Popular Commuter Express route may get added hours
by Ryan McDonald
A growing share of South Bay residents who work in Downtown Los Angeles relies on the Commuter Express 438, a bus line operated by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, for their daily trip to and from work. And, thanks to a grant that the department has received, there may be even more buses available in the future.
True to its name, the 438 is designed for commuters. Unlike traditional buses, which move in a continuous loop throughout their hours of operation and let passengers on and off as needed, the 438 runs in set directions, and does not pick up passengers after a certain point. It starts out before 6 a.m. at Rivera Village in Redondo Beach, moves along Hermosa Avenue, then along Manhattan and Highland avenues through Manhattan Beach, and up Imperial Highway through El Segundo. It makes its final pick-up just before getting on the 105 freeway, and then becomes drop-off only, depositing people at destinations including USC, Bunker Hill office towers and the various downtown courthouses.
Starting a bit before 4 p.m. downtown, it makes the trip in reverse, picking people up after work and letting them out back home in the South Bay.
Users praise the convenience of the one-seat ride the 438 offers, and say the route’s comfortable seats give them extra time to squeeze in work or relax instead of fighting traffic and looking for parking. At a time when many public transit lines have growing numbers of empty seats, ridership on the 438 is rising. Buses are often full, and LADOT has added stops.
But the operating rules that make the 438 attractive to commuters also limit its use. Those wanting to leave at 8:30 a.m., for example, are already too late to catch the bus. For many, that means driving there and also driving home. Hermosa City Councilmember Hany Fangary regularly grabs the 438 on his way to work in downtown, but can’t always rely on it.
“The fact that the last bus leaves Hermosa at 7:45 in the morning is restrictive to anyone who has to do something later. If I have to take my kid to school, taking the bus not an option,” Fangary said.
Starting last year, however, the LADOT began considering expanding the hours at which the 438 runs. Brian Lee, who oversees the 438 and other Commuter Express buses for the department, said that the agency received a grant to explore running the 438 at additional times.
“We could possibly run more midday service,” Lee said. “Right now, the buses go back to the yard post-morning and do nothing.”
Lee made his comments at a December board meeting of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. They came as Metro was considering a plan that would limit the reach of the Green Line, a light-rail line that links the South Bay with north-south routes to downtown Los Angeles. Fangary sits on the transportation committee of the South Bay Cities Council of Governments, which opposed the proposal. The Metro board ultimately voted to preserve much of the existing Green Line until at least the middle of 2021, but as a contingency plan, the South Bay COG had been pressing for LADOT to expand 438 services as a way to compensate for connectivity lost in potential changes to the Green Line.
Fangary said that the transportation committee has not met since the Metro Board’s vote, and he has not yet had a chance to discuss the issue with Redondo City Councilmember Christian Horvath, who chairs the committee. But he envisions that even with the Green Line preserved, the COG will continue to press for an expanded 438.
“The demand for the Commuter Express to downtown is still there,” Fangary said.
Along with expanding hours of operation, Metro is also considering running the line in both directions, so that people in downtown could come to the South Bay in the mornings, and vice versa. Although traffic is heaviest in the current alignment, Oliver Hou, an engineer with LADOT, said that the decision to pursue the other direction was a nod to changing work-life patterns in the region: more start-ups are opening in the South Bay, particularly in El Segundo, and more people are choosing to live in newly erected apartments and condos in Downtown Los Angeles.
So far, LADOT is still in the preliminary stages, Hou said, and no route or time changes have been announced. But officials say the grant, obtained from the Federal Transit Administration under a pool of funds that until recently was known as “Job Access Reverse Commute,” is an example of how transit can be a way to spur economic growth the region. The Los Angeles County Business Federation partnered with LADOT on the grant and is continuing to push for more 438 routes. Jerard Wright, a policy manager with the federation, said that as regional transit officials figure out new ways to connect Southern California, the “rave” reviews the 438 has already won make it an obvious choice for expansion.
“This is another way we can add on to what’s needed for that community, and do it in a way that is cost-effective, as well as provide that direct trip,” Wright said.