Guest Editorial: Don’t Destroy the Orange Line, Improve It

Line 4 of the Metrobús BRT in Mexico City. The full system with five lines moves 850,000 people a day. Photo: Adam Wiseman/ITDP
Line 4 of the Metrobús BRT in Mexico City. The full system with five lines moves 850,000 people a day. Photo: Adam Wiseman/ITDP

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.

The Rea Vaya BRT in Johannesburg, South Africa opened in 2009, and is capable of carrying 30,000 passengers per hour per direction in two lines, and ridership is growing. Photo: ITDP
The Rea Vaya BRT in Johannesburg, South Africa opened in 2009, and is capable of carrying 30,000 passengers per hour per direction in two lines, and ridership is growing. Photo: ITDP

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.

Annie Weinstock is the regional director for the U.S. and Africa at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.
Stephanie Lotshaw is the program manager for the U.S. and Africa at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.
  • Watching bus exhaust pipes spit black smoke is enough to make me avoid taking them. I don’t want to feel dirty taking public transport. Electricity for the win.

  • Matt

    Black exhaust? That was last century. Metro buses have been CNG for quite some time.

  • Tom Rubin

    Adding capacity is very simple, quick, and cheap (well, cheap as things go in transit): Run two-bus “platoons” (buses operating with a few seconds separation) during peaks and where otherwise required. The platforms are long enough, no changes to traffic signal progressions will be required, all that is needed is getting setting the new operating rules (such as, when the first bus in a platoon needs to signal the follower to pass and how to do this safely; this will be a necessity because people tend to board the first bus that arrives — not a big deal, but something that needs to be carefully laid out and the operators have to be given proper training), getting the buses, and training the operators and road supervisors.
    It is exceeding doubtful is the ridership on this alignment will ever increase to the point where a three-car light rail trains at five minute headways is required — or anything remotely close to that.
    Light rail in this corridor would have very little, if any, speed advantage unless the line was converted to grade separated — and grade separation would provide pretty much the same speed advantage for buses at far lower cost.
    The only speed advantage that LR has is acceleration — which is a particular problem with these buses, which take so long to get to 55 mph (almost 90 seconds with a full load, and almost 5,000 feet) that there is only one place on the line that they can actually reach that speed. If the Orange Line was operated with more standard 40- or 45-foot buses, with significantly faster acceleration, the speed advantage of light rail would be reduced far more.
    Of course, unless there is a very detailed modeling of running times, including working with LA-DOT to improve signal progressions, no one can definitively state if there is any speed advantage at all. If a train can get from station A to Station B faster than a bus, but the light doesn’t change to allow it to leave Station B, there may be no real change. In the real world, detailed design of the traffic signal progressions is far more important than traffic signal preference or even priority — and this has been shown to work well on various “Metro Rapid” (aka Rapid Bus) lines, such as the 720.
    Speed through intersections can be increased significantly — but this will require rail type grade crossings, which MTA actually planned for the Expo Line before the decision to do it as light rail. There are far too many totally screwy intersections along the Orange Line and this is a very reasonable step to keep safety incidents down.
    Also, instead of running every Orange Line bus only on the Orange Line itself, it would be far more useful for riders to allow other bus routes, particularly of the North-South variety, to transition to the Orange Line, which would significantly reduce the time and trouble of transfers — and increase ridership.
    Two additional major problems with converting the Orange Line to light rail:
    1. Where is the money going to come from? You can view this as either a transportation optimization issue or, more importantly, pure politics, but, there are a whole lot of elected politico’s all over LA County than have not gotten “their” guideway transit line yet, and, from the Measure R wish list (which MTA can’t afford as is), are far above anything new that might be proposed. For a guideway line that has already been implemented, and then extended, to get changed to light rail, at a cost that would be far in excess of the the total cost to date of the Orange Line, while all these other politico’s would have to wait, let’s get real, people, just isn’t going to happen.
    2. If the Orange Line were to be converted to light rail, it could not be operated as BRT at the same time — so it would have to be shut down as BRT.
    Now, here is the strange part: If that were done, the likely interim arrangement would be to operate a parallel bus line on city streets — and, according to the final errata to the revised EIR, it would be several minutes faster than the Orange Line, Warner Center-North Hollywood. If you don’t believe me, here is the link, check it yourself, and compare to the current scheduled WC-NH run time:
    Go to the second page, first line shows the Orange Line, as was, built, 28.8-40 minutes, Warner Center-North Hollywood. The 28.8 minutes was the original DEIR travel time that assumed 55 mph for the entire alignment (AFTER MTA promised the Chandler residents no more than 35 mph), 40-foot buses that would be far faster than the very slow 60-footers, and almost total signal preemption, which LA-DOT never agreed to. The 28.8 minutes was totally impossible from day one. The 40 minutes was supposed to be with the limited signal preference that LA-DOT agreed to, but, check the schedule and you will see the actual run times at:

    and you’ll see 44-46 minutes.
    Now, back to the errata, second line, on the right side — 34.4-38.7 minutes.
    You can’t make these things up.
    This is right from MTA, for the same period (20 years out) as the 28.8-40 minutes on the first line.
    Do I believe it? Given that MTA hasn’t gotten one Orange Line BRT travel time anywhere remotely close to actual, well, let’s just say I do have some reservations. MTA’s original BRT end-to-end travel time was 28.8 minutes, actual about 45 minutes. Rapid Bus was originally 50 minutes (from Universal City-North Hollywood, over a mile longer on a street that has more signalized intersections, more traffic, and lower speed limits than North Hollywood-Warner Center), but MTA’s last projection was about 37 minutes. So, actual BRT was 56% higher than MTA first published time, street-running Metro Rapid was finalized as 36% lower.
    (Is it just me, or does this give anyone else a bit of a problem with relying on MTA projections?)
    But, I do think that a 720 type of Metro Rapid, operated with 40-foot buses, could consistently beat the Orange Line in its current configuration. With the same buses, I don’t think there would be much difference, but, if I had to bet, I’d give the Orange Line the nod because it is far less subject to peak period congestion, compared to a Metro Rapid bus line on Victory.
    Summary: Building the Orange Line as BRT was not one of the all-time best transportation decisions that MTA has made, and, considering the competition for that “honor,” that’s saying something.
    But, building it as BRT was a hell of a lot less stupid than building LRT in that corridor would have been.
    So, it is there, that’s blood over the dam, so, why not make the most of what is there — by simple, inexpensive, and easy to implement changes in operations, not throwing way, WAY over a billion dollars for no real transportation purpose, particularly when there is not the slightest possibility of that money for converting it to light rail ever being created.
    Tom Rubin

  • genjy

    Out of all these comments, only a couple of you have touched upon the point that there are many other worthy Metro rail projects waiting for funding.

    Converting the Orange Line to LRT really has to wait until all those other projects in queue are funded.

    The Orange Line was one of Metro’s earlier projects–not only that, it has also gotten an extension so it can carry riders from one side of SFV to the other side. Metro has shown the Orange Line plenty of love.

    Other parts of the county are waiting for their turns… Burbank/Glendale, Sepulveda Pass, East SGV, Whittier, etc. It would be extremely unfair for Metro to drop a billion or two on the Orange Line conversion and cause delay or cancellation of other projects.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    The Van Hool Exquicity-18 is another 60-foot bus that can have 50% more passenger capacity than the 60-foot NABI bus used on the Orange Line:

    The main reason for the differences in capacity is the NABI-60 Orange Line bus seats 57 and the Exquicity-18 seats 29,35 or 44, depending on configuration. A person standing takes up less floor space than a person siting.

    Exquicity 18 also weighs about 7,000 pounds less than the NABI 60. This enables the Exquicity 18 to haul 50% more people than the NABI 60 for about the same weight as a full NABI 60. With the same power plant, the acceleration should be about the same for both bus designs at full capacity.

    Its becoming increasingly common for transit bus manufacturers to offer a hybrid power choice. Electric drive has full torque (pulling power) instantaneously from a full stop, which internal combustion engines do not. This would shorten the amount of time it would take to achieve a desired speed after a full stop.

    The advantages of trains over buses are decreasing as the designs of buses advance.

  • Jerard Wright

    I’ve seen it go past Reseda on most Rush hour trips. Now considering that when a Sepulveda Pass corridor is built that the Orange Line upgrades will need to occur because of the great demand coming from the West Valley to go over the pass. Also factor in the overall expansion of our transit network like a certain subway down Wilshire Blvd and this will just tip the scales in the need to expand and upgrade the Orange Line.

  • Jerard Wright

    That’s a fair point, but the fact that the travel times will be much faster for those trips once the rail is built. Considering that how the busway travels now if a weekend service disruption occurs to maintain the busway or add service improvements to increase the capacity of the busway will cause some of these same delays temporarily.

  • Jerard Wright

    Calwatch, the 902 is a perfect microcosm of the design limitations on the Orange Line busway ‘as-built’.

    Had the Orange Line had been built to enable buses to enter and exit at key points (such as Resdea, direct dedicated bus lane on to the 405, Van Nuys Blvd) and had spots for short-line turnarounds to allow for this direct connection and routing flexibility comparable to the Silver Line BRT (on the El Monte Busway segment) then I would be asking for ways to

    I could see as a means to operate service during a potential conversion of the Orange Line running on Victory Blvd via peak hour bus lanes since most of the corridor is adjacent and or parallel to Victory Blvd for most of its length.

  • Jerard Wright

    There’s hidden costs all around with depreciation values. Catenary has a 25 year depreciation value compared to buses which are at 12 years per Federal guidelines, LRV’s have a slight increase in its maintenance costs in exchange for a longer vehicle life of 30-40 years with mid-life rehabs that figure can double.

  • Chance

    So public transit is primarily an environmental investment? I thought it was a public good whose main objective was movement which equates to economic activity.

    Not sure it’s chasing future riders when current riders are being neglected and alienated due to over crowding. Adding 5 minutes to an already 55 minute bus ride seems worth it for the benefit. Besides, it’s a “flexible” bus, put it on Sherman way which will actually improve travel times.

  • Justin

    All I can say is SPOT ON with this article, I agree with everything this article has to say! Why the flip would you want to strip out something that works and serves the public well???? This BRT in LA is one of the few shining examples of the potential of Bus Rapid Transit in the USA. A great shining example of what it could be elsewhere in the country. Yes I would agree that it’s probably not as top notch in contrast to Guangzhou or Bogota, but hey you got to start somewhere. Certainly there is a lot of room for improvement that should be pursued. But to strip it out and build light rail in my opinion is a waste of time and money. It seems very cold hearted and cold blooded like the zodiac. Be proud of what you have and improve it to make it better. This is coming from someone who lives in rival San Francisco that doesn’t even have BRT yet embarrassing and sad. To build a good enough BRT system in a car dominated city now that should be something to be proud of!

  • calwatch

    There is overcrowding during the peak hours, which can be resolved with parallel service. (Midday, night, and weekend overcrowding is irrelevant since you can dump more buses during those time periods.)

    But putting buses on Sherman Way would disenfranchise those who have chosen to live next to the Orange Line, and it’s not just an extra five minutes of detours. That’s an optimistic estimate, assuming they rebuild the roadbed to include tracks and concrete (like the Seattle Bus/Light Rail Tunnel), and returning bus traffic to the new roadway once the work was done. If they just tear out the concrete and asphalt and lay tracks down, to the Metro Rail high platform standard, then you are talking about buses down Chandler, Burbank, and not using the dedicated right of way through the Sepulveda Basin.

    I fundamentally disagree with your assessment of transit. Transit is not just a public good, it also provides environmental benefits. Basically throwing away the investment made in a busway is like burning hundreds of millions of dollars, millions of man hours, and tons of greenhouse gas and fuel usage to build the Orange Line down the toilet. It’s fine if there was a measurable benefit to rail. The fact is that even weak lines like Gold Line to Ontario Airport and Green Line to Torrance will generate more GGE savings and more ridership per mile and per dollar spent than a costly conversion of the Orange Line.

  • calwatch

    Tom Rubin is former CFO for the Southern California Rapid Transit District (MTA’s predecessor) so he knows what he is talking about.

  • Having attended the Press Conference this morning at the NOHO Metro Station it is clear these politicians are determined to go forward. What I heard at a Community meeting was that the political will was there so it does not matter what the people think. This two billion dollar project will be funded on the backs of the taxpayers and a boom for the Unions and Lobbyists. That is why they were at the press conference. Now is not the time to spend two billion on this project. I will begin to canvass the residents along the Orange Line as to their positions as I believe it is important to hear the concerns. Yes, I am running against Paul Krekorian for LA City Council in 2015 but that does not prevent me from taking a position against this project at this time.

  • Rick Slaten

    Great. Now I know who I won’t be voting for next year. The San Fernado Valley needs Light Rail, to better connect Warner Cenrer to the rest of LA. Warner Center 2035 is very comprehensive and needs rail for better connectivity.

  • Reason = oil lobby

    Rubin sold out RTD and found a way to make bank–via the Reason Foundation, which is nothing more than a front for the petroleum lobby. So, yeah, it’s not surprising that he supports whatever does the most to keep people driving private automobiles. In 1996, this dingbat predicted “Rail will Fail” in LA. He was wrong about everything then. And he’s wrong about everything now.

  • Matthew Chapman

    “Maybe we could consider putting in overhead catenary wires and electric
    trolley buses, which seem to be more practical for fixed busways? This
    would give the buses some of the key advantages of electric vehicles
    without having to rip out stations and asphalt.”

    How soon you forget, trolley buses used to be the quintessential mode of transportation in Los Angeles. Pacific Electric Railcar operated the largest fleet of electric vehicles in the world from 1887 to 1964, with a gigantic network of streetcars stretching from San Fernando to San Bernardino and all the way down to Newport Beach.

    There’s a reason the trolleys went extinct: they were the worst of both worlds. They had no flexibility of route because they were fixed on tracks and catenary wires (note that “fixed bus route” shouldn’t mean literally making the exact same lane changes each time), but they also had to share the road and compete with traffic. It’s impossible for that system to run efficiently in a metropolitan area which has more cars than people.

    There’s a stark choice here. Either we rely on non-fixed buses or we rely on fixed trains. I’m a strong light-rail advocate myself, but I will concede this article makes a great case to at least try improving on the existing BRT corridor before we decide to rip it up. And for what it’s worth, bus technology is steadily improving fuel economy. There are already hybrid buses out there, how long can it be before we have pure electrics?

  • The_DrewReed

    Fair enough, my point wasn’t to say trolley buses were a perfect solution, but I wanted to float the idea since it seems a bit more viable on a fixed route not subject to periodic closures (for parades, film shoots, etc.) that would mess up a trolley bus on a regular street. Really, I haven’t been able to find much data on how viable trolleybus BRT is in terms of cost or energy efficiency. In most cases I see people making the case for BRT on the basis that it’s cheaper and faster to build, while rail may take longer but is generally a bit faster and more efficient. Trolleybus BRT seems like it would be a good way to split that difference, of course I would need some hard data to say for sure, but that’s exactly the problem: no one is interested in coming up with any. If I’m missing something and there’s good data out there, somebody please send it to me.

    But for my money, the second option I proposed seems to be by far the most sensible. Have LRT on the trunk line, avoiding the capacity issue, but also let buses share the right of way and branch off, maybe on Van Nuys or Reseda, or whichever of the north/south boulevards have the highest traffic.

  • Jerard Wright

    Actually he doesn’t because a lot of what he says contradicts each other, how can you have the cost-effective operations of the bus and then run them in multiple platoons (gasps) like a train?

  • Jerard Wright

    Agreed, but if new money has the potential to come in and more projects will interface with the Orange Line- which further enhances ridership and increases the inevitablity of upgrading to LRT it only makes sense to include upgrades and capacity enhancements to a new funding measure.

  • Jerard Wright

    But they come at a higher operational cost and will cause the same amount of delay and headaches during their construction to fully implement the core of the BRT upgrades then just biting the bullet and doing the full upgrade.

  • This is a prime example of how NIMBYs screw over future residents. Don’t forget that the SFV was against LRT before now being for it. Metro played their bluff and gave them a bus. Now they should live with it. However, I do agree that some incremental improvements should be done (i.e. grade separations, “double bendy” buses) that will be much cheaper than a full LRT conversion but still allow an even higher capacity and improved efficiency.

  • All the focus continues to be on autonomous cars, but autonomous buses are also in the works. At that point, the labor issue will fade, though you can be sure that the ATU will put up a big fight and they probably won’t truly appear for years.


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