A recent article on capacity constraints on LA’s Orange Line BRT has been making the rounds in the transit blogosphere, and people have been revealing some serious bus bias. Ridership on the Orange Line currently exceeds 30k on weekdays, and in LA the line is generally considered to be successful beyond expectations. That ridership has led to crowding and warnings that the system is at capacity, and rail activists have been holding this up as a reason to invest in rail transit instead of BRT.
Now first of all, you should consider the source: Zev Yaroslavsky, one of the proponents of building the Orange Line BRT. The success of the Orange Line is good politics for him, and if these “capacity issues” are somehow resolved, allowing increased service, that will make him look even better. There’s nothing wrong with that; he’s a politician and he has to answer to his constituents. When a popular service is introduced on your watch, you take some credit, and you promise to make it even better. That’s what politicians do.
So, you shouldn’t take it as an article of faith that the Orange Line is at capacity. That statement is based on the current system running 4 minute headways. The reason that headways are limited to 4 minutes is that LADOT decided to limit them to 4 minutes. There are plenty of other east-west roadways in the Valley, and they conflict with the same north-south roadways as the Orange Line. They meet at regular intersections with regular traffic lights, and they get more than 2 vehicles through every 4 minutes.
It would be fairly easy to retime the traffic lights and improve the transit priority to allow more Orange Line buses through, and in fact, the article says that LACMTA and LADOT are looking at doing just that: by either allowing shorter but more frequent green lights to reduce headway, or allowing two buses to proceed through the intersection in tandem. Note that the station platforms are long enough for double-berthing of buses, so if the traffic lights can be adjusted to allow two buses through in one green phase, the capacity of the line could be effectively doubled without building any new infrastructure. You’d also have the option of running some express service to West Valley, since the stations have pullouts. Simply put, if you are using the Orange Line as an example of BRT being maxed out, you might as well just come out and say that you really like trains and you really don’t like buses.
There are two intersections that I can see as being more challenging than the rest. The first is Burbank and Fulton at the Valley College Station. The Orange Line crosses this intersection on a diagonal, requiring a third signal phase. There is the need to serve two major roadways instead of just one. The other is at Woodman Station, where the Orange Line crosses both Woodman and Oxnard within about 200-300 feet of the intersection of Woodman and Oxnard, so you need some serious coordination between all of those signals. The good news is that if those intersections prove too difficult, LA doesn’t have a problem with pouring concrete to fix it. It would cost some money, but still be much cheaper than converting the entire Orange Line to LRT.
Okay, what if Ben Bernanke decides to do a helicopter drop on Metro and credit our bank accounts with enough free cash to upgrade the Orange Line to LRT? We still shouldn’t do it. Take a look at the San Fernando Valley. It’s not like the Orange Line follows some high-density corridor and everything else is empty. The Valley is prototypical LA – somewhat uniform medium density with a focus on the major arterials. There’s no compelling need to focus transit improvements on the Orange Line.
If Bernanke cuts that check for improving east-west transit in the Valley, here are few things that would be a much better use of the money than converting the Orange Line to LRT. I’m sure there are others; these are just off the top of my head:
- Building a rapid transit service (type TBD) along Ventura Blvd from Valley Circle to Universal City. The bus routes serving Ventura Blvd today, 150 and 750, already pull about 16k in weekday ridership. This line could continue east to serve Burbank, Glendale, and Pasadena and people who commute on the 101, the 134, and the 210. Note that this is one of the greatest strengths of the LA development pattern – you can conceive a totally rational and useful transit service that doesn’t go anywhere near downtown. Take that, Urban Ring.
- Extend the Orange Line east to Burbank on the existing rail ROW. Again, you could continue east from there if you wanted.
- Build some infill stops on the Ventura Line and run a DMU service between LA Union Station and Chatsworth.
And the really awesome thing is, thanks to the success of the Orange Line, people in the Valley want more transit! Think about that. In less than 8 years of operations, we’ve gone from being legally unable to build LRT in the Valley to debating how to fund a rail line from Sylmar to El Segundo. In that light, I don’t think you can say the Orange Line is anything other than a success. The only reason to hate on the Orange Line is that you just can’t stand the sight of a successful BRT.