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Hop a Bus to the Future

Almost half the land area of the City of Los Angeles is located in the San Fernando Valley, better known as simply "the Valley." With 224 square miles and 1.76 million people, the portion of the Valley that lies within the city limits would be the nation's sixth most populous city, just ahead of Philadelphia, if it were a municipality unto itself. It wasn't until 2000 that rapid transit began serving the region, and in 2005, when Los Angeles chose to open a new transit line in the Valley, it didn't build a train or a trolley or a subway. It added a busway, the Orange Line, and people here love it.

The Orange Line doesn't look or operate like a regular city bus. The vehicles sport sleek, bullet-train silhouettes and shiny silver paint, and they run along a path that is separated from street traffic by barriers and trees -- much like train tracks -- and from which all other vehicles are barred. The trainlike features don't end there: outdoor stations have ticket vending machines, bike racks and enclosed bike lockers, and illuminated signs that alert riders to the arrival time of the next bus. Between some stations the buses reach speeds of up to 55 miles per hour -- much faster than the cars inching along Highway 101 at rush hour. Special sensors in the roadway detect moving buses and switch street signals up ahead, halting cross traffic so buses can pass through without stopping. Just like the train.

This system, known as bus rapid transit, has begun to emerge as an appealing alternative to trains in many metropolitan regions: it's more flexible, cheaper, and in some cases more environmentally friendly than building a new rail-based mass transit system.

Los Angeles opted for a busway because it offered comparable benefits to an aboveground rail line, at one-third the price, and could be built in half the time it would take to lay tracks and launch rail-based service. And unlike the train, the bus has the ability to leave its dedicated roadway and make stops on regular city streets, delivering riders to destinations they could not otherwise reach by mass transit.

The idea has held sway in other cities around the world for many years. High-speed busways augment rail-based transit in Mexico City, where buses move as many as 315,000 people a day. In Brisbane, Australia, a city of nearly two million people, bus rapid transit services have a daily ridership of 93,000. In Beijing, Bogotá, Colombia, and Curitiba, Brazil, buses are the high-speed transportation method of choice.

The success of bus rapid transit as a twenty-first century transportation alternative in the United States will depend in part on efforts to dispel the image of the bus as a poor man's conveyance. Los Angeles, because of the Orange Line's trainlike features, has made progress. In a survey conducted by city transit officials in 2009, riders rated their busway experience as comparable to that of a new light-rail line elsewhere in the city.

That's music to the ears of Martin Wachs, director of the Transportation, Space, and Technology Program at the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit think tank headquartered in Santa Monica, California. "We want to get people into public transportation -- we want to make it more attractive," he says.

Transportation officials in Cleveland agree. "Bus rapid transit is probably the hottest public transit product on the market today," says Joe Calabrese, the CEO and general manager of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, which operates perhaps the sleekest bus rapid transit system in the United States.

Cleveland overcame the bus's poor-man's image by building glass-enclosed stations and designing vehicles that feel like train cars. For instance, their doors open on both sides and allow platform-level entry for easier boarding. The buses run for 6.8 miles along Euclid Avenue, serving many of the city's medical, cultural, and educational institutions. The so-called HealthLine has also attracted new businesses to areas where passengers get on and off, adding an estimated $4.3 billion to the local economy. The benefits of bus rapid transit came with a sticker price of $200 million, relatively low compared with other options that would cover the same distance, such as a $650 million light-rail system and a $1 billion subway line.

But bus rapid transit's more affordable price tag could not win over transportation officials in Maryland, who were looking to expand connecting service to the Washington, D.C., Metro system. They opted for rail over bus, despite cost estimates and environmental studies that came out in the bus's favor.

The World Resources Institute, a nonprofit research group based in Washington, D.C., conducted a cost-benefit analysis of the greenhouse gas emissions that would result from light rail and the bus rapid transit alternative. A train's emissions depend on the source of the grid power used to run electrified cars. In western Maryland, that's coal-fired power plants, making hybrid-electric and natural gas–powered buses the lower-emission choice. People tend to forget that "the train isn't emitting, but the power plant is," says Dario Hidalgo, a transportation engineer at the institute.

Though the rail system will cost $1.5 billion -- nearly three times the low-end estimate for the bus -- state officials argue that the train will allow them to serve a large ridership (projected 65,000 daily) without service delays.

Wachs argues that there is no single factor that determines whether buses or trains are the better option. The bus can be upgraded to accommodate higher passenger volumes by making vehicles longer and requiring riders to purchase tickets in advance to facilitate on-time departures. "It's not like there is a rule, one is better, one is worse," he says. "There's a big fuzzy area. That's what makes it interesting."

image of author
Lauren Gravitz writes about science, health, and the environment for Discover and the Economist. She lives in Los Angeles.

I disagree that everyone loves the busways in their current configuration. The busways are for the most part light rail without the rail. And the problem with light rail and busways that are separated from the street, is that they interfere with traffic that is already bad. Busways and train systems need to be separated from the traffic they hope to reduce. When they occupy the same surfaces, one has to slow down the other. When they slow down each other, especially when trains or buses slow down traffic on the street, the traffic problem is compounded and makes everything less efficient.

Whether a busway or a train system is being built, it must be built in a way that does not interfere with street level traffic. I've lived in Chicago and Los Angeles and know the differences between both systems. Chicago's system is much better and efficient. Not just because it covered more of the city, but because the rail was elevated or below ground. It never interfered with traffic and never had to slow for traffic. It didn't create additional pollution for the sake of faster people movers.

For years the 101 Freeway in Santa Barbara crossed streets as it passed by the main part of Santa Barbara. Traffic was horrible in both directions. If you were a local and wanted to get to the other side of the freeway, you waited for a very long light. Plus the freeway traffic had to stop for those lights which idled lots of cars building up traffic. When they finally built the underpasses for the street level traffic, no one had to stop. The freeway and street traffic reached maximum efficiency and that's the way we need to approach all our high-speed travel options.

Dan Kolhoff
Santa Monica, CA

I disagree that people love it. I lived a short walk from the busway and used it on and off for a year on my commute from the west valley to Downtown LA (I own a car). The bus was too cramped for the amount of people using it - a light rail train would have been a lot more comfortable. Also the transfer from the Orange line to the red line was too far. It is a start but in order to get the white collar (car owner) out of their car we need rail and not a bus. Let's continue to build rail - the only way we are going to get the people with cars to use mass transit.

"The Orange Line doesn't look or operate like a regular city bus. "

Does to me:

Someone needs to get out more often!

Sorry. Locals don't love the Orange Line. We all wanted a rail line. It would have been faster, smoother, higher-capacity, and more appealing to riders.

We lost a rail line at the hands of two particularly unhelpful politicians...

What a lot of non-truth. If the author actually went and rode the Orange Line, about 20 or more misstatements of fact wouldn't be in the "Puff Piece". The end-to-end schedule time on the busway is actually longer than a comparible bus on the nearby Victory Blvd.

The Orange Line buses must slow to 10 miles per hour as they cross major intersections to avoid being T-boned by Valley motorists who can't tell the difference between Red and Green lights. The Orange Line buses accelerate to 55 in about 45 seconds, just to slow down at the upcoming intersection.

Have you ever actually rode the Orange Line? If you don't get a forward facing seat, your back is going to be in serious need of adjustment. This isn't a smooth ride like Light Rail.

And among distortions is the cost of operating the service. For the same millions Metro has to pay in wages for a low capacity busway, Light Rail could have been running with 7-1/2 minute service with 3 car trains carrying 450 riders per trip. End-to-end travel time would have been 29 minutes, not the 48 minutes that the busway buses take. Each busway bus can carry about 80 passengers in a crush load, so it takes 6 buses with 6 operators to move the same crowd.

Additionally, busway coaches reach Federal retirement standards in about 5 years putting on so many miles. It is about $800,000 to replace each bus. Figure that a $3.5 million Light Rail vehicle will last 50 years. So, you will need 10 buses over a 50 year cycle at $10 million including inflation. And don't forget that two buses equal 1 LRV, so where is the cost savings of $20 million vs. $3.5?

Anyone who buys this load without understanding the operational costs and the lifecycle costs of constant repaving the busway shouldn't be setting public policy.
Enough with the half-truths, misstatements and plain lies. Please.

This article does not mention the overall cost (in dollars and environmental impact) of busways v. trains, it only talks about the initial construction expense, which is a fixed investment that can be paid back. But once the construction is bought and paid for, you still have the cost of running the transit system. For busways, that cost is significant. Busses tend to have far shorter lifespans than trains, they have lower capacity (you can't just keep making the busses longer, but you can add cars to a train system), and, perhaps most significantly, busses require more drivers to move more people. Paying for drivers is one of the highest ongoing costs within public transportation. Reducing the number of drivers necessary to move large populations efficiently is ideal.

In addition to the comments from other users that the busses still look and feel like busses, and are not accepted by all residents, you make some blanket statements that are misleading:
"And unlike the train, the bus has the ability to leave its dedicated roadway and make stops on regular city streets, delivering riders to destinations they could not otherwise reach by mass transit."
> Actually, these busses do not have that ability. They were specially built for the Orange line and are too big to drive on regular streets. As a side effect of their size, these busses are too large to make normal turns.

"in 2009, riders rated their busway experience as comparable to that of a new light-rail line elsewhere in the city."
> Comparable in what way? There is a problem with the light rail service elsewhere in the city: It is painfully slow, and was designed to be that way. Riders are, understandably, unhappy with this fact.

The blue line to Long Beach, for instance, takes 90 minutes to travel. It is (without traffic), a 30 minute drive. At its worst in rush hour, the drive might be 90 minutes. This is not an even exchange that riders wish to make. Most of the time for this trip is spent when the train is forced to run along surface streets in downtown Los Angeles, where it follows a convoluted path. The Gold Line to Pasadena is better, time-wise, but suffers similar difficulties when it shares grade-level street or pedestrian crossings.

But if you compare room on the trains (some trains even have seats with small tables), comfort level, and perceived value, the busway loses, hands down.

I do agree with the first poster that transportation needs to be separated from the roadways. It creates a faster experience for all, which is what Los Angeles needs in public transportation.

For instance, the LA subway wins, hands down, for service and ridership satisfaction on every level.

While it was great that the Orange Line was built, it was built by paving over existing tracks from a former light rail system. There were stories at the time it was built that it would become a rail system if ridership was demonstrated. The ridership has been demonstrated. It is time to change to the tracks, before MTA has to buy another set of the caterpillar busses.

Funny thing is that Valley residents voted on a light rail, but we got an inefficient crowded bus--that stops at every single intersection. The Orange line is a horrible experience. While there's a crowd at N Hollywood cramming into a single bus (while there are 2 other buses standing by because the drivers are on their breaks) we're forced to squeeze ourselves in and hold on as the drivers slam on brakes and aviod motorists who mistake the dedicated lane as a public street. Disaster waiting to happen! BTW--there were already tracks in place from the Chandler freight corridor.

It's not just the cities that are hurting for the light rail systems. We need to start using small fast trains like they do in Europe and Asia. I live in "rural" Arizona and a system between Tucson and Phoenix would get used. It would be a much better investment then the losing battle being waged with the additional blacktop.

Ray @ New World Solar

I thought that this post had some very interesting thoughts. I can see how there would be positives and negatives for either the busline or the train. Wouldn't it be interesting if someone would create a train, that had the new features of this busline, but still continued to tranport the large number of riders at the same time. Then maybe there could be buses like these that transport people from the main train stops to specific areas where they're headed. I suppose that might be a little like an above ground subway system. Wouldn't that be interesting?