Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), a high-quality bus based transit system that delivers fast, comfortable, and cost-effective services at metro-level capacities, has enjoyed rapid growth over the past few decades in major cities internationally, and is gaining momentum in the United States. Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, and Seattle are set to join L.A. and the handful of U.S. cities with true BRT.
Today, L.A.’s Orange Line is one of only eight true BRT corridors in the US. It is not only an international best practice and a leader in surface mass transit; it is a cost-effective and valuable asset for the city. But since construction began on the corridor in 2002, the Orange Line has been derided by some in the community who, not understanding the potential of true BRT, would prefer light rail (LRT) transit.
On Tuesday, Governor Brown signed California Legislative Bill AB 577, removing the prohibition against surface rail-based mass transportation in the San Fernando Valley. The intent of the bill, and those advocating for it, is clearly stated: convert the Metro Orange Line BRT into a light rail.
Light rail, its proponents argue, would better meet growing transit demand in the greater San Fernando Valley. The bill states that the area has “outgrown” BRT, and would be better served by rail. A conversion would signal to other US cities that BRT’s benefits are limited when measured against LRT. This is typical of the misinformation about BRT, which, despite the massive gains that this transport mode has made internationally, is still common thinking in the U.S.
Last year the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP,) in partnership with the foremost international experts on BRT, released The BRT Standard, a definition and scoring designation for systems around the world. The Standard is a recognition scheme which scores corridors as Gold, Silver, Bronze, Basic BRT; any corridor falling below that basic is not true BRT. By laying out the essential elements of this transit mode, it provides a framework for system designers, decision makers, and the transport community to identify and build top-quality BRT systems. The Orange Line scores bronze – a notable achievement placing it among the ranks of Pittsburgh, Cape Town, Jakarta, and Nantes – but its bronze ranking also proves that there is plenty of room to grow.
Comparing true BRT systems to light rail shows that LRT has no operational advantage: speed is comparable and the daily ridership of BRT can even surpass that of LRT. Innovations in BRT have increased the maximum daily ridership of a BRT system to nearly two million passengers (or 35,000 passengers per hour per direction), which is the current ridership of Bogotá’s gold-standard TransMilenio BRT. This far outstrips the capacity of any light rail system. Upgrading the Orange Line to silver- or gold-standard would grow the ridership and answer the criticism that BRT cannot meet the growing needs of the region. With a current daily ridership of almost 30,000, increasing capacity on the Orange Line two or three-fold is entirely workable with some minor changes.
First, simply increasing bus frequency would be an obvious improvement. While there have been concerns that increasing frequency will cause bunching at intersections, this appears to be due to a signal timing issue which favors cross street traffic over public transportation on the Orange Line corridor. Timing traffic signals to favor automobiles shows an outdated mode of thinking. It would take some political will on the part of the city to change the signal timings, but it is a simple solution, far cheaper and faster than upgrading to light rail which would still be faced with signal timing problems.
Then, by raising the boarding platforms at stations to the level of the bus floor, buses could complete the boarding process more quickly, further increasing capacity by allowing more buses to pull into the station more quickly. The system could also phase in more passing lanes at stations, allowing for a quadrupling of capacity and a mix of service types.
In addition, changing the intersection regulations, which currently require buses to slow to 10mph from 25, would increase overall speeds along the corridor. The reduction in speeds was initially implemented because of several accidents which occurred at the start of operations in 2005. But most systems experience problems in the early years, particularly where new signals have been introduced. Now, after almost 10 years of BRT operations as well as extensive signage and education done by Metro, these restrictions are obsolete and only make the system less convenient for passengers.
Introducing these elements not only will enable the Orange Line to handle more riders, but will provide better and faster services than it does today.
Instead of replacing a high-quality system serving over 30,000 people a day with something that is simply more expensive, the San Fernando Valley would be better served by improving the Orange Line. All of the important upgrades involved in bringing the Orange Line to gold would easily accommodate demand at a tiny fraction of the cost of its demolition and reconstruction into LRT.
Although the bill has been signed, Metro currently has no plans to convert the Orange Line. However, opponents of BRT will now more aggressively call for an expensive, lengthy, and unnecessary conversion of this high-quality BRT, even though an expansion of the current system makes much more sense. The city now has an opportunity to follow the lead of other global cities in transforming the Orange Line from a promising example of BRT into a world-class corridor that could serve as a model for cities across America.