Effective December 12, 2010, Metro cut back service on its Bus Route #439 from an all-day operation to a peak-hour-only, bi-directional commuter service.
But at one time #439 was the way to get to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), that is, if you didn’t want to spring for a taxi or shuttle van. #439 was also popular with people who worked at or near the airport, as well as people reverse-commuting to El Segundo, or from Culver City to LA. International travelers with long layovers at LAX occasionally hopped on #439 for a quick tour of Los Angeles.
Beginnings of an Airport Bus Route.
The history of Line #439 (and its local counterpart, Line #42) began in May 1940, when the Pacific Electric discontinued its Los Angeles-Redondo Beach interurban rail service due to low ridership and high costs. PE replaced the rail service with two bus routes: one operating from Los Angeles via Culver City (Venice and Culver Bl) to the beach cities; the other via Figueroa, Slauson and La Tijera. In 1943, when PE numbered all of its bus lines, the Culver Bl. and Slauson Bl, branches were designated #79V and #79W, respectively.
In 1946, PE added a new alternate route, #79E. This was a more-direct “limited” route operating primarily via Santa Barbara Bl. (now Martin Luther King Ave.), and Angeles Vista Bl to Slauson, then continuing via the route of #79W to the beach cities. Since the Los Angeles Transit Lines #5 streetcar already served Santa Barbara Bl., #79E carried no local passengers between Crenshaw and downtown Los Angeles. (This restriction would remain in place even after the merger of LATL into LAMTA in 1958. It was finally removed in December 1986.)
All branches of #79 were renumbered #51 in 1950.
LAX, which had opened in 1928, underwent its first major remodeling in the early 1960s. Line #51, now owned by the public agency LAMTA, was re-routed to serve the airline terminals in 1961. The 1960s also brought the loss of the Culver Bl. branch (it became line #13 and was shortened to run between Culver City and El Segundo in 1963) and the end of the Slauson branch in 1969. Now #51 had one branch only: the former “limited” route along Santa Barbara Bl.
Big Changes in 1976
As part of the Santa Monica Freeway Diamond Lane project, RTD started a new express line, #607, between LAX and Downtown Los Angeles in March 1976. The Diamond Lane, which reserved an existing freeway lane for buses and carpools only, proved highly unpopular with the majority of freeway users (i.e. those in single-passenger vehicles) and was discontinued in August. But RTD’s #607, along with several other bus routes created especially for the Diamond Lane, remained in service, slogging along in mixed traffic.
Also in June 1976, #51 was renumbered to #871. This local bus line now extended from Downtown Los Angeles, along Santa Barbara Bl, through the Angeles Vista area, along La Tijera, Sepulveda, LAX, El Segundo and through the Beach Cities, ending at Pacific Coast Highway and Palos Verdes Bl. Meanwhile, #607 was extended into Culver City’s Fox Hills Mall and south of LAX to El Segundo. It even had a four-year foray into Torrance (Del Amo Shopping Center) between late 1977 and late 1981 (after which, #607 continued to serve the beach cities as far south as Torrance Ave).
The 80s and beyond…
In 1983’s “Great Renumbering,” the RTD renumbered #607 to #439 and #871 to #42. At the December 1986 “shakeup” (the twice-yearly systemwide service change), #439, which up to now had operated weekdays only, was enhanced with night and weekend service. #439 also was extended along the route of #42 between LAX and Palos Verdes; #42 was cut back to serve Downtown-LAX only. RTD also lifted the restriction on #42 which prohibited it from handling local riders along what was now known as Martin Luther King Bl. between Crenshaw and Downtown.
In early 1988, RTD proposed (but did not follow through with) switching parts of #42 and #439. #42 would have taken #439’s longer route via Fox Hills Mall, while #439 would be routed via La Tijera for a somewhat faster trip to the airport.
Over the next several years, #439 continued to operate with small changes, the most notable being a reroute to serve the newly-opened Green Line Aviation light rail station in 1995.
About a decade later, ridership on the portion of #439 south of LAX had dropped to the point where the transit agency (now known as MTA) decided to cancel service to El Segundo and the Beach Cities. Instead, effective January 2006, Beach Cities Transit, a new bus service funded by the three Beach Cities and El Segundo, took over that portion of #439, and renumbered it #109.
Airport Bus Competition
Of course, there were always other ways to travel to LAX, ranging from private cars and taxis, to airport buses and shuttle vans (and for a few decades, even helicopters!). While these options cost more than a city bus fare, they were usually faster and provided direct service to the airline terminals (which RTD also did, at least until the mid-80’s. Then the city buses all stopped at an off-airport “City Bus Terminal” in LAX Parking Lot C, requiring passengers to take one of LAX’s parking lot shuttles to get to the airline terminals.)
Although mostly operated by private companies, RTD dabbled in the airport shuttle business from 1976 (when a private operator, AirporTransit went out of business) to 1979 (when RTD went on strike and another private company took over the airport service).
The 1994 Northridge Earthquake brought another competitor to #439, at least temporarily. MTA, using FEMA funds, operated a line #646 between Downtown and LAX via the Harbor (I-110) and Century (I-105) Freeways. Although the buses made good time via the freeways’ carpool lanes, #646 was poorly marketed, and was canceled when the FEMA money ran out.
Much better publicized was the Metro Green Line, which opened in 1995. Passengers from Downtown could access LAX by using the Red, Blue and Green Lines, then taking a LAX shuttle bus to the airline terminals. The high number of transfers discourages most people, but quite a few (mostly budget or foreign) travelers, use this option.
But it was LAX’s Flyaway shuttle service, which had operated from Van Nuys since 1975, that may have put a nail in #439’s coffin, so to speak. In January 2006, Flyaway opened a new route between Los Angeles Union Station and LAX. The Flyaway featured large over-the-road coaches with plenty of space for luggage, and operated nonstop via the I-110 and I-105 carpool lanes to LAX, stopping at each terminal. Fares were not that much higher than MTA’s, given the level and quality of service provided.
With most of its airport ridership moved over to either Flyway or the Metro Rail system, Line #439 soldiered on as primarily a commuter service for people living in Culver City.
But the story may not be over for #439 yet. In February 2011, Metro will hold several meetings regarding proposed changes to its bus routes. Upon completion of a portion of the Expo Line between Downtown LA and Culver City, Metro may eliminate #439 entirely, replacing the La Cienega portion with a southward extension of #217 (Fairfax Ave). #42 would not be unscathed either; Metro proposes to cut it back to the Western Ave. Expo Line station.
Jones, Lionel. Los Angeles Bus Line History Book (updated route histories as of 2004)
Southern California Association of Governments. Transit Development Program.
(contains histories of bus routes up to 1971)
Tranquada, James. “With RTD Strike, New Bus Firm Is In Driver’s Seat.” Los Angeles Times, August 27, 1979.
Western Transit, January 1987.
“Notice of Public Hearing On Proposed Fare and Service Changes and Employer and Business Subsidies for RTD Bus Service.” SCRTD, February? 1988
(LACMTA) Update on Emergency Actions Associated With The Northridge Earthquake, April 28, 1994. http://boardarchives.metro.net/Items/1994/05_May/items_h_0410.pdf
“RB Buses to take over LAX Trips.” Daily Breeze, November 3, 2005
“FlyAway Service To LAX Will Be Added at Union Station” Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2006
(LACMTA) Service Council Public Hearing Notice (June 2011):
SCRTD/MTA bus route maps/schedules as appropriate.