. We continued to the end of the line at UCSB North Hall.

UCSB has a transit center that includes a covered (but not enclosed) set of benches. From here you can catch a shuttle around the campus and Isla Vista that MTD operates for the student body association. Sadly the shuttle doesn't run weekends.

We next caught line 25 - Ellwood. This was operated with a Nova low floor, which most of us had not seen before. The line goes through some almost rural areas. Very little ridership was apparent. This route is interlined with line 23, Winchester Canyon. Its routing was short segments on many different suburban residential streets (including a few turns that the driver took at a relatively high speed) and was similarly holding a light load (at least until we hit Abrego, when 8 teens crowded on the bus).

Exploring the Nova bus, a few features caught our attention. The back door had a sensor for opening; all you had to do was wave your hand at about chest level to make it open. Like all low floors, its seating was crammed into the compartment. Right behind the driver was a seat that was high and behind an opaque panel. One wonders how you would know when you reach your destination sitting there. One seat toward the rear even faced the back. And the seats in the back were up a step from the low floor (like the OCTA and Long Beach ones).

The driver's 11 year old son was riding with his father. Basically with no school being held that day it was one way to have cheap babysitting. The son really knew the MTD system and said he got a lot of use out of his pass riding along with his dad from time to time (obviously he was referring to a pass issued only to employees and their dependents). The kid was quite interested that a group of people from L.A. had come just to ride buses.

A slight wrinkle in planning the excursion had come about because we had found out only a few days earlier that MTD operates a Saturday schedule on the day after Thanksgiving. The biggest complication was about our hope to transfer a little later in the day to line 10 - Cathedral Oaks. The schedule stated it operates "school days" and "non school days". The driver asked dispatch if that meant it was running. It wasn't. Quickly Chris and Michael consulted and decided when the bus brought us back to UCSB we would stay on it as it changed to line 11 (UCSB via State/Hollister) and continue on to the Downtown Transit Center. At UCSB we saw a nearly full line 24 (UCSB Express) pull out.

Line 11 (which has the best overall level of service in the MTD system) slowly added passengers until it was almost full as we reached downtown. We spent one and three-quarter hours continuously riding the Nova Bus! And we paid only one fare doing it.

Due to the lighter traffic, many of the buses we rode ran hot - sometimes up to ten minutes ahead of schedule. But at least MTD has liberal policies regarding buses holding for a transfer (drivers will even radio ahead).

Next we rode line 20 - Carpinteria. This route is the closest the system gets to Ventura County (it turns around a bit short of the county line in an area that looks similar to the south end of San Clemente on OCTA line 91). The Gillig Phantom had high ridership almost to the end of the line. It serves a touristy shopping district and many residential areas. Even the return trip on the same bus filled up quickly. If ridership grows, service improvement may be called for.

Shortly before arriving back at the Downtown Transit Center at 2:30pm, the decision had been made to try line 22 - Old Mission. This route has an irregular schedule (especially on weekdays) and serves Mission Santa Barbara and the semi-famous Museum of Natural History. The bus was a Stewart & Stephenson 30 foot mini-bus. The initial five or six passengers got off before we reached the Mission. The route goes through hilly winding narrow streets and includes two loops. Only one person boarded on the return trip.

With about an hour left before the return Greyhound trip, it was decided to hop on the State Street electric shuttle and try it out on the way to finding a quick lunch. This is an open air trolley style bus that runs up and down the main downtown street, with perimeter seating. It was packed with passengers and the streets were clogged with holiday shoppers. A bit of local color was a demonstration by anti-fur activists. It started to lightly rain as we waited for the return trip. By then the group was anxious about getting back in time. But after being passed up by a full trolley, a less crowded one came along shortly, although it soon also was packed.

We got off at a hamburger place near the Greyhound Station and quickly had a bite. We lucked out, as the food was good. And through the back door it was a short walk to the station!

At 4:35, most of us piled into the Greyhound bus for the express trip home. Kymberleigh was on another local, this time to North Hollywood. Michael was spending the night, then taking an Amtrak trip the next day back to the Bay Area. Once back in Los Angeles we quickly said our goodbyes and dispersed.

It was interesting to see a system that has to contend with such complicated geography. Santa Barbara and nearby environs stretch along the coast, hemmed in by mountains. A grid isn't feasible in such circumstances. Overall the agency seems to have logically placed service, supplemented by a number of expresses to connect far-flung points. The riders seemed very happy with the service and a customer orientation is apparent in MTD's operations.