Tag Archives: Orange Line

Measure R2 Needs to Look Inward as well as Outward

Move LA has released a map of potential rail expansion projects that could be funded by “Measure R2” – a half-cent sales tax ballot initiative that would be similar to Measure R. We’re fortunate in LA in the sense that we have a lot of good candidate projects for transit expansion. However, US transit planning is often heavy on expansion, and misses out on opportunities to improve the existing transit system. Now obviously, if you’re riding the existing system, adding new lines gives you more destinations. But it doesn’t help your overcrowded Blue Line vehicle or your Flower St crawl – in fact, it might make those things worse!

So, while some longer posts are in the works (don’t I always claim that?), here are some improvements to the existing transit system that should get consideration for being included in Measure R2.

Red Line

Lankershim/Vineland infill station: it’s over 2 miles from Universal City to North Hollywood. That’s ok if the area in between stops is like Hancock Park, but there’s already a lot of density here and there’s the potential for more. This would be more costly than the Red Line stops near 1st St and 6th St being contemplated, but it would serve actual density rather than possible development. (It would also not interfere with yard operations.)

Orange Line

As I said last year, the Orange Line – running 4 minute headways – is not at capacity. Improvements to traffic signals would allow for increased service. An infill station at White Oak, in the middle of the 2 mile gap between Balboa and Reseda, should be considered too. It would be expensive and disruptive to existing riders to convert to LRT, so we should strongly consider getting all we can out of the BRT system first.

Green Line

The station spacing on the Green Line almost suggests it was planned as a pseudo-commuter rail to bring people to the commercial center in El Segundo. Infill stations should be considered at:

  • 105/Western: it’s crazy that a station at Western, with connections to busy north-south bus routes 207 and 757, wasn’t built in the first place. Slam dunk.
  • 105/Atlantic: 1.3 miles east of Long Beach Blvd station, serving Lynwood and connecting to north-south bus routes 260 and 762. Again, slam dunk.
  • 105/Paramount: 1.7 miles east of the proposed 105/Atlantic station and 1.1 miles west of Lakewood station, serving Paramount and Downey, and connecting to north-south bus route 265. This would also connect to the proposed Measure R2 Gateway Cities Line. Yet again, slam dunk.
  • 105/Bellflower: 0.9 miles east of Lakewood and 1.2 miles west of Norwalk, serving Downey and Bellflower, and connecting to north-south bus route 127.

I’m going to commit a minor act of heresy and say that with the possible exception of 105/Bellflower, these are all much better options than an extension of the Green Line east to the Metrolink Norwalk Station, which, after all, only has 19 trains a day and doesn’t even have any service for five hours during the middle of the day and no trains after 7pm. As long as the Orange County Line is sharing tracks with the finest line this land has seen, you’re not getting much connectivity out of that connection.

Blue Line

Where to even start? Unfortunately, design decisions on the Regional Connector, Gold Line, and Expo Line have made it impractical to try to go from 3-car to 4-car trains in the near future. Any increases in capacity are going to have to come from reducing headways. Some potential options:

  • Add another platform and track at Willow: the Long Beach loop is slow and impeded by street traffic, and demand is a little lower, so many trains turn back at Willow. The trunk of the Blue Line, from Willow to Vernon, is all exclusive ROW and can support headways shorter than 6 minutes. Adding another track at Willow would increase the turnback capacity (assuming, of course, that a good operations study shows the track is necessary).
  • Build (or legitimize) a second station entrance/egress at stations like Compton and Florence, to improve passenger circulation and reduce platform crowding.
  • Widen very narrow platforms like Florence.
  • Study options to improve speeds and reliability on Washington Blvd and Flower St. This could include anything from changing traffic signal timings to grade separations.

Silver Line

Stops on the Silver Line are spaced for commuter service, not rapid transit. Now that the Silver Line is getting some better frequencies, it’s time to look at adding some stops:

  • 110/Vernon: serving Vermont Square in South LA and (the original) South Park in Southeast LA, and connecting to east/west bus routes 105 and 705. This station would be on the way cool HOV lane viaduct, which would make it costly.
  • 110/Florence: serving Vermont Knolls in South LA and Florence, and connecting to east/west bus routes 111 and 311.
  • 110/Century: serving Vermont Vista and Broadway-Manchester, and connecting to east/west bus route 117.
  • 110/El Segundo: serving Harbor Gateway North.
  • 110/Alondra: serving Harbor Gateway North.

Another potential improvement would be to extend the Silver Line from Artesia Transit Center south to San Pedro. This could be either via Vermont, which has a very wide ROW that could accommodate bus lanes, or via the 110. Stops would be considered at 190th, Torrance, Carson, Sepulveda, PCH, and in San Pedro. The 110 already has bus stop pull-offs at Carson, Sepulveda, and PCH. If the route is via Vermont, stops could be spaced every half-mile rather than every mile.

Our transit system certainly has plenty of room for expansion. But we shouldn’t ignore improvements that could be made to the existing system – especially given the demographics of the neighborhoods that would benefit from these improvements.

Orange Line Still Golden

Note: special thanks to Jarrett Walker for pushing for a better analysis and some quick feedback.

So the other day, I was talking with Jarrett Walker on Twitter about the Orange Line, which I’ve previously written about, saying that there’s no need to worry about converting to LRT. True to form, Jarrett said that LRT would offer savings on operations costs, and that to know if it makes sense, you’d have to figure out how long it would take to recoup the capital costs through savings on operations.

Real analysis based on numbers? Oh I’ll play your game, you rogue. Let’s crunch some rough numbers and see how long it would take to recoup the capital costs of converting the Orange Line to LRT through operations savings. (Note: the savings is basically labor for drivers; LRT has more specialized infrastructure, so maintenance should cost more.)

First, let’s set the ground rules for this analysis:

  • Assume that during the peak periods, the Orange Line will run 4 minute headways with two buses operating in tandem; this is effectively a 2 minute headway.
  • Off-peak, the Orange Line will run existing headways, but never less frequent than every 10 minutes. (The service today is much less frequent at night, but to level the playing field, let’s bump it up to 10 minutes.)
  • The capacity of an Orange Line vehicle, per LACMTA policy, is 74 riders.
  • An LRT option will run 3-car trains, with capacity of 399 riders, again per LACMTA policy.
  • Therefore, to provide the same capacity, during peak periods the LRT will operate at 10 minute headways.
  • After 7pm, the LRT will run 2-car trains. (This will tilt things in the LRT’s favor. LACMTA said they were planning to do this on the Expo Line when they went from 20-minute to 10-minute evening and late night headways, but I have yet to actually see any shorter trains.)
  • Off-peak, the LRT will operate at the same headway as the existing Orange Line, since the controlling factor will be the desire to provide frequent service, not capacity.
  • Analysis based on most recent NTD vehicle revenue mile operating costs. I multiplied the reported bus cost by 1.3 to account for the larger buses used on the Orange Line.
  • Assume 290 weekday equivalents per year.
  • Assume that it would cost $1.5b to convert the Orange Line to LRT.
  • Assume a discount rate of 3%.

The operating periods, headways, number of trips, revenue vehicle-miles, and costs are summarized in the table below.

OLSG-Table1

Alright, so we aren’t saving any operating costs with those assumptions! Note that we’re providing lots of capacity on the LRT even when we don’t need it. This is one of the strengths of bus – it’s much easier to pare back capacity without having the headway get too long.

Let’s assume ridership goes up and we have to double the amount of bus service we’re providing. Let’s also relax the off-peak headway on the LRT to 15 minutes so that we’re not throwing out so much unused capacity on that option.

OLSG-Table2

Now, the LRT only costs half as much to run as the bus – operational savings of $50m a year, which is some serious money. However, at a capital cost of $1.5b and an interest rate of 3%, it will take over 75 years to pay off the capital costs through operations savings. That’s probably too long a time frame, because we’re going to have to make some major capital investments in the thing during that time – things like replacing signals and traction power substations, which agencies usually put under capital costs, not maintenance. So it’s still a no go.

Here’s another shot at bumping up the frequency of the bus. In this case, we’re basically providing the same capacity in both options – there’s no wasted capacity for the LRT.

OLSG-Table3

Now we’re saving $88m a year, and we can pay off the capital costs in 24 years, which is definitely a winner. This last option assumes some considerable gains in ridership in both peak and off-peak periods – we’re providing more than five times the peak period capacity that we have today!

However, if things reach that point, we’re pushing the limits of a bus system. For the Orange Line, which intersects major arterials at grade, it’s probably a stretch to say that the bus platoon headways could really go below 2 minutes. LADOT isn’t going to want to make the light cycles that short. It’s also a stretch to say we could berth 80 buses per hour at a typical Orange Line station, and passenger circulation is going to be an issue. (Try to remember berthing, passenger circulation, and dwell times the next time you read Randal O’Toole telling you that a bus lane can run 1200 buses an hour.)

In other words, for the Orange Line, it looks like we’ll hit the physical constraints of the system at about the same time it makes sense to upgrade to LRT to save on operating costs. As I said in my original piece, I don’t think we’re at capacity on the Orange Line, so I think the conclusion of that piece holds up pretty well: for the time being, we should spend our capital dollars elsewhere.

Notes

  1. Before any LRT haters jump on this, let’s note that the analysis here is a peculiar case of replacing an existing BRT with LRT, so we have to earn back the entire capital cost of the LRT through operating savings. A much more common analysis would be comparing BRT and LRT at the outset, in which case you have to earn back the difference in capital costs. The Orange Line cost $377m for the initial piece and $215m for the extension, all in 2012 dollars, for a total of $589m, call it $600m. Say that the Orange Line from scratch would cost $1.6b and the difference is $1.0b. The LRT starts to make sense sooner in that case. (Side note: good lord, why did the Orange Line extension cost twice as much per mile as the initial piece?).
  2. The Orange Line is 18 miles long and has 16 stations. The Expo Line is 15 miles long and has 17 stations, and cost about $2.5b. It has occasionally been argued that the cost of upgrading the Orange Line would be less because of the previous investment, but I don’t see how this could be the case. The only thing that could possibly be reused is the at-grade traffic signals, but even those will require modifications. The existing Orange Line stations and guideway will have to be completely demolished and rebuilt. Upgrading the Orange Line to LRT would be cheaper than Expo because the ROW is intact, there is no street running, and the Expo Line has some big time grade separations.
  3. The combination of notes 1 and 2 means that if you’re choosing BRT over LRT, you’d better be pretty sure that you’re not going to hit the capacity of the BRT during the capital depreciation period, say 30 years. The tragedy of upgrading the Orange Line to LRT would not be the time needed to pay back capital costs through operations savings, but the wasted capital expenditure on BRT where we didn’t get our money’s worth. Of course, 30 years is a long time and predicting the future is hard!
  4. This analysis implies that the savings on operating costs could be used to pay down capital costs. Realistically, in most transit agencies the capital and operating sides are separate, so operating savings don’t accrue to the capital budget. That’s really just a matter of accounting though, and not an argument against making smart capital investments that yield long-term savings on operations. In fact, if the operating savings could pay back the capital costs on a reasonable time frame, the agency ought to be able to issue bonds for the capital costs, backed by the operating savings. I’m not aware of an agency that’s tried that though.
  5. Since I obviously did this analysis in Excel, you could easily modify it for a project that interests you. If you want the workbook, get in touch with me and I’ll send it to you.

Orange Crushed?

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.