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The Big Blue Bus

Big Blue Bus Looks to the Future of Fare Payment

The Start of a Route | The four Big Blue Bus routes that travel throughout Culver City all start at Robertson Transit Hub under the Metro Expo Culver City light-rail station. These routes include Route 5, Route 6, Route 12 and Rapid 12. See "map" on the menu for detailed paths.

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By Jacy White

At 8 a.m. at Robertson Transit Hub, 46 men and women anticipate the arrival of their morning bus. Some tighten their scarves around their neck, others thaw their hands with their warm breath. On this cold December Monday, they stand outside at this Culver City transport circle, which sees vehicles from the Big Blue Bus and Culver City Bus systems nearly 700 times a weekday.

A bus arrives and pulls to the curb. Half of the crowd walks toward it and bottlenecks at its doors.

Two passengers quickly insert their dollars at the fare box and head to their seats, but the next three riders scour their pockets and purses for a final quarter to complete their payment. The remaining riders tap their feet and breathe heavy sighs at the passengers holding up the line. It's the bus' first stop on the route, and it's already behind schedule.

These route delays are all too common for the Big Blue Bus system (BBB) stretching from Culver City to Santa Monica. To expedite boarding times, BBB will be introducing new fare boxes with smart-card technology by spring 2014.

As the demand for simplified fare options increases, BBB officials have decided to develop an EZ transit pass exclusive to its bus line. According to the BBB news , the "Azul" smart-cards will give more flexibility with payment features. Customers will be able to load value or passes onto reusable cards and have their fares deducted automatically as they board buses.

"When I buy a transfer ticket, I always have to have exact change on me," said BBB rider Jordan Lewis. "I end up walking around weighed down by a bunch of quarters. The cards I think will make it easier because I can load all the money I need on it at once and not worry about it until I run out."

The new payment plan cost BBB nearly $7 million to develop, according to Mass Transit . To keep fares low in the wake of this financial burden, BBB will retire 50 cent transfers between bus lines effective January 2014.

Current transfers allow a BBB rider who pays the full dollar amount on one bus line to connect to another line for an additional 50 cents. The new fare boxes, however, will eliminate these transfers and make connecting riders pay an additional dollar.

"We want to keep our base fare at a dollar," said Edward King, the director of Transit Services. "Eliminating transfers was the only logical way to shore up revenue without raising our prices."

Printing transfer tickets costs BBB about $90,000 a year, but eliminating them would increase annual revenue by about $325,000. King said the profit will help BBB recover from the development, installation and promotion of the Azul smart-cards.

"[Eliminating transfers] impacts less than 3.8 percent of our customers at the end of the day," he said. "But Azul [smart-cards] will impact 100 percent of Big Blue Bus riders... The plan is to make it easier and more appealing for people to ride the bus."

Yet, Joseph Khan, a Sherman Oaks resident, says he will visit Culver City less if the transfers are eliminated. "I come out here often to shop," he said, "so I use the transfers to get to a lot of places. Doubling that cost for me will make me not come anymore."

Concerns about the plan also included its effect on BBB's neediest customers who cannot afford to pay the full dollar. Daniel Yagher, 52, is a daily BBB rider and is one of the 3.8 percent who use the system's transfers. "It's only 50 cents a transfer, but that's going to add up pretty soon," he said. "I understand why they're getting rid of them, but times are hard for me."

The changes will not impact senior rates, however, which will remain at its discounted day price of $1.50.

King said to The Santa Monica Patch that the Azul smart-cards will also help stop fare evasion and help with sustainability.

Suja Lowenthal, government and community relations manager of BBB, said one of the bus system's highest priorities is friendliness to the environment. She said every bus in the BBB fleet runs on alternative fuel, such as liquid natural gas (LNG), compressed natural gas and electric/gas hybrid technology. BBB’s maintenance facility even uses green technologies and systems to create a healthy work environment, including grinding old tires for street re-pavement and using solar panels.

"There is a strong local commitment to sustainability, and we here [at Big Blue Bus] are dedicated to that same commitment," said Lowenthal. "The Azul cards will continue this sustainability and keep the environmentally conscious message going."

King said the Azul smart-cards are "part of a long-term plan to better integrate BBB into an expanding regional public transit system."

The new fare boxes will be able to accept TAP cards from Metro and transfer tickets from other agencies. In the future, BBB plans to develop a mobile app to allow riders to pay fare from their cellphone. King said that BBB will have a “customer education program” to help facilitate the transition to the new fare system.

"Things are moving toward the future," he said, "and the future of paying for the bus is this way."