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Navigating LA’s evolving transportation options as a Bruin

A Santa Monica Big Blue Bus drives up the street on Westwood Plaza. Buses from the Big Blue Bus are one of several public transportation options for Bruins and connect UCLA and the Santa Monica area, including Sawtelle Boulevard. (Ella Coffey/Daily Bruin)

By Natalie Bachman

May 10, 2024 12:52 a.m.

For UCLA students, different forms of transportation provide a critical link between campus and the job and recreational opportunities Los Angeles offers.

California has long embraced cars as its primary mode of transportation and is traditionally considered an auto-centric state, according to the California Capitol Museum. However, transportation in Los Angeles can be complex, and students who do not have access to cars look to the bus, light rail and bike rental systems for transportation around the city.

LA currently operates a bus and light rail under the LA Metro department. The LA Metro also offers a bike rental system, which includes a fleet of electric bikes. Buses from the Big Blue Bus also connect UCLA and the Santa Monica area, including Sawtelle Boulevard.

Transportation accounted for 28% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States in 2022, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Dr. Amy Lee, a postdoctoral scholar at the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, said it is important to consider sustainability in transportation.

In terms of commuting to campus, UCLA Transportation pitches public transportation as a preferred option for students commuting from any distance. It also acknowledges that parking on campus is restricted, and it encourages the use of more sustainable options such as public transportation.

As of fall quarter, UCLA students have access to the U-Pass, which is a public transportation access card with the costs included in student fees. Lawrence Tran, the director of Transportation Equity and Access – which is a division of the USAC Facilities Commission that advocates for transportation access – said the U-Pass initiative reached a satisfactory number of students as of March.

“(There were) a little bit over 19,000 orders. … We have around 30,000 undergrads, so it’s not like there’s 100% or anything, but that was to be expected,” said Tran, who is also a third-year environmental science student.

Additionally, according to the UCLA State of The Commute 2023 Report, transit pass sales among undergrads increased by around 744% between 2022 and 2023.

According to UCLA Events and Transportation, there were over 220,000 taps indicating UCLA student rides on participating public transportation lines in fall quarter. 42% of taps were on the LA Metro, and close to half were on the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus, according to the same source.

Phoebe Chiu, the events and operations coordinator for the Institute of Transportation Studies and a UCLA alumnus, said the U-Pass has been beneficial, particularly for commuter students.

“I do think a lot of people are able to make that commute to campus. And now with the Bruin U-Pass, … we’ve promoted access,” Chiu said.

However, around 13,000 undergrads of over 32,000 total did not obtain a U-pass. Among students who live off campus, around 19% drove alone in a personal car, 33% walked and around 24% used public transportation, according to the UCLA State of the Commute Report for 2023. This is compared to 25% of students who drove alone in 2022.

For those looking for a different transportation option, the implementation of the LA Metro Bike Share allows users to rent electric bikes. According to Metro data, there were over 119,000 bike unlocks between January and March 2024, after trips lasting less than a minute or more than 24 hours were eliminated. These trips lasted an average of just under 29 minutes, according to the same report.

Hailing from UC Davis, Lee said the differences between Davis and LA lie in bikeability, something that LA often lacks.

“Distances are short, and it’s very fun to get around by bike because it’s flat, it’s close by. And you’re separated from the auto network,” Lee said. “Obviously, the Los Angeles region doesn’t quite have that. But it is also really neighborhood-based.”

Chiu added she is impressed that programs like Metro Bike Share programs are developing at a rapid pace. However, she said people ought to be able to feel safer biking through LA, adding that her experience riding with the Campus Bike Advisory Committee was eye-opening with regards to the city’s auto-centric nature.

Between 2019 and 2023, there was an average of 2,284.4 cyclist fatalities and serious injuries per year in LA County, as reported by the California Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System.

In 2023, UCLA expanded its protected bike lanes to include Westwood Plaza going from campus to Le Conte Avenue, with plans to enact traffic safety upgrades to promote bikeability in 2024.

Safety in sustainable transportation extends far beyond bicycling, though. A May 2023 Metro Board report revealed an increase of more than 18% in passenger arrests on the Metro between March 2022 and March 2023. Trespassing arrests were up 525%, and narcotic-related arrests were up by around 716%.

Chiu said people may feel a greater sense of dignity while driving in a personal car as opposed to traveling on public transportation because of a greater perception of safety.

“Dignity is important,” Chiu said. “A lot of people gravitate toward private vehicles immediately because you’re basically guaranteed that dignity.”

However, she emphasized that dignity doesn’t always guarantee safety, given that driving also comes with risks. Furthermore, driving is a prominent source of greenhouse gas emissions.

“Transportation is the biggest source of carbon emissions in California and in most states in the West. And then passenger transportation makes up the majority of those,” Lee said.

Sustainability, equity and transportation also intersect in several ways. For Lee, her Ph.D. research, which centered around highway expansions, offered insight into the nature of LA transportation such as rush hour periods.

“Who are those drivers that drive at peak hours on highways? People who have cars, people who are driving to work, people who are generally driving to a nine-to-five job because that is what generally creates the peak hour,” Lee added.

Highway expansions also intrude into marginalized communities, Lee said.

“There’s climate change impacting all of us. But also, the people who are shouldering the biggest climate change impacts are low-income communities,” Lee explained.

LA public transportation agencies continue to develop initiatives and goals surrounding sustainability. For instance, the Big Blue Bus and the LA Metro both aim to achieve zero emissions by 2030.

Tran also said the 2028 Summer Olympics in LA could be a crucial time for improved public transportation. To further this goal, President Biden’s administration recently awarded $900 million for public transportation improvements ahead of the event.

Furthermore, Chiu added that community acceptance of alternative transportation methods is essential to reach sustainability goals.

“At the end of the day, we still rely on the car, even though we all know it sucks,” Chiu said.That needs to change, … we need more hope in these other areas.”

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Natalie Bachman
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