Night-Owl Bus Riders Face the End of the Line

End of the Line
For some, OCTA’s soon-to-be-eviscerated night-owl bus service is a lifeline

On a bus heading north on Harbor Boulevard one drizzly December night past 1 a.m., Steve Woods is having the happiest ride of his life.

The ridership on Route 43 “night owl” bus always swells as it passes Disneyland. Tonight, there are barely more than half a dozen people in the coach, sitting on blue seats stamped with the logo of the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA)—two triangles suggesting a roadway stretching into the distance. In the back, a young couple cuddles, the woman’s heavy mascara blotched by tears and the man’s puffy-jacketed arm around her. In the front of the car, a white-haired man sleeps, his chin bobbing against his chest. And in the midsection, where two rows of seats face each another, Woods—heavyset in a hooded sweat shirt, untied sneakers and stained sweat pants—grins.

Keith May
Keith May

He’s finally going where he wants to go.

“I was running,” he says. “Now, no probation. No running. No warrants. It’s over.” His hands, their fingernails grown out to maybe half-an-inch long, chop the air for emphasis. He lets out a laugh that booms over the bus’s rattle, causing the sleeping man a few feet away to stir but not wake.

Earlier in the night, Woods was released from the county’s Central Jail in Santa Ana. He’d been there for three months after violating probation on a drug offense from 2006. After being let out, he visited a friend near the jail, and then he hopped on the 43 bus to get to Anaheim, where his wife and mother both live. He hasn’t yet told them he has been freed.

“It’s a happy surprise,” he says. “This is gonna be my Christmas year.”

His joy dims a little when told that within a few months, to save money, OCTA will stop running the 43 as well as the other three night-owl lines that run between roughly 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. For a moment, he looks a little indignant. “I love this bus,” he says. “The drivers are real nice.”

Stronger words come from the passenger who just boarded at Harbor and Katella Avenue. Stringy brown hair falling past his thick neck, Gene Cottone speaks up when he hears Woods talking about the bus cuts. “A buddy of mine thinks it’s bullshit,” he says. “They have money. Instead of putting money into bus service, they’re putting it into light rail, which we don’t need, period.”

On this night, Cottone’s taking the 43 to get home after an evening spent at an Internet café in Garden Grove. “The bus is the only way I can stay out late,” he says. He doesn’t mind riding, he says, as he find it’s occasionally entertaining. “Once in a while, you see a hooker on this line,” he says with a chuckle. “They’re people, too.”

Cottone has been following the budget woes at OCTA through e-mail updates from the Transit Advocates of Orange County, an activist group. And he has watched the bus system’s service steadily shrink for more than a year now. “There’s a lot of pissed-off people out here,” he says, “and they”—OCTA—“don’t know it.”

Woods nods his head vigorously, but he’s smiling while he does it. Out here, for now, the bus is freedom.

*     *     *

When drawn on a map, OCTA’s four 24-hour bus routes cut the county into a tic-tac-toe board. The middle square contains a relatively small center chunk of the county, but the outside sections reach wide. Running along major streets—Westminster Avenue/17th Street, Bristol Street/State College Boulevard, Katella Avenue and Harbor Boulevard—the night-owl lines connect, at their ends, Long Beach to Tustin and Orange, Brea to Newport Beach, and Costa Mesa to Fullerton.

It wasn’t until 2002 that the routes started operating all night. That’s the year newly hired OCTA CEO Art Leahy—a mustachioed former bus driver who left for Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Transportation Agency in 2009—realized there was demand for public transportation past midnight. “As I traveled around Orange County, I’d see people in the very-early-morning hours riding bicycles or walking,” says Leahy. “It looked like the trips weren’t recreational. They were going to work or coming home from work.”

Sometime after 1 a.m. on March 15, though, the four night-owl buses will pull into their garages and retire for the night. For most of the three hours following that—and for most of those three hours every night thereafter—Orange County residents will have almost no county-run public transportation. The eight-year experiment with 24-hour bus service will have ended.

To the vast majority of county residents, this means nothing. Most people sleep then. And most of those who don’t likely have access to cars. Night-owl ridership is sparse; in the dead of night, as few as 12 people might board a bus in an hour. The most-used night-owl line, the 43, attracted an average of 208 people per weeknight in fiscal year 2009—less than 1.3 percent of that line’s average total weekday ridership.

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