Op/Ed: A Quick-Fix to L.A.’s Mass Transit: Bring Back the Trolleybuses!

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Images of trolley buses from around the world, collected by Alexander Friedman.

Los Angeles is the 2nd largest city in the United States., both in population and size, and is still notorious for its “car culture.” Unlike other major world cities, our city cannot match the level of efficient alternatives to driving that many major world cities can. The few transit options we have are: two subway lines – Red and Purple; several light-rail lines, a clumsy BRT line; and an otherwise a slow & inefficient bus system.

What L.A. is missing is a reliable transit system, i.e. a citywide network of subway and light-rail lines, fully integrated with connecting buses. Investing in a citywide metro-rail network will require tens of billions of dollars, and decades to construct, and the government’s commitment. Our federal government isn’t too anxious to heavily invest in these projects due to many elected officials’ love of automobile. Our city and state funds can only provide a fraction of the investment. Hence we’re left with just a handful of rail lines and a cumbersome system of buses. Bus commutes involve transfers and sometimes hours to get across the city.

So, for the bad news: our mass transit isn’t getting much better anytime soon, except for several new rail lines & extensions in the next 10-30 years (depending on federal grants and loans availability). Given our city size and population, those planned projects are nowhere near what LA County ultimately needs.

Now, for some good news: There is one possible solution – that is not only inexpensive, but that will bring Los Angeles transit system on a whole new level! This solution can be implemented while our rail system is being built. I’m not talking about monorail, or high-speed rail, or mega-speed subway, or “personal rapid transit”. I’m referring to something the whole world has used for decades: an option that’s simple yet technologically advanced, something ordinary yet extraordinary to some… But first – a brief introduction.

Just over half a century ago L.A. County had the biggest rail system in the country, and one of the largest in the world, spanning over a 1000 miles. The system also carried a vast network of buses and electric trolleybuses. Here is a partial map of 1938 L.A. streetcar system and a more comprehensive map of L.A. County Rail.

By the 1960’s, the Automobile destroyed everything beyond recognition. People were forced to drive, since many other alternatives were gone. The only thing left from the once-efficient transit network was an occasional citing of naked rail tracks, and a limited number of buses.

Mass transit in L.A. was virtually non-existent since 1960’s when the last streetcars and trolleybuses were taken away. In the 1990’s City officials finally realized what a huge mistake destruction of mass transit turned out to be. Population had noticeably increased. Solo driving had gotten increasingly problematic, as roads became congested.

So, in 1990 the first rail line was re-built: the Blue line. Spanning from Downtown L.A. to Long Beach, the Blue line is now the busiest LRT line in the U.S. Along with that, bus service has slowly improved, with  asomewhat modernized fleet and several “Rapid” lines. Several new rail lines, including our Purple and Red line subway were built and Metrolink regional train service was launched.

L.A. still lacks a citywide subway network. Bus service, while improved, fails to provide reliable service. And in large cities, without an integrated rail system (or other transit guideway), buses alone will never be competitive or attract sufficient ridership. And those few rail lines, some of which run “from somewhere to nowhere”, do not serve most of the popular areas that we work at, or live in.

But there is one solution, so let’s get to it. While our expensive metro-rail system is being developed, we can implement something quick and inexpensive, yet attractive to riders.

BRING BACK ELECTRIC TROLLEYBUSES!

Electric trolleybus systems are very inexpensive to build and maintain. Overhead wiring and power supply are perhaps the only capital investment, and funding can be used from Measure R revenue. Once the wiring is placed, operating costs become significantly lower.

Electric trolleybuses are energy-efficient. Their overhead wires draw power from central electrical power supply sources, costing less than bus fuel – even CNG.

Trolleybuses have been successfully used in many U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Philadelphia, and Dayton. Trolleybuses are also widely used throughout Europe, Asia, South America, North America, and other parts of the world.

Please refer to the rendering of a Škoda trolleybus. Those types of vehicles run on San Francisco streets. Škoda trolleybuses actually resemble the Neoplan 40-foot buses that L.A. has had for many years. Those Škoda models would be perfectly suitable for Los Angeles!

Speaking of San Francisco, here are a few links of their trolleybus vehicles:

Škoda trolleybus

Articulated Škoda trolleybus

Another great image

As far as Los Angeles, trolleybuses are not a new idea here! As mentioned earlier, trolleybuses did exist up until 1960’s. Here is a great reference source about the past of Los Angeles’ trolleybuses; please scroll through these images.

As you can see on the 1st image, trolley vehicles fit well on any street. Trolleybuses’ very quiet performance and zero emissions make them a welcoming addition, including residential neighborhoods.

Three decades later, LACMTA attempted to re-launch trolleybuses. Unfortunately, due to widespread 1990’s NIMBY’ism, the idea was suspended. In 2009 Metro returned to trolleybus planning again, and even hired a consulting group for researching this subject. Metro hasn’t moved forward with the trolleybus plan yet, but I expect them to resume such consideration soon.

Here are a few more renderings of trolleybuses in Los Angeles. You can see how noticeably our Orange Line buses transform if electric trolley-vehicles are used instead of CNG buses.So, let’s talk about advantages of electric trolleybuses:

1)    They’re inexpensive to implement. While electric trolleybuses originally cost more per vehicle, in the long run they save MTA tons of money due to much lower overhead costs. In addition, many existing CNG buses can also be converted to electric trolleybuses, thus saving on procurement costs;

2)    Trolleybuses are very energy-efficient, electrical costs are lower than fuel cost of CNG buses;

3)    They are 100% pollution-free – which is especially important for our smog-chocked L.A.;

4)    Vehicles run very quietly, producing only minimal noise, especially comparing to buses;

5)    Their acceleration and braking is very smooth, yet more powerful than buses;

6)    Trolleybus vehicles are technologically-advanced and are more attractive to public, drawing higher ridership than buses. In fact, no matter how sophisticated CNG buses get, trolleybuses always win in customer preference;

7)    Overhead wiring creates a fixed transit-way, spurring development and revitalization on a given corridor;

8)    Overhead wiring also means a permanent presence of reliable transit on the street. This is a crucial factor from passengers’ perspective, and helps attracting ridership even further. Just compare a street with traditional buses (they might arrive, but can also deviate anywhere, at any time) – versus a trolleybus corridor (overhead wires tell us that transit is here for many years, and will not deviate elsewhere!)

9)    Among innovative transportation, electric trolleybuses require the least investment – comparing to streetcars, light-rail, or subway. Operating costs are also some of the lowest, especially comparing to buses;

10) Trolleybuses’ life span is higher than buses;

11) Maintenance of trolleybuses is insignificant comparing to buses (with fuel-based engines and transmission).

Next, I would like to touch upon some common “Myths and Facts”, which readers may find helpful.

MYTH: We don’t need electric trolleybuses; we’re Ok with just buses.

FACT: This is usually proclaimed by those who either never use mass transit, or who are unaware of trolleybuses’ benefits. Trolleybuses’ performance, quality of ride, zero emissions, reliability, and presence of permanent fixed guideway – are all superior factors. Decades of using “just buses” in L.A. has proven to be unsuccessful, as our mass transit continues to stay non-integrated, unreliable, and unattractive to most.

MYTH: Electric trolleybus corridors will unlikely attract more riders than bus corridors.

FACT:  The opposite is true. For instance, when you visit cities like San Francisco, you will notice how a street with trolleybuses or streetcars becomes a true transit corridor, thanks to overhead wiring. Presence of transit facilities – such as overhead wires, tracks, platforms, etc. – is what makes the difference. Not only does a fixed transit-way spur economic development, but it’s also a strong psychological factor for ridership. To compare: a typical L.A. street with bus service is just a Car street (with some transit). But a street with trolleybuses now transforms into a Transit street (with cars).

MYTH: Electric wiring is intrusive, and homeowners will object it.

FACT:  True, our city does have plenty of NIMBY’s who will object just about anything. What homeowners don’t realize is that overhead wiring is an indicator of a 100% pollution-free, advanced transit system – instead of polluting noisy buses. Wouldn’t you agree that environmentally-friendly, reliable, attractive vehicles are worth the “intrusion” of wiring? Besides, many streets already have plenty of wires & cables from telephone stations, electricity, etc. Another pair of wires, after all, is not the end of the world. Cleaner air and quieter public vehicles is by far more important.

MYTH: Los Angeles has always been a Car city; people love their cars, thus transit investment is unnecessary.

FACT:  This is a popular belief (myth), heavily influenced by the automakers. As mentioned earlier, Los Angeles was never meant to be a “Car city” originally, but was artificially rebuilt only since 1950’s-1960’s – for the automobile & oil mega-industry. Prior to that, Los Angeles was officially one of the top Transit cities in the world. In fact, Los Angeles was devoted exclusively to cars for only around 30 years, much less than the number of years of being a Mass Transit city. Many Angelenos not only aren’t aware of former presence of a vast rail network, but are also in denial that we now have a rail/subway system; that’s how far the automobile propaganda has gone!

Today’s enormous road congestion adversely affects the economy and our lives. Air is polluted, quality of life is degraded, mobility is crippled. And it will only get worse. Population is expected to continue growing in the next 20 years, impairing our mobility even further. Those are more than enough reasons we need to seriously invest in mass transit and give people options. Even CalTrans and LADOT openly admit: creating a transportation system based on cars turned out to be a big failure. The California Dream of everyone having a prosperous life with a nice car turned-out to be one giant Traffic Nightmare.

Lastly, the issue whether people truly “love” their cars is questionable. Some people would, no doubt, spend their whole life in cars no matter what. However, recent polls have shown that a vast majority of Angelenos are ready to switch from driving – only if reliable, convenient, and attractive mass transit is present. So, do we truly “love” our cars, or are we simply confined to them due to no alternatives? And is it car “love”, or is it actually “addiction”? Isn’t it time we, Angelenos, should have a freedom of preference which transportation mode to choose? Isn’t what “freedom of choice” truly is? Or would we rather continue to be forced to drive all the time?

MYTH: Due to being connected to wires, trolleybuses are inflexible in case of lane closure or other major obstacles.

FACT:  True, overhead wiring requires trolleybuses to follow a fixed route. But the same goes for traditional buses – they are also required to stay on a given route. If a detour is necessary, modern trolleybuses can accomplish a seamless temporarily switching to a regular (or battery-powered) engine when needed. In conjunction with automatic lowering of trolley booms, a trolleybus can divert from route without even having to stop! Automatic rewiring can be achieved with ‘pans’ fitted to the overhead at appropriate locations. Hybrid-electric trolleybuses have been successful all over the world.

MYTH: Modern CNG buses are already clean-fueled, therefore no need to invest in Electric trolleybuses;

FACT:  While CNG buses pollute noticeably less than diesel buses, they still generate plenty of smelly and powerful gases. In fact, “clean fuel” is an oxymoron. Just try standing behind an idling CNG bus for a few minutes, and inhale its “clean” emissions; you will notice their exhaust fumes in no-time (hopefully you don’t wind-up in a hospital from fumes poisoning!) In addition, noise impact – generated by even the most technologically advanced buses – is quite noticeable. Electric trolleybuses, on the other hand, are the only rubber-wheel vehicles that are completely pollution-free, and offer the quietest, smoothest ride. Therefore, environmental impact of trolleybuses is non-existent comparing to buses.

MYTH: A better option is to build buses with an internal electric battery, thus no need for overhead wires.

FACT:  Battery-powered buses could, indeed, be one of the solutions to reduce air pollution. A couple of problems, however. One, lack of overhead wiring is not necessarily a good thing. Remember, overhead wiring (whether from a streetcar, light-rail, or trolleybus) indicates a permanent transit corridor, which is a strong boost for both transit ridership and development. Therefore, lack of wiring would be a lose-lose situation. And two, an internal battery allows a bus to run on a single charge for limited time. For instance, a typical bus battery can last up to 120 – 150 miles, after which returning to the garage and re-charging is needed. Needless to say, trolley-buses can run for unlimited time, with no need to re-charge, ever!

MYTH: On a single corridor with both Local and Rapid services, trolleybuses would not be able to pass one another due to a single set of wires requiring all trolleybuses to stay on the same path.

FACT:  Indeed, on L.A. corridors transit vehicles need to be able to pass one another, especially when Local and Rapid buses are used. With trolleybuses it’s easy to accomplish this as well, by using one of the following options:

(a)   Running regular CNG buses on a Local line, while electric trolleybuses – on a Rapid line. Or vice-versa;

(b)   Building two sets of wires – one for Local, the other – for Rapid trolleybus lines. While more expensive to implement, this option in the long run will be beneficial, as trolleybuses have lower operating costs. Just imagine both Local and Rapid lines running independently of each other, by using emission-free trolleybuses! Perfect corridors for such implementation could be Wilshire Blvd, Vermont Ave., Santa Monica Blvd., etc.

MYTH: Trolleybuses with overhead wiring are a thing of the past, and are no longer popular.

FACT:  Not true. As mentioned earlier, many cities throughout the world continue to successfully use trolleybus vehicles, with no intention of downgrading. Futuristic, attractive trolleybuses, combined with their efficiency, quality of ride, and zero emissions, will continue providing high-quality transit services for many decades to come. What actually does look outdated are regular non-electric buses – especially here in L.A. Just compare the two images below!

It’s easy to determine which vehicle above is truly antiquated, and unattractive to riders. Los Angeles’ CNG buses – especially the high-floor New Flyer model shown above – are indeed becoming a thing of the past!

MYTH: Trolleybuses are only needed in hilly cities like in San Francisco or Seattle; as trolleybuses’ acceleration on hills is superior to buses.

FACT:  Indeed, on hilly streets trolleybuses perform noticeably better, both in acceleration and braking. However, “hilly cities” is only one of the many reasons to implement trolleybuses. Most cities throughout the world have trolleybus systems installed on completely flat terrain. In Russia’s all former Soviet republics, for instance, trolleybuses run in every single major city, even though those cities are flat, including Moscow. Again, trolleybus implementation in most cases is completely independent of the type of terrain.

CONCLUSION:

Now that a different perspective on our transit options has been presented, Metro needs to seriously consider trolleybuses. This reliable, fast, attractive, powerful, and environmentally friendly mode of transit will give a strong “facelift” to our mass transit, and is all but certain to draw significantly higher ridership, while promoting economic development.

Even though a trolleybus system will never replace subway, it will provide a better connectivity, create fixed transit ways, provide reliable, dependable service, and will be closer to 21st century technology than our current bus system. Our streets will start transforming into real Transit corridors.

It’s time for Los Angeles to start catching-up not only to other major cities across the world, but to nearby cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and San Diego. Now that Los Angeles is expanding its metro-rail network, and preparing to re-build its first streetcar line on Broadway, launching electric trolleybuses should greatly complement our transit developments. Streets like 3rd Street, Wilshire Blvd, Sepulveda Blvd, La Brea Avenue, Vermont Avenue, Ventura Blvd, and many others, can successfully implement trolleybuses. I believe, the Škoda vehicles – successfully used in San Francisco, CA or Dayton, OH – will be perfectly suitable for Los Angeles streets. Both 40-feet and 60-feet articulated vehicles (depending on passenger demand on a given corridor) should be placed into service.

Even our mediocre Orange line BRT could be converted to a trolleybus line (see renderings above); so that cyclists don’t have to endure “clean” fumes from those noisy CNG buses running next to the bikeway. Ideally, though, I would love to see the Orange line upgraded to Light-rail, to meet increasing demand and future growth of San Fernando Valley.

Given our mass transit comeback, it’s only a matter of time till electric trolleybuses are re-launched in L.A. But trolleybuses don’t have to be the only innovation in our city. Bus stops and connection hubs need a serious upgrade as well; many stops don’t even have shelters. Metro, along with individual city municipalities should work together to turn our blighted, dirty bus benches into respectable transit stops. Our city deserves better mass transit, and our transit riders deserve being treated like human beings, not second-class citizens.

That’s why serious investment into world-class mass transit – something that both residents and visitors can be proud of – is essential to ensure well-being of our home, City of Angels!

  • Anonymous

    I have two comments on this article. I’m sorry for the long read. Short version: Don’t forget that overhead wires are fugly and people in cars need to respect public transportation more than they do.

    I’m a huge public transport fan and user, a rail geek and an amateur historian entranced with the subject of LA and it’s transportation history. When i moved here from back east 15 years ago i was shocked to learn that Los Angeles destroyed a massive and functional public transportation system that literally enabled the suburban structure of LA to happen in the first place, only to have that credit stolen when the rails were ripped up and replaced with freeways and inexplicably large boulevards that lace LA like a paved corset.

    First: The biggest single reason that the old rail systems were shut down and ripped up wasn’t because of a conspiracy of GM, Goodyear and Standard Oil (even though they did buy up and replace loads of public transport in the first half of the 20th century), in fact they were merely the enablers of something bigger: People HATED the rails in LA, and the cables that ran over them, which is the point of my post.

    Try to imagine Venice boulevard taking up 40 feet of it’s current right of way, with the remainder being a 50 foot wide dirt strip with two rails down the middle of it and wires overhead. Huge rights-of-way made driving slow and inconvenient, left people, cars, roads and the air filthy, were unsightly and intentionally free of plants (because the railway companies didn’t want people hanging out near the tracks nor did they want to have to maintain any foliage) so… all over Los Angeles, every major thoroughfare was taken up with those confounded trains and their ugly assed wires, causing accidents and making it increasingly difficult to drive my 20 foot long land-yacht from my home in the far flung ‘burbs like Thousand Oaks, Woodland Hills, San Pedro, San Fernando, and Santa Anita which they moved to in the 40’s and 50’s to get away from the brown people that were moving into their parent’s neighborhood.

    When plans came up to remove wires and expand Santa Monica, Venice, Hollywood, Washington, Huntington, Hawethorn, Crenshaw (the list is really long) boulevards into giant paved throughways, people couldn’t dig the damn tracks up fast enough.

    So now that most folks who remember that are too old to carry much clout anymore, many of us are thinking about fixing the systems, rebuilding and replacing what was once removed. I’m all for it, and I can’t wait to help… but let’s not forget the lessons we need to learn… like some of that shit was poorly executed and fugly.

    Second: The first step to fixing LA’s public transport is respect.

    Right now, a single driver in a single car feels no compunction at all about cutting off a bus filled with 40-60 people – those things move slow and god help you if you get stuck behind one. We happily zoom across rail and busway routes while a bus/train filled with LITERALLY hundreds of people waits.

    I say that is wrong wrong wrong.

    I think it’s an extension of the mentality that holds public transportation in low regard, as a resort of those without “better” means, of the poorly-heeled and socially inept. The relegation of our public transportation systems as merely a means for the second, third and other classes of our population renders our publicv not only inefficient, but casts it in a light which acrues the disdain and an ire of people in cars.

    When people become cognizant of the fact that a mass of traveling people deserves prioritization over a single person, the Expo and Orange lines in LA will move like the Subways, zipping people across town in half the time of an automobile trip. When that happens, only people who like sitting in traffic will drive.

  • DJ

    I appreciate the author’s passion and good intentions, but I am disappointing in Streetsblog for publishing this.

    This article represents a technology-biased perspective to transportation planning which fails to take into account the service metrics which truly matter: travel time, frequency, and streetscape design. For LA to truly improve its bus system, we need dedicated lanes, high frequencies, nicer bus stops, and pedestrian and bicycle friendly streetscapes which are safe and walkable. Putting trolley wires on existing buses will accomplish very little; bus rapid transit and transit corridor street improvements are a much worthier investment.

    Also, trolley buses are NOT pollution free–given LA’s coal-based electricity system, it is very possible that trolley buses would result in a net increase in GHG emissions.

    We have a finite amount of funding for transit projects and a much greater need for improvements in this region. While trolley buses could be appropriate for some corridors, a full conversion is not cost effective.

  • Matt Matasci

    I have to agree too. Love the passion, hate the idea.

    Dedicated lanes (even if only at rush-hours), better way-fairing resources, shorter headways.

    Also, as someone who has ridden the Silver Line in Boston extensively, I don’t think the overhead wires were what attracted people to it. If anything the exclusive livery and name (Silver Line) is what made people think it is more permanent / differentiated it from standard MBTA buses.

    But again I love the passion and feel bad for criticizing. Sorry!

  • Dennis Hindman

    The biggest problem with the Orange Line is the amount of passengers each bus holds, not the drive-train technology. Sixty-feet is the maximum length allowed by law for buses and according to Metro the sixty-feet long, single hinged long Orange Line buses have a maximum capacity of 75 passengers. Longer dual-hinged buses are common in South America and in Europe.

    The worlds longest bus was revealed last year in Germany. Its a hybrid vehicle that is 98-feet long and can hold 256 passengers:

    If Metro could get an exemption to the maximum length allowed for buses on the Orange Line–by virtue of having a dedicated busway for most of its route length–then I could see Metro purchasing longer length buses when the current vehicles need to be replaced. This would be a much cheaper way of increasing capacity compared to converting the line to rail or having buses with overhead wires.The biggest problem they would have in using longer buses is that the stations were designed for sixty-foot buses.

    There is one 65-foot bus (holds 15 more passengers) in the Orange line fleet that was given as a warranty replacement vehicle by the manufacturer and Metro got a maximum length exemption to test out its viability. I don’t know what Metro has concluded about the 65-foot Orange Line bus, but I can tell you from my experiences of riding it and reading up on changes the manufacturer made that it rides smoother and quieter than the sixty-foot buses. It also looks sleeker with dark tinted windows and wheel covers that make it look less like a bus and more like a train.

  • Ever been on a trolleybus when there is an accident or a detour in front of it? Doesn’t work so well…

  • I think the relevant points have already been raised by some of the earlier comments but to sum up (and add my own 2 cents):

    1. Trolly bus doesn’t solve the transit speed problem we have. Only dedicated bus lane will really make a dent.

    2. The author seems to think overhead wire is a cheap investment but it is in fact pretty expensive, especially since we have to buy a whole new fleet of buses. Fitting overhead wire to the entire length of 720 (Wilshire) plus the 50 or 60 buses required to operate this route is not chump change. Now replicate that by every single major Rapid bus corridor… We are better off spending that money on re-stripping the roads with dedicated bus lanes.

    3. The author has sadly way under estimated the NIMBYs. I would LOVE to see the public forum in Beverly Hills on converting 704 and 720 to trolly bus. And herein lies another lesson for the author… LA is not a monolith municipality like London or Tokyo and sadly, places like Beverly Hills can veto any real progress on transit.

    4. The life of any bus (trolly or otherwise) in the US is primarily dictated by the Federal Govt via its transportation funding. When buses reach 15 years, they become eligible for funding to replace them. So a lot of buses are scrapped even if they are working just fine. Trolly buses are more expensive to purchase than conventional buses but they don’t necessarily have longer service lives under the current funding scheme.

  • Anonymous

    I wonder if the author has ever been on a trolley bus. I rode them a fair amount in San Francisco, and they were noticeably less smooth operating than regular buses. They sort of jerk violently when starting and stopping. They are relatively quiet and create zero local pollution, so that’s nice, but the aesthetic pollution from the overhead lines is close to as bad. I would also guess that by the time we spent a decade or two putting in thousands of miles of overhead wires, etc., battery technology will have progressed to the point where we could’ve had a zero pollution, low-noise solution just by replacing the bus fleet.

    I’m with the commentors above: I hear the argument about “permanent transit streets”, but I’d bet you’d get far more bang for your buck in that way by putting in dedicated bus lanes and pedestrian and bus stop infrastructure.

  • Alexander Friedman (author)

    Thank you for your comment.
    To answer your question (whether I have ever ridden a trolleybus?) – Yes, not only did I ride these regularly in the past, but I grew up in a city and spent most of my life commuting on trolleybuses, as well as other types of mass transit. So my experience and observation are first-hand.
    In addition, I’ve spent quite a bit of time doing research on the topic prior to writing this article.
    my point-of-view is based upon years & years of personal experience, research, comparison with other types of mass transit, and traveling worldwide.
    Even though I disagree with your comment, I do appreciate your interest and response..

  • Anonymous

    I can give you every argument you make, but overhead wires won’t become interesting again until fuel prices warrant them. Until then, I don’t see any politically expedient argument to replace buses with trolley buses.

  • davistrain

    San Francisco, which has about a dozen trolley bus lines, has an advantage over most cities in that their Hetch Hetchy water and power system provides low cost electricity for electric buses, streetcars, light rail lines, and even the big motors in the cable-car power house. And trolley buses work better on hilly routes than diesel buses. Historical note: LA had two trolley bus lines that replaced streetcar lines in 1948. They were converted to diesel buses in 1963, at the same time the last streetcar lines were abandoned. Regarding people in cars respecting public transit: A large percentage of drivers will respect public transit only if it runs on rails, and sometime not even then. To them, anything that gets in their way is the enemy. Buses (electric or diesel) are “loser cruisers” for the poor schmucks who can’t afford a car. There used to be a bumper sticker that read “As a matter of fact I DO OWN the WHOLE DAMN ROAD!” We’ve already seen how reserving lanes on Wilshire Blvd. for buses has turned into a major battle, with Beverly Hills in the thick of things. Some motorists will think twice about driving when gasoline goes above $5 or $6 a gallon; others will eat beans and say “I will give up my car when they pry my cold, dead fingers from the steering wheel.” (If that sounds like a variation on a gun-owners’ slogan, it’s because both attitudes are often found in the same person.)

  • I’m not sure if the author has ever biked either on the Orange Line bikeway or even on Sunset Blvd or other streets with major bus lines. On the Orange Line bikeway, you’re pretty far separated from the buses, so the main fume issue comes from cars that are just a few feet farther in the other direction – switching to trolleybuses will have no effect on those. And even on the streets, when I’m stopped right behind a bus, there’s not really much noticeable in the way of exhaust. I’m far more bothered by the dust that’s kicked up off the street than by the fumes.

  • Also, about these two points:

    >MYTH: We don’t need electric trolleybuses; we’re Ok with just buses.
    >
    >FACT: This is usually proclaimed by those who either never use mass transit, or
    >who are unaware of trolleybuses’ benefits. Trolleybuses’ performance, quality of
    >ride, zero emissions, reliability, and presence of permanent fixed guideway – are
    >all superior factors.

    I use mass transit all the time (primarily Metro buses). I’ll grant that trolleybuses are generally quieter (though last time I was in SF, one of the trolleybuses had some sort of electrical whine going for the whole time, which was annoying), and zero emissions is an advantage (though not much of one, as I said in my earlier comment). I don’t think the quality of ride is any better apart from these factors though – the quality of a ride is affected by the bumpiness of the road, the gear shifting of the driver, the sensitivity of the driver to acceleration, and the quality of the shock absorbers on the wheel, but it doesn’t matter whether the motor is electric or gas powered. I’m not sure what the claimed reliability advantage is for trolleybuses.

    >MYTH: Electric trolleybus corridors will unlikely attract more riders than bus
    >corridors.
    >FACT: The opposite is true. For instance, when you visit cities like San Francisco,
    >you will notice how a street with trolleybuses or streetcars becomes a true transit
    >corridor, thanks to overhead wiring. Presence of transit facilities – such as
    >overhead wires, tracks, platforms, etc. – is what makes the difference. Not only
    >does a fixed transit-way spur economic development, but it’s also a strong
    >psychological factor for ridership. To compare: a typical L.A. street with bus
    >service is just a Car street (with some transit). But a street with trolleybuses now
    >transforms into a Transit street (with cars).

    The “permanent guideway” thing is a total red herring. Sunset, Vermont, Wilshire, etc. will always be major transitways, unless the city either decides to do away with public transit entirely (in which case wires wouldn’t save them) or if it decides to do away with those streets. Rail systems have come and gone, while those three streets have remained transitways. That’s real permanence. And if you mean that wires will make other streets into permanent transitways, that just isn’t true. Overhead wires are very easy to move – certainly much easier than painted bus lanes on the street, which would do much more to improve the quality of transportation in the city.

    To the casual observer, the overhead wires in San Francisco just blend into all the other visual clutter in the air. When I lived in the Bay Area, I certainly never really paid attention to whether streets had wires overhead when looking for a bus. The thing that makes a street obviously a transitway is either the presence of a bus, or a designated space where only buses are allowed to go. If we want our streets to be transitways (with cars), then we need to increase frequency so that there is always a bus within sight.

  • Joe B

    FACT: On an electric trolleybus, you’ll spend just as much time stuck in traffic as you would on a regular bus.

    Buses on the street are slow and unreliable, which is why few people ride them unless they have to. Switching them to electric power won’t do a thing to change that.

  • I have to fully agree, particularly regarding the “Long Tailpipe” problem.

    I’ve got no complaint about trolley lines (I think they’re just another part of the urban landscape) but what you’re proposing doesn’t solve any of my major problems with the buses, which is:
    1. They’re infrequent.
    2. Compounded with that, they are often not on time and one can miss a crucial transfer and be left waiting and late.
    3. Also due to infrequency, if there isn’t a direct bus line to where I want to go (e.g. Pasadena to Burbank Airport) it takes a very long time to get anywhere.

    Honestly, my suggestion for improving the LA bus system would be to double the frequency of many key routes. Not cheap, but would be extremely helpful.

  • JMod

    I think Trolleybuses on present an air/noise pollution benefit. When riding a bus down Santa Monica Blvd you are constantly stuck behind cars, this won’t change with a Trolleybus.

    The only way to improve the things that matter most to transit users (convenience and travel time) is to make a dedicated bus lane, which would improve this for both CNG and Trolleybuses. Unfortunately, doing this on all of the major streets you mentioned would only piss off drivers and make more traffic for them. I know people who comment on this site are going to hate me, but you just can’t do this. Buses are just not useful enough for enough people to permanently move them from cars to bus and you will hurt more people than you help with a bus only lane on SaMo, Wilshire, etc.

  • David D.

    > MYTH: Electric wiring is intrusive, and homeowners will object it.

    Actually, this is true. One only has to look as far as San Francisco to see this. Muni has wanted to install overhead wires on Divisadero Street between Pacific Heights and the Marina for years. However, local residents in this supposedly progressive, transit-first city have pushed back vocally for years to the point that Muni has put the 24-Divisadero extension on the back-burner. Unless LA has strong political leadership in favor of trolleybuses, expect this kind of resistance!

  • RobertThomas

    Using San Francisco as a comparison just makes this seem more stupid. Trolley buses may be “smoother and quieter”, but that doesn’t really describe the experience of riding one in San Francisco. I don’t ride them because its a pleasant experience, in fact its just the opposite. I ride them because they go where i need to go, because parking is in short supply, and the streets are pedestrian oriented. its not all that complicated.

  • Alexander Friedman (author)

    Robert, thanks for your passionate comment.

    I see nothing “stupid” in trying look up to a city with a superior public transportation system. If you personally don’t like riding trolleybuses in San Francisco, it’s your choice. But San Francisco is a perfect example of convenient, fast, reliable mass transit system, and Los Angeles can certainly learn a lot from them!

    I agree with you about pedestrian-oriented streets – and this is also something Los Angeles take an example from.

  • Alexander Friedman (author)

    Thank you all for your wonderful comments.

    Here is a great video, by the way, worth seeing! The video is from 1992, but is very relevant to our discussion, as it addresses most of your concerns & questions raised in your comments.

  • Nate

    “If that sounds like a variation on a gun-owners’ slogan, it’s because both attitudes are often found in the same person.”

    I don’t think I agree here- attachment to cars spans the political spectrum. If there’s something I’ve noticed in the eight months I’ve been in LA, it’s that even environmentalist types who avoid styrofoam, buy organic food, have left-wing politics, etc. will draw that line at rethinking their car-oriented lifestyle. There’s this sense that “hey, it’s LA, it’s who we are.” These same people in San Francisco don’t have cars, or if they do, they often leave them at home. Just my personal observation…

  • Joel V

    I also agree that grade separated right of way is critical for effective major rapid transit lines, whether suspended above or built below the roadway. Not all light rail lines or bus lines go as fast as they could with too many cars on the roads and lots of intersections.

  • Joel V

    I appreciate Alexander’s POV. Yes, electric trolleys won’t completely change the effectiveness of Metro’s bus lines by themselves, but certainly at a macro level would help somewhat in improving LA’s deplorable air quality problem. The need for exclusive bus lanes, an improved public transit experience, and other grade separated modes, can’t be stressed enough.

    Pertaining to the “long tailpipe” criticism that is also used commonly in regards to electric vehicles, there’s no reason much of that energy couldn’t increasingly come from renewable sources. It’s a matter of priorities not of ability. The argument pays little regard to the greater adverse effects of our reliability on importation of fuel from across the world.

  • Kevin

    I’m a San Franciscan and I agree what everyone is saying about service metrics being better than technology. I don’t really understand all this hype over SF trollybusses. Yes, it’s nice that their more efficient, can climb hills better and don’t have any emissions. However, look at the popular trollybus lines like the 14 or 30, they are on streets with no dedicated lanes and are plagued every day by delays by private autos. These delays make riding these lines miserable.

  • Anonymous

    Absolutely, especially in Southern California, where abundant sunshine could power the buses for 60-80% of their daily operations, depending on the season.

    Yes, the abundant sunshine has to be captured, and that means covering up more of the desert. TANSTAAFL; modern industrial civilization is rife with trade-offs.

  • Anonymous

    Alexander,

    Nobody in his right mind would describe the trolley bus lines in San Francisco as “fast” or “reliable”. They’re better than diesel buses for all the propulsion-related reasons you stated, but in the absence of exclusive ROW, they’re just as (very) slow and (very) unreliable as any other transit bus.

  • G Geapin

    We had trolley buses in London but they dispensed with them after about five years.All are going going electric buses charged by solar cells.no infrastructure
    No special workshops they can be parked anywhere.They do not need Overhead Lines.and it is planned that the output from a battery will be ten times its present output.They will be able to travel over 100 Miles without a recharge

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