The Myth of the Magic Bus: The Weird Politics and Persistently Strange Logic Behind the Orange Line

Despite the Fanfare, the Orange Line Was More Expensive Than Some Light Rail Projects. Photo: Roger Rudick
Despite the Fanfare, the Orange Line Was More Expensive Than Some Light Rail Projects. Photo: Roger Rudick

The other day I was reading about New York City’s proposal to build a north-south busway on Woodhaven Blvd., starting in my old ‘hood of Jackson Heights.

It’s a great plan—by making the center lanes bus-only and providing train-like amenities, such as pre-paid, multi-door boarding, New York will have an improved north-south bus route. It’ll take a predicted 45 minutes to ride clear across Queens, instead of the current 65. Since it’ll be running on existing roadway, the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) upgrades can be built for a fraction of what it would cost to install light rail or subway.

As with most busway proposals, articles cite the Orange Line BRT in the San Fernando Valley as a model.

The Orange Line is celebrated as a transit success story in the press. Ridership exceeded expectations almost from the day it opened in 2005. It peaked around 29,000 daily passengers. At rush hour, demand exceeds capacity. This is something that busway supporters boast about.

They should stop boasting.

If you built a ship that carries 500 people but you found 1,000 people on the dock, you screwed up. Similarly, the higher-than-capacity demand on the Orange Line corridor just means Metro should have built a rail line.

Oops.

The Sprinter LRT was cheaper to build than the OrangeLine.
The Sprinter LRT, in North San Diego County, was cheaper to build than the Orange Line.

And what’s really disturbing is they actually spent enough money to build rail. The point of BRT is that by converting existing lanes into bus-only lanes, you get great transit improvements with minimal investments. But the Orange Line originally was a train line, leftover from Los Angeles’s historic transit system. Ripping out the old tracks on Chandler and paving it over for the original phase of the Orange Line cost $324 million, or $23 million per mile.

A decade ago, busway supporters claimed the BRT on Chandler would still be cheaper to construct than rail. But the Oceanside to Escondido Diesel Light Rail line, which opened in 2008, cost only $21.6 million per mile. Think that’s an unfair comparison? Look at the River Line in New Jersey or the O-train in Ottawa, and you find the same pattern: the Orange Line construction costs were on-par with rail.

So why the discrepancy between the claims and the realities? One reason is that busway advocates always compared construction costs of electrified light rail to diesel or compressed natural gas BRT instead of to the equivalent, electric-trolley buses. And electrification, while desirable, greatly increases the costs. In other words, they fudged the numbers.

I took a look at the history of the Orange Line in a radio story. (embedded above)

Meanwhile, back in Queens, a BRT service, using the existing lanes on Woodhaven Boulevard, may, indeed, be the most cost-effective way to address demand in the short term. That said, the existing buses already carry around 30,000 people a day–more than the Orange Line in the San Fernando Valley. Eventually, New York may have to take another look at reviving the nearby Rockaway Beach Branch, an abandoned rail line that partially parallels the proposed busway.

If that happens, it’ll be a new train service. Because the real lesson of the Orange Line is something that should have been obvious from jump:

A train track is not where you run a bus.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    The Orange Line BRT does not demonstrate the limitations of the technology, it shows some of the limitations of the design that LA Metro chose and its implementation–much of which LA Metro controls. This should be understandable given that it is rated at a bronze level against other BRT systems around the world.

    BRT in Bogota Columbia and Guangzhou China are two examples of Gold level BRT design and implementation. The 14-mile mile BRT system in Guanzhou has 800,000 boarding’s a day, which is more than twice as many passenger boarding’s per day than LA Metro’s entire 88-mile rail system. That’s also 30 times more than the approximate 27.000 peak boarding’s per day that the original 14-mile Orange Line had. Guangzhou did not achieve this by using buses that can hold 30 times more passengers than the Orange Line buses.

    Bogota and Guangzhou demonstrated that BRT can have as much boarding’s per mile as most subway systems in the world and they did it for a hell-of-a-lot less money than building a subway.

  • FactCheck

    The fastest BRT system anywhere appears to be the Xiamen BRT and this is done with a fully grade-separated elevated ROW: it hits 37.28 mph. Again, that’s on an elevated portion, so it’s not just about signal priority.

    The Blue Line hits 65–at grade. Even the pokey Expo Line hits 55 in a few places. That’s not a political problem or something that will be solved by better signals. Trains are just faster. So stop the b$)(lsh%t about capacity…a larger, faster vehicle carries more people. The speed also draws more riders. Period. And we’re talking about peak-level capacity, not overall ridership. Either you are willfully ignorant or unaware of the difference.

    Operational costs? Do you intend to do away with the Metro Labor Union to drive all your magic buses? One train driver can move as many people as 10 or so bus drivers. Fuel costs? Given the inherent friction of tire-v-asphalt, the buses will always burn more energy per passenger. Always.

    BRT can NOT do the job of rail. Period.

    Dennis, you’ve posted some intelligent stuff about bicycles on other threads. Stick to what you know.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    The Orange Line has a posted speed limit of 55 mph on one section of the route and some bus drivers do hit that speed.

    Some of the differences in speed between buses and trains have to do with how each is set up and is not necessarily inherent to the technology. Grade separation and crossing gates increases the speed of trains, but they can be used for buses. Electric propulsion is also available in buses.

    The Guangzhou BRT carries 27,000 passengers per hour in a single direction, which is 54,000 per hour in both directions.

    Per a FTA report on the Orange Line: “In terms of operating cost efficiency, the Orange Line compares quite favorably to the Gold Line, costing 58 percent less per annual hour of revenue service, 41 percent less per annual mile of revenue service, 59 percent less per boarding and 50 percent less per passenger mile.a

    Overall, light-rail has the lowest fare-box recovery rate at 17.6 percent. for Metro. The Orange Line covers approximately one-fifth (21.2%) of its operating expenses from the fare-box.

    Should a, would a, could a’s about light-rail along the Orange Line is currently irrelevant as there is a law preventing any surface rail from operating along the corridor. BRT is a brilliant solution for the Orange Line that overcame restrictions imposed by a law that was intent on preventing a transit line from being installed along this corridor.

  • Paul Gracey

    Both the Orange line and the Sprinter are compromises based on existing right of ways which will need upgrading in the future. That can be a good thing if some of the newer technologies are employed, but typically for our transit projects, more money is politically difficult to find. Billions for freeway widening? No problem. Enough to do electrification of a rail line? No can do. Here is where some R&D could pay off. Automated cars are on the way, why not automated busses that follow each other like circus elephants? Then the ‘virtual trains’ go quickly through the grade crossings. Both systems could be upgraded to use fuel cells instead of catenary wires. They would be much cleaner than the diesels and have the added advantage of regeneration so that brakes would last longer. the Sprinter was out of service for months because of the heavy brake use on that hilly line.

  • Factcheck

    “The Orange Line has a posted speed limit of 55 mph on one section of the route and some bus drivers do hit that speed.”

    I stand corrected (where is this 55 mph sign?) Feels good! I learned something. You should try it.

    Still not as fast as the Blue Line though, is it? Still not as fast as many at-grade surface transit lines that regularly go 70 mph, 75, 80… I thought your contention is BRT is just as fast? Whenever I’ve taken the Orange Line it’s been nothing but a slug ride, stopping and starting, sickening actually. They seem to get up to the mid-40s maybe for a couple of minutes just west of Sepulveda. Is that where you mean? Listings of fastest BRT lines I could find do not mention the Orange Line.

    Also, where can I see grade crossing gates that are used for buses? Because that’s the only way the speed can be increased significantly on large parts of the route. When/where has that been done? Don’t dodge this. Either find it, admit you’re wrong, or say “I can’t find it,” Mr. Diesel-locomotives-on-the-Sprinter.

    By the way, I was wondering where you were really getting your information, so I looked up your sources. It’s no FTA report. It’s from the National BRT Institute–not a public transportation interest group, but a BRT advocacy group. The FTA is just filing their reports. The National BRT Institute is the U. of South Florida (that transportation mecca–sarcasm there). They are doing what busway advocates do: cherry picking the most extreme examples on an anything-but-level playing field. Notice they pick the Gold Line (pre extension from the looks of it) not the Blue Line. And why always LRT, which is the most inefficient rail form, but has other advantages such as flexibility? If they picked overall rail costs per-passenger of real rail systems, you find BRT is about twice as much energy and cost. But I guess with all the rail systems throughout Europe, Asia, etc., the only thing they could compare to are a few LRT lines. Hmm. Weird. :)

    The University of South Florida is like USC: chock full of professors who take “research grants” (aka $$) and publishing checks funded by CATO, Reason, and the Manhattan Institute (backed by oil companies). Go look up some of the professors manufacturing the information you’re repeating and see how many are “fellows” at these “think tanks.” For decades, oil companies have been funding anyone propagating the myth of the magic bus and this is how they do it–by “sponsoring” researcher institutions and projects. That’s how they killed the Red Car system in the first place. Shame on you for not vetting your sources. Or shame on your for intentionally misleading people. The really sad part is advocates for the transit dependent are foolish enough to fall for this crap.

    Anyway, Robbins Law is in the process of getting repealed, just as Waxman and Zev’s law were. I look forward to the day when the conversion of Chandler beings!

  • J

    Calling BRT a “Magic bus” is immediately condescending and dismissive. Cherry picking data that makes LRT seem less expensive that it would have been is deceptive. Ignoring the biggest constraint to BRT capacity (political restrictions on LOS) is misleading. When the conversation starts like this, it’s not exactly conducive to a robust discussion about how to make transit better. Maybe we’re getting there in the comments, but it certainly started in a rather divisive and deceptive manner, that I think is below the standard of Streetsblog.

  • Damien and Joe obviously disagree or they wouldn’t have run Roger’s piece. And I think robust discussion is a good description of the many comments it generated.

    Since rail conversion is at best many years away I hope the powers that be investigate how can we improve the existing line in the here and now. The street crossing limitations especially have to be confronted at some point.

    What was the projected ridership? Has the line substantially exceeded what was anticipated? Are there lessons that we can gain from the history of the Orange Line to guide discussions of future considerations of the development of various corridors?

  • Dan W.

    Hooray! The Robbins bill has been repealed. Full steam ahead for a light-rail upgrade for the Orange Line!

  • Anandakos

    LAMTA was considering having catenaried subway cars? Would they have been dual-mode and been able to travel through the Red Line tunnel to downtown LA? THAT would have been popular!

  • Anandakos

    Erik,

    Chicago and New York may have grade crossings on third-rail lines, but they’re most assuredly not going to add more of them. Nor should LA. Third rail at grade has killed many people in history; let’s not expose more to the risk.

    I’m interested in Roger’s assertion that Metro was considering Breda subway cars with pantographs. In a best of all possible worlds HRT along the Orange Line would be “dual-mode” with shoes as well as pans, and able therefore to through line onto the Red to downtown.

    But it’s not clear that the pans would clear the tunnels. Perhaps a version with a narrower contact plate and overhead with more cross constraints in order to make a smoother arc in curves would work.

  • Roger R.

    Yup. Here’s how they do it in Boston (just one example). Metro was looking at this type of operation for the Chandler ROW until the rail ban made it a moot point.

  • neroden

    Automated buses will cost a hell of a lot more than train tracks. People always fantasize about these technologies, but the tried-and-true train is the only way to run long trains reliably and safety. That’s conical wheels (look it up) on steel rails with couplers between cars.

    Fuel cells are *also* fantasy — ludicrously expensive and short-lived, for no good reason.

    However, *battery-electric* buses are about to take over the entire city bus market. So that’s a big deal. Still doesn’t get you the sheer capacity of a long train.

  • neroden

    Bi-articulated trolleybuses are not really cheaper than rail. The electrification is a large part of the costs; trolleybuses last 15 years while railcars last around 40 years; etc. Might aw well go with the more popular rail.

  • neroden

    Roads are much more expensive to maintain over time than rail, *for high volume traffic*.

    For low volume traffic, roads are cheaper. But high volume traffic beats that asphalt up really realy fast; it has to be replaced over and over and over again, while the rails can take one hell of a beating with mere maintenance.

  • neroden

    As others have pointed out, stations aren’t really a difference between buses and rail, they’re a choice; you can make nice bus stops or crappy railway “side of track” asphalt patches (there are some of those in Philadelphia).

  • neroden

    ” I also suspect VICA and other stakeholders thought they could use their clout to get the subway to Warner Center. Ironically the same folks are now gung ho to repeal the law and have the Orange Line converted to light rail.”

    Ha — I call this the “Toronto Problem”, where people are say “subways or nothing” and refuse to accept surface rail. I’m glad to hear that that dynamic is ending in LA.

    “My suspicion is the Orange Line, Van Nuys Blvd. and Sepulveda Pass corridor efforts will meld as a cross-linked LRT network for the Valley linking to the westside”
    This would be totally awesome and is worth advocating for.

  • neroden

    Trolleybuses are really great. As long as you don’t need to carry too many people per trip. The Orange Line has always, obviously, been a route with so much volume that it needs to be rail.

    The *core* advantage of rail is the ability to run long trains, with many cars. You cannot do this in any efficient fashion with buses, because of fishtailing. (You can build ‘trains’ of buses with fancy super-expensive active stabilization technology… or you can build tracks which stabilize the trains passively and cheaply.)

  • neroden

    The Orange Line very clearly demonstrates the limits of bus technology.

    The Bogota Line uses an enormous amount of right-of-way. It cost as much as a rail line costs *in Bogota* (yeah, construction is cheaper there). And they’re talking about replacing it with rail. Guangzhou I haven’t looked into but it’s probably the same damn thing.

  • Orange Line is private so only the bus travel on it. Roads end up being much cheaper than rail in this instance. Last time I looked, the cost for road was only about a third for what rail costs. You don’t have to maintain stations and you laying down and maintaining track is much more expensive than a road. Even if a road deteriorates, you can still drive on it. If rail is off, you have to repair, otherwise you risk derailment. People like rail better, but bus on a road is much cheaper.

  • loosealiberal

    I’ve been saying for years that the LIRR Rockaway Beach line needs to be revived. As far as Select Bus Service, it’s just a waste of time, work and funds. Won’t solve anything.

  • Fred Garvin

    It infuriates me every time I ride the Orange Line and it does that stupid little turn at the Canoga station, leaves its dedicated roadway and drives on public streets to the “Warner Center Transit Hub”. Round trip is about ten minutes for ONE stop!

    If there are ANY improvements to the Orange Line in the works, a shuttle from the “Warner Center Transit Hub” to the Canoga station should be FIRST priority.

    Second should be signal preemption, third should be increased speed limit.

    That’s my two cents.

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