Los Angeles Puts Subway on Wheels

by Matthew Butram

Los Angeles is the classic example of a city fixed on car culture. Although it is the second-largest metropolitan area in the country, its public transportation system was ranked fourth in ridership in 2004 – lower than the significantly smallerWashington, and only barely edging out Boston.

Despite its low-ridership, Los Angeles does possess a well-developed mass transit network, which has been expanding over the past two decades to accommodate the huge number of commuters in and around the city. It has even become something of a pioneer as the first large American city to operate a dedicated busway in over thirty years. Busways – dedicated bus routes that imitate rail systems – are a less costly and less disruptive alternative to light rail, and are gaining supporters in medium- and large-sized cities across the country.

One of the largest obstructions to expanding public transportation in urban areas is that any new services must be built amongst the existing infrastructure. Digging a subway tunnel can be prohibitively expensive, and in those areas where population density is such that it warrants a passenger rail service, it is rare to find enough space to lay above-ground tracks. For this reason, many cities rely on bus systems as the most cost-effective and efficient transit option.

Buses, however, carry with them two of their own problems: They are subject to the constraints of traffic volume and often have to make frequent stops. Because of the delays these problems cause, buses often make poor substitutes for light rail.

A common solution to the first problem is dedicated bus lanes, allowing them to move freely in otherwise deadlocked traffic. The second problem can be solved by creating busways, essentially express bus routes that use dedicated lanes and only allow boarding and debarking at dedicated station stops. They have all of the characteristics of a light rail line without the expense or hassle of laying track.

In October of 2005, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA) created a busway when it expanded rapid-transit service eastward into the San Fernando Valley. Branded as the “Orange Line,” this busway runs fourteen miles, connecting North Hollywood to edge city Warner Center. The route operates with extra-long articulated buses running on a former railroad right-of-way. Traffic signals along the busway’s route are timed so that buses maintain continuous travel between stations.

After little more than a year in service, the LACMTA has been thrilled with the Orange Line’s performance. Successfully marketed not as a bus route but as part of the city’s subway and light rail network, it has far exceeded early expectations. Despite some capacity issues, its weekday ridership already surpasses that of the Gold Line, a well established light rail line on the east side of the city.

Some problems have also emerged in the past year. Drivers of private vehicles along the Orange Line’s route have been involved in a startling number of crashes with the articulated busses – around thirty in the past year. There have been dozens of injuries, some of them serious. All accidents have been determined to be the fault of the vehicle operator, not the bus, but the safety record raises concerns about a busway’s ability to coexist on surface roads with private vehicles. While the LACMTA stresses that the Orange Line’s crash record is better than that of most bus routes, it is still much worse than the light rail lines it aspires to be associated with.

The Orange Line is also impaired by its own popularity. Many of its busses run at full capacity during rush hour, but it would be very difficult for the LACMTA to add more busses. The traffic signal sequence that allows it to run without unnecessary stops would be nearly impossible to alter without negatively affecting traffic flow in the surrounding area.

This built-in capacity ceiling is possibly the most obvious limitation of busways. That problem could be alleviated by running higher-capacity vehicles on the route (a line in Brazil uses busses that are eighty feet long), but that is only a stopgap solution: if the Orange Line’s ridership grows too large, some passengers will simply be forced to wait longer at the station for their bus.

Any added inconvenience or delay is a direct blow to the busway’s goal of imitating light or heavy rail as much as possible. Busses in the United States carry a stigma that other forms of public transportation do not. While many middle- and upper-income people are willing to ride a subway, they perceive (however inappropriately) bus service as dirty, unsafe, and unreliable. Busways are able to overcome those stereotypes, as the Orange Line has, because they act like trains.

The infrastructure cost of building and expanding a light or heavy rail network can be astronomical; and it could take decades for a transit system to build up ridership and pay off that initial investment. A busway, if appropriately maintained and marketed, can be a lower cost alternative for an urban area trying to expand its public transit coverage. The Orange Line’s first year of operation has been such a success for the LACMTA that that agency is already looking into lengthening the route. Busways, with their natural capacity limits, are not a perfect substitute for light rail, but they can be an adequate alternative to lightly or moderately used rail lines for a fraction of the price. For urban areas with limited transportation resources, busways may be the best way to expand public transportation while staying on budget. Any city should manage to get behind an idea like that.

Email Matthew Butram at mpb45@georgetown.edu



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