Human horns and ice age fossils: riding the bus to LA’s science museums

This article first appeared in the Listener, as To Catch a Bus, 4 April 2013

Mary Davis of Saughall, I’m told, had a curious black horn growing from the back of her head. This horn is just one of a number of mounted horns on a bizarre trophy wall inside a dimly lit museum lined with wood-panelling and glass cases. It seems horns were common in her part of Cheshire in the 17th century; “men-folk bear their horns in front and such women theirs behind,” wrote the intrepid explorer who discovered these strange folk. Further inside the museum I find a miniature moon and some elaborately carved fruit stones, and I peer down a row of microscopes at tiny scenes made from diatoms (minuscule silica-based marine organisms) and the scales from butterfly wings.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology, on Venice Blvd, Los Angeles, promotes itself as “a specialised repository of relics and artefacts from the Lower Jurassic”. This whimsical museum blurs the boundaries between art and science in a delightful way and I would happily spend many hours here, but I have a bus to catch. Motivated partly by green sensibilities but mostly by a terror of driving on some of the world’s busiest roads, I’ve made it my goal to navigate LA – I have three science museums to visit – using the city’s newly improved public transport system.

Union Station, Los Angeles. Downloaded from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Union_Station_(Los_Angeles)_2.jpg

Union Station, Los Angeles. Downloaded from WikiCommons

I arrived here on the Amtrak from San Diego, passing through the leafy beach suburbs that stretch along the southern California coast and travelling north into the industrial zones of southern Los Angeles, past oil derricks pumping up and down beside the railway tracks. Oil was discovered in Los Angeles in 1892 and the area soon became one of the world’s biggest producers; some 28 million barrels are still extracted from oilfields in the Los Angeles Basin each year. The city is designed for cars – it has the largest per capita car fleet in the world (1.8 cars per person) – and from the nearby San Jacinto Mountains you can see the orangey-brown smog that sits above the palm trees, beaches and endless highways and carparks. Even so, the state’s clean-air regulations, which target vehicle emissions, mean the air is now cleaner than it was 30 years ago. And recent attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have led to improvements to citywide public transport networks.

I get off at Los Angeles’s Union Station, an ornate mixture of moderne, art deco and mission style, which opened in 1939. Union Station is also a hub for the city’s bus network and the Big Blue Bus takes me from just outside the station, along the freeway, to the beachside suburb of Santa Monica. One block from the bus stop is my hotel, The Ambrose, which prides itself on its green credentials – as well as having all sorts of energy-efficiency certificates, it recycles and composts, has bicycle storage sheds and ferries visitors around in a diesel-powered ex-London taxi.

The next morning, the bus takes me to the Museum of Jurassic Technology, in the Culver City end of Venice Blvd. Although I’ve visited the city many times, this is my first attempt at using public transport. I’d always been told the public transport system was ineffective and on past trips I’ve used taxis or relied on a car-confident companion. In the early 20th century, though, the city was traversed by railway lines, had an underground railway and a well-used network of trams, or streetcars. But when the city’s web of freeways was being built in the 1950s, many networks were dismantled.

I wasn't too keen on driving in this ... but hey, there's the Big Blue Bus, that goes to Santa Monica, on the left. Downloaded from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1b/Interstate_10_looking_east_from_Crenshaw_Boulevard.jpg

I wasn’t too keen on driving in this … but hey, there’s the Big Blue Bus, that goes to Santa Monica, on the left. Downloaded from WikiCommons

In what’s now known as the Great American Streetcar Scandal, a consortium owned by General Motors, an oil company and a tyre company bought up streetcar companies all over the country, then replaced them with buses. In the 1970s, the consortium was accused of trying to destroy public transport networks so it could sell more cars.

Today, the car still rules, but degrading air quality, concerns about global warming and the rising cost of oil have led to a resurgence of interest in public transport. It’s still a hard sell to Los Angelenos and the myth that you can’t get around the city without a car persists. On all except my Union Station to Santa Monica bus, I appear to be the only tourist, and fellow travellers seem to support the statistics that the biggest users of the network are non-whites and low-income earners.

It’s a long, slow journey, so I get chatting to people on the bus. A motherly Hispanic woman tells me about her relationship with Jesus. An elderly war veteran wants to take me to lunch at his favourite cafe. I can’t. I have a date with some fossils.

One of the first signs that there was oil beneath what is now Los Angeles are the asphalt seeps, or “tar pits”, that are enclosed in an otherwise grassy city block on Wilshire Blvd. Over tens of thousands of years, numerous unwitting animals were trapped in these sticky black seeps and preserved: the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits is home to millions of Ice Age fossils, including mammoths, sabre-toothed cats, dire wolves and giant ground sloths. When I’ve had enough of fossils, I consult a bus timetable for my next journey: to the California Science Centre.

Los Angeles might have a tourist reputation for being all about Hollywood, theme parks and high art museums, but this free science museum is one of the most popular in southern California. I love the space exhibit, which includes the space capsule from the 1966 Gemini 11 mission – the first flight to get high enough to see the Earth as a sphere – as well as an Apollo 16 spacesuit from the 1972 mission to the Moon. Late in 2012, the decommissioned space shuttle Endeavour went on permanent display. Other exhibits, many of which are hands-on and interactive, focus on ecosystems, the human body, transportation and clean energy sources.

But then it’s a hot trudge back to the bus stop, reluctantly by now, and another long ride. This time I make the mistake of getting on the first bus heading to Santa Monica. It turns out that, rather than taking the freeway, this bus goes through all the neighbourhoods between downtown and Santa Monica, and so what would have been a 20-minute car trip takes well over an hour. Still, it’s a scorching hot day, and I’m pleased with the air-conditioned coolness of my ride. It’s a satisfying accomplishment navigating the most car-famous city in the world using public transport, but three hours on buses is too much. I will use the buses again, but next time I’ll try not to do so much in one day. And I’ll be sure to take a book.

Santa Monica beach, courtesy of The Ambrose's free bicycles.

Santa Monica beach, courtesy of The Ambrose’s free bicycles.

Rebecca Priestley stayed in Los Angeles with assistance from the Ambrose Hotel.

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