Double-decker buses show L.A. from on high

LA Times | Travel

Topless yet tasteful and as British as troubled teeth, L.A.'s new double-decker buses may dramatically change the way tourists get around, how they spend their travel dollars and the very look of Southern California's streets. Introduced a year ago and recently expanded, the 16 double-deckers ...

By Chris Erskine // 10.29.08

Topless yet tasteful and as British as troubled teeth, L.A.'s new double-decker buses may dramatically change the way tourists get around, how they spend their travel dollars and the very look of Southern California's streets.

Introduced a year ago and recently expanded, the 16 double-deckers serve two separate circuits -- one looping through Hollywood, Beverly Hills, the Grove and Melrose, the other spanning downtown. By spring, hopes to add a third circuit, serving Venice and Santa Monica.

A significant wager in shaky times, the buses are a gambit by L.A.'s biggest tour operator to broaden the places tourists can conveniently roam.

"The double-decker buses aren't the silver bullet," says Elizabeth Currid, assistant professor at USC's School of Policy, Planning and Development. "But great cities are great cities because of all the little things adding up. The cumulative effect of all the little things actually adds up to something important."

For tourists and locals shepherding their guests about town, the old British buses with the open tops are a sun-splashed, whimsical alternative to the typical shuttle or bus. The double-deckers' hop-on/hop-off feature lets riders depart to shop or dine along the route, then catch the next bus that comes along at 30- to 45-minute intervals.

Perfect, no. On a recent Thursday, visitors grumbled at the wait between buses at the Grove, and riders are virtually nonexistent on the just-opened downtown loop. And a 24-hour pass costs $30, too expensive to use for commuting. But the buses seem to be catnip to tourists looking for a pleasant way to see Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Melrose while absorbing L.A.'s famous sunshine.

"In a few hours, it lets you cover a lot of ground," said Gabriela Gogoi, 23, visiting from Romania, and stopping off at the Grove during the Hollywood loop, which has consistently full loads.

Sarah Zahradnik of Australia found the bus to be an excellent way to see Melrose Avenue, Paramount Studios and the sights along Hollywood Boulevard.

"I wouldn't pay any more than that [$30]," she said. "But it's a lot of fun."

By now, you've probably spotted one of the double-deckers, in bright red industrial enamel, straight out of an Austin Powers movie. Generally older and showing the wear and tear of London streets, they amble along in front of City Hall, or down Broadway, past the vintage palaces where Bob Hope, Duke Ellington and the Marx Brothers entertained audiences long ago. They rumble through the Fashion District, then loop around the Staples area's new L.A. Live, the burgeoning next star for Southland tourism.

"You go to foreign countries, you have hop-on/hop-off buses," says City Council member Tom LaBonge, who first proposed the program after a trip to Berlin. "You go to New York or Chicago, and you have hop-on/hop-off. We needed it here too."

LaBonge approached Starline Tours President Vahid Sapir about adding the buses, and Sapir tracked down some double-deckers taken out of service in Britain.

Their first stop in California was at a bus barn in very un-British Vernon, where the passenger doors were switched to the opposite side to suit American traffic flows. Seats in the buses, most at least 25 years old, were reupholstered. Trickiest of all: cutting off the roofs to open the ceiling to the California sky.

Eventually, Sapir hopes to increase the size of the fleet to 20, with five buses circling downtown, and the rest on the Hollywood route.

"We did have double-decker buses running down Wilshire in the 1970s," LaBonge recalls. "But they weren't open air like these."

In fact, L.A. has a rich history of double-decker buses. The first generation debuted in the 1920s and served local riders and visitors for 25 years. During their heyday, as many as 70 of the double-deckers operated in Los Angeles. The fare: 10 cents.

Today, running a tour service of vintage buses over a 40-mile area is fraught with logistical and economic restrictions. Fuel costs more. Schedules are tricky to keep in inscrutable traffic. Trees need trimming. (Prospective top-deck riders, be forewarned: Yes, that's a ficus branch headed for your forehead.)

But Sapir has been at this sort of thing awhile -- his career a rags-to-riches story worthy of . . . well, Hollywood itself. Born in Iran, he came to Los Angeles in 1963 to study engineering and wound up buying a limo service and developing his business into L.A.'s biggest tour line, with 250 employees and 130 buses running 25 types of tours.

His latest experiment, the downtown double-decker loop, has drawn only a smattering of riders since opening in September. Sapir projects that the downtown leg will eventually carry 500 to 600 customers a day. On Oct. 22, he spent the evening squiring around 150 of the city's hotel concierges to win them over to the route as a tourist draw.

In a couple of test rides, the buses proved to be a wobbly, lumbering blast. Even those familiar with much of the city's history are bound to learn something from the narrated tour that includes the water-works shenanigans of William Mulholland or the significance of Santee Alley to the local economy.

The double-decker routes do not overlap. Those wishing to make the jump from the downtown loop to Hollywood have to take a connecting 20-person shuttle that runs between the two loops every 90 minutes. The Universal Studios leg of the Starline tours is too steep for the double-deckers, so modern coach buses are used for that. But the 24-hour pass is good for that as well.

Meanwhile, urbanologists such as Currid see the buses as a milestone. "We understand cities because of the icons that are associated with them," the USC professor says. "Los Angeles' effort to bring these buses into the downtown further reaffirms its position as a major global city."

Starline Tours, (800) 959-3131,

Erskine is a Times staff writer.