Shifting Gears for LA Transit

By Oliver Hou, MPl ’11

Can Transit Be Made More Efficient for Los Angeles?

When discussing transit with other Angelenos (both native and transplants), I often hear one of two claims: that L.A. doesn’t have transit, and that it doesn’t get to anywhere they need to go or stop by where they live. While those in the first camp are incorrect, that misconception helps fuel the argument for those in the second camp. I always find it tough not trying to convince them that the coverage of the county’s various transit operators is actually quite impressive and that it is probably the issue of frequency, particularly at night, which keeps them from using the system.

During my bus rides I often contemplate how public transit can be improved in post-industrial regions such as Los Angeles, designed with wide roads and relatively low densities as part of the urban form. I hypothesize that the answer can be found in bus rapid transit (BRT), which seems to be getting more attention these days – and I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks this is where the city’s future lies.

I often take the Local 81 or the Metro Silver Line to USC (they both share stops in downtown, including conveniently in front of RGL!). While it is faster than the 81 due to having fewer stops, the Silver Line still takes roughly the time, suffering slowdown from sharing lanes with regular traffic. When it does hop onto the freeway transitways and becomes a BRT of sorts, I’m sure it can’t be beat. What I don’t like is how many of those stations are right next to the freeway if not directly on top. This act of getting on and off the freeway cuts down on the full potential of a BRT line.

Another reason these stations aren’t my ideal for a BRT system is because you just can’t get the quality of businesses or the right density gradient away from the freeway to support it. For BRT to be successful, not only would it need the variety of neighborhoods that can support ideal development around the line, but it would also have to be a more attractive choice when compared to competing options, such as regular bus service or light rail.

The Metro Orange Line BRT Experience

I recently had the opportunity to try the Metro Orange Line (MOL) in the San Fernando Valley. With a dedicated right of way and stops every mile or so, the MOL is able to achieve high speeds with little interruption. It took 25 minutes to travel the 8 mile route, resulting in an average speed of 20 mph, compared to regular bus service of 8 mph estimated from my normal commute. Coupled with high capacity buses, the MOL appears to double the throughput of regular service quite easily. However, even with a dedicated right of way, all of the crossings are at-grade and required signals. Though the buses get signal priority, it felt like my bus was stopping at every intersection – more often than I would have anticipated and obviously more than I would have preferred!

I wanted to see how the end user experiences the MOL, and I found the ride to be smoother than expected, attributed to the quality of pavement on the route. The bus driver operated the vehicle with smooth acceleration/deceleration, save for a couple instances when approaching a signalized intersection. Comparing this experience with travelling on the many pothole-ridden and congested routes in L.A., I can’t complain!

Lastly, I was curious how well the MOL integrated bicycling infrastructure into the system. At most of the stations, there were plenty of bike lockers, and racks for temporary parking. In addition, the buses themselves had bike racks and even hooks inside the cabin for when the forward racks were full. There is a bicycle path that runs along the route. In a service area with relatively low residential and commercial density, having the infrastructure is important to achieve mode-share with bikes to achieve “last-mile” service.

Concluding Thoughts

Overall I was impressed with my experience riding the MOL. If there was one strategy to improve the quality, it would be to reduce waiting times at intersections with crossing traffic. Now, there is already signal priority implemented for the system which recognizes the presence of BRT liners approaching, holding green lights longer to allow buses through. However, during my time on the MOL it seemed the bus stopped at intersections more often than not. Understandably, the signal prioritization needs to be compatible with traffic conditions at adjacent intersections and the rest of the roadway network, but the system can give even more priority to the BRT and less to local traffic.

This might be accomplished by implementing a more advanced algorithm which detects the arrival of buses more effectively, perhaps holding for buses traveling from both directions. Metro can also work with LADOT or other agengies responsible for the neighboring network to design roadways and circulation patterns to lessen the impact of cross traffic, perhaps even eliminating a few intersections.

By most accounts, the MOL has become a huge success and after my experience, I can imagine more BRT lines running through the rest of L.A. The key would be operating the buses on dedicated right of way separated from private vehicles. To improve the political feasibility of taking away vehicular travel lanes, Metro can have the BRT line shadow sufficiently dense corridors where traffic is already heavily congested. They would then need to convince the public that the BRT lines would have little impact on existing level of service, perhaps even improving flow. A successful transit system in L.A. is about giving people the option to ditch their cars, and a BRT network that takes advantage of existing roadway infrastructure may be the answer to improving transit participation in Los Angeles.

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