L.A.’s new topless tour rich in double-decker history


LOS ANGELES – Topless yet tasteful and as British as troubled teeth, L.A.’s new double-decker buses might 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 and the Mid-Wilshire area, the other spanning downtown. By spring, Starline Tours hopes to add a third circuit, serving the beach communities of 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 conveniently can roam.

“The double-decker buses aren’t the silver bullet,” says Elizabeth Currid, assistant professor at the University of Southern California’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 disembark 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, a shopping and entertainment complex, 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 the popular Melrose shopping avenue 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.”

The double-deckers, in bright red industrial enamel, are straight out of an Austin Powers movie. Generally older and showing the wear and tear of London streets, they amble along downtown 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 new L.A. Live entertainment quarter, the burgeoning next star for Southern California tourism.

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: That’s a ficus branch headed for your forehead.)

In a couple of test rides, the buses proved to be a wobbly, lumbering blast. Even people familiar with much of the city’s history are bound to learn something from the narrated tour.

The double-decker routes do not overlap. People wishing to make the jump from the downtown loop to Hollywood must 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.