Monday, October 19, 2009

The Big Blue Bus

If you've ever used public transportation west of Sepulveda, you've probably been on the Santa Monica "Big Blue Bus." The Big Blue Bus services all of Santa Monica, much of Venice, West LA, and UCLA in Westwood. It is often considered one of the best metro bus lines in the western United States. And I am here to question its anthropological context.

Santa Monica is a really weird place. It is one of the few independent cities in Los Angeles along with Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. Santa Monica is essentially a city that thrives with the tourism industry. The city is much bigger then most cities with only 90,000 people and that is because on a given day, the population will be well over 100,000 due to the massive amounts of tourists walking around. For this reason, the western section of town (west of Lincoln) is dominated by over-priced restaurants and boutiques. The other dense business area is about three miles east near the intersection of the San Diego Freeway and the Santa Monica freeway. Both highways offer nice locations for many company's offices and people from all over the city come each day from about 8-6 to add to the population.

In between the 405 and the beach, however, about 85,000 people make their homes. There are scattered businesses serving these people along Wilshire Blvd, and this stretch of suburbia is by NO MEANS desolate. In fact, this area is essentially the true Santa Monica in that it serves those who LIVE in the area, as opposed to those who are visiting. But these homes are still "near" the beach. Housing prices and rental costs are still exorbitantly high thanks to one of the most famous beaches on Earth being a short bike ride away. So, like most beach towns, Santa Monica is strictly bourgeoisie, although unlike most beach towns, Santa Monica is big, and a real, self-sustaining city. This fact requires that public transportation, something that is rarely seen in small beach towns, be efficient. This is where the Big Blue Bus comes in.

The Big Blue Bus acts as the mass transit system for people paying at least 900 dollars a month for an apartment. See, in our culture, The Bus (notice the caps) represents something that is not present here. The Bus is perhaps the most iconic symbol of the working class. Especially in a city like Los Angeles, where the Bentleys and Beamers seem to outnumber the pedestrians, a bus stop is chock full of symbolic associations of the proletariat. Bus stops all over the country, and especially in LA, are homes to the brown and black people that are cleaning the homes, washing the dishes, and building the 3 million dollar homes of the people driving by in their 75,000 dollar range rovers. Metro bus systems aren't an exercise in environmentalism—a tool to lessen our footprint—they are a tool to get to work for those without cars. Metro bus lines across the country are filled with working-class people on their ways from working-class neighborhoods to places like Santa Monica. The Bus (still in caps) is how burgers get flipped, hotel rooms get cleaned, and Hummers get waxed.

But Santa Monica is a town without a working class. That is not to say there are not workers, there are plenty of people who go to work every day. But these people tend to be white people working white collar jobs—people who in New York or Chicago would be using trains to get around, but thanks to LA's sprawl, aren’t offered this opportunity. Full disclosure here, my girlfriend works in Santa Monica, and often takes the Big Blue Bus—she, like many residents, work as hard as any busboy or caddy, but is not a member of the working class. We are middle-class through and through. And here is the problem. Middle class people in other cities don't take busses. But here, they need to. But just because they need the bus (no caps), doesn't mean they want to ride The Bus (caps). So the Big Blue Bus offers an alternative.

By renaming the bus line to invoke images of a cartoon, the Big Blue Bus has taken steps to remove the proletariat stigma that The Bus invokes. Beyond the name, by cutting off service at UCLA, the Big Blue Bus services exactly ZERO working-class neighborhoods hence, it allows citizens of one of the richest cities in the country, and students at on of the most prestigious universities on the West Coast to happily get from point A to point B without waiting at a bus stop with the black and brown people that are synonymous with our idea of a bus stop.

Furthermore, instead of marketing to what the bus actually does (take people around), the Big Blue Bus markets itself as a green alternative to driving. And while this fact is 100% true, it still doesn't compensate for the fact the Big Blue Bus still is a Bus, and its meaning isn't a green alternative to driving, but in reality, it is a way for people to get to and from work. But by limiting the range, using the "green" fa├žade as marketing tool, and of course removing the symbolic associations of calling it The Bus, and instead creating its own symbolic association that seems to attempt to place it amongst a Richard Scary fantasy town, the Big Blue Bus has removed any misconceptions that the riders on this bus are anything like the thousands of riders on busses across the country.

I can't decide whether this strategy is an incredibly insensitive exploitation of the citizens of Santa Monica, or an absolutely brilliant marketing tool. I will say this, Santa Monica, despite having only 90,000 residents, somehow supports five Whole Foods. Whole Foods is not just expensive, but overpriced, exploitive, and just unnecessary, yet somehow five big "grocery" stores are supported in this town. This phenomenon—that of "organic" being such a powerful marketing tool—is most likely akin to the Big Blue Bus. Perhaps if the Ralph's or Vons in LA were renamed "Green Organic Markets" they would cease to service working class people hence making them more appealing to middle classers. I really don't know what all this means, but I think I don't like it.