Infrastructure & Environment

Faster Than a Speeding Turtle

New high-tech tools can make buses a lot more efficient than they used to be. Will that be enough to satisfy riders?
by | February 2006

Hop on one of the red city buses shuttling down Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, and you may wonder if Jeff Gordon has taken the wheel. The drivers whiz their machines past each other, angling for the fast lane, jockeying around delivery vehicles, and cutting off cars in the process, all to pick up a few extra seconds. By the time you get off a red bus, you might feel a bit whipsawed. But you won't feel like the driver wasted any of your time.Aggressive driving is only one reason why L.A.'s red buses, called "Metro Rapid," travel 25 percent faster than the city's regular fleet. Where L.A.'s local buses lumber to a stop every block or two, the new red ones cruise for as much as a mile between stops. The kicker is what happens when a red bus approaches a traffic signal. If the light is red, a transponder on the bus tells it to turn green. If the light is green, the bus tells it to stay that way until the bus has cleared the intersection.

Metro Rapid has made L.A. a place that transit officials from across the country visit to see the latest bus technology. It wasn't always this way. A decade ago, the local bus system had become such a stepchild service that riders sued the L.A. County Metropolitan Transit Authority to make it better. The result was a judicial consent decree that has forced MTA to invest $1 billion in its buses. That consent decree is set to expire later this year, raising inevitable questions about whether even $1 billion is enough to buy what Antonio Villaraigosa, the L.A. mayor who doubles as MTA's chairman, says the city desperately needs: a "first-class bus system."

Nobody is saying that Los Angeles is quite there yet. Then again, no U.S. city has really solved its bus problem. Riding the bus remains one of the most frustrating aspects of urban life in this country. To stand at a typical bus stop is to enter an information black hole: Routes, if they are posted at all, are often incomprehensibly complex. Schedules are mere lists of times when the bus probably won't arrive. Boarding is clumsy. Crowded aisles can trigger claustrophobia. And not knowing where to get off a bus can send riders into panic attack. If subways are Ella Fitzgerald be-bopping to "Take the A Train," then buses are Rosa Parks: all struggle.

Bad as they may be, however, buses are still the workhorses of public transit everywhere. Even in Chicago, where transit is synonymous with the elevated trains that rumble past second-story windows, buses carry twice as many people as the trains do. The same is true in Portland, Oregon, despite its national model of a light-rail system. In most medium and small U.S. cities, buses are the only day-to-day wheels for people who can't afford a car, aren't physically able to drive or simply don't want to.

Why, then, is riding the bus generally such a lousy experience? Some argue that inferior service is tolerated because a disproportionate number of riders are low-income minorities and immigrants who aren't well organized politically. You certainly don't find many top elected officials on the bus, even those who run transit agencies. When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to show solidarity with the people, he rides the subway. Politicians "can't cut a ribbon in front of a new bus service as easily as they can a new rail line," says Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA.

The way transit is financed also has something to do with it. Bus riders don't come close to paying for their service through the farebox. Each additional passenger increases the amount of public subsidy. As a result, many transit managers are inclined to view attracting new riders as a fiscal drain, rather than as a weapon against congestion and air pollution.

The good news is that new ideas and technologies are gradually creeping into the world of bus transportation. One showcase is the flashy fleet of buses that began criss-crossing Washington, D.C., last summer. The "Downtown Circulator" repudiates all the Byzantine qualities of D.C.'s standard Metrobuses. The Circulator boards like a train, through three doors rather than one. The fare is a flat dollar, not a fumbly $1.25. The buses travel a simple down-and-back route. And there's no schedule--the bus simply shows up, reliably, every five minutes on weekdays and every 10 minutes on weekends. Ridership is steadily growing as more people notice the glimmering red vehicles rolling down K Street. "Even the most impatient Washingtonian can wait 10 minutes if they know that's as long as they'll have to wait," says Dan Tangherlini, the Metro system's incoming interim general manager.

The Circulator's biggest problem is that it gets stuck in traffic, just like every other vehicle in downtown D.C. Plans are in the works to chisel two lanes out of clogged K Street for bus use only, but even if that scheme works, it will make only a small dent in the overall problem. "The reason buses replaced streetcars is because they were considered more flexible and more easily able to respond to changing demand," Tangherlini says. "But the buses now pretty much run exactly along the old streetcar routes. Not much has been done to change them in the last 30 years."

COPYING CURITIBA

Los Angeles is a land of many myths, but perhaps the biggest is the one that says everybody drives everywhere. In fact, L.A. is a big-time transit town. On an average weekday, MTA carries 1.47 million passengers. That puts L.A. third in the U.S., behind New York and almost even with Chicago.

Bus riders have formed the vast majority of L.A. transit customers ever since the city phased out its streetcars half a century ago. That continued to be true even after the first of four rail lines was launched in 1990. By then, bus riders had begun complaining loudly about MTA's priorities. The agency was spending billions on rail projects aimed at luring middle-class drivers out of their cars at the same time hundreds of thousands of mostly poor immigrants and minorities were jamming into an aging fleet of groaning buses. When MTA tried to raise the bus fare in 1994, the Bus Riders Union, an offshoot of a local labor organization, sued. The B.R.U. argued that L.A.'s poor bus service was essentially a form of racial discrimination.

In 1996, MTA reluctantly entered into a 10-year consent decree with the riders' group, aimed at improving bus service. For better or for worse, the consent decree has hovered over nearly every transportation policy choice in L.A. for the past decade. Major decisions are negotiated between the transit authority and the B.R.U., whose members turn out at board hearings wearing yellow t-shirts that say "Fight Transit Racism" and "Billion$ for Bu$e$." When the two sides disagree, which is just about always, a court-appointed special master has to settle the dispute.

This messy process has produced mixed results. The one obvious success story is Metro Rapid. In 1999, a contingent of L.A. officials flew to Brazil to visit the city of Curitiba, which has become something of a magnet for bus enthusiasts. Curitiba was literally built around its buses, which function like trains on rubber wheels. There are stations, not stops, and the buses are long, with many doors, so that passengers hop on and off the way they would with a subway car. Curitiba made a big impression on L.A. officials. They sought to adapt much of what they saw to Southern California's dense sprawl.

What they came up with was a list of 13 attributes of rapid bus service. Some of them trim no more than a few seconds off an individual trip. Street-level boarding and alighting, for example, merely saves passengers the trouble of climbing and descending a few steps. The sum of those little things, however, can substantially overhaul the whole experience of riding the bus. Some ideas from Curitiba had to wait--car-clogged L.A. won't give up traffic lanes for bus lanes anytime soon. But L.A. also came up with a few ideas that the Brazilians missed.

The most important one is giving buses priority at stoplights. Metro Rapid's red vehicles have small transponders on their undersides that look like hockey pucks. When a bus rolls over wire loops embedded in the street, a computer calculates how long it will take for the bus to reach the next signal. The system will hold a green for as long as 10 seconds in order to let that bus coast through. The red buses don't always get priority--if two of them start bunching up, the computer will delay the second one a bit to space them out. The whole idea scared L.A.'s traffic engineers at first, but the engineers' own studies have shown that prioritizing buses hasn't significantly impacted automobile traffic.

Another technological feature aims to fill the frustrating information void that afflicts bus riders everywhere. At distinctive bus shelters, lit with a red "Rapid" logo at night, a screen counts down the minutes until the next bus will arrive. This doesn't make the bus show up any faster, but it puts passengers in control of their waiting time. If riders know that the next bus isn't due for 10 minutes, then they also know it's safe to walk down the street and buy a newspaper without missing their connection. "In the morning or evening, people might be worried that the last bus already went by," says Rex Gephart, director of regional transit planning for MTA. "This at least gives them confidence that the next bus will come." (As of December, the Next Bus feature was temporarily out of service. MTA was hard-wiring the shelters because an older wireless technology proved unreliable.)

MTA markets Metro Rapid as a distinctly new kind of bus. The red color is part of that image--a contrast with the old white slowpokes. The effort seems to be paying off. Ridership along Wilshire Boulevard, MTA's busiest route, is up 47 percent since the first experiment began in 2000. Now, rapid buses are at the core of an MTA plan for new service blessed by the special master in November. The goal is to implement Metro Rapid along 28 of the most heavily traveled bus corridors by 2008. It would be the most significant redesign of a city bus system in recent memory.

According to Gephart, Metro Rapid uses only seven of the 13 ideas L.A. poached from Curitiba. Recently, however, MTA began trying out all 13 on a new route through the San Fernando Valley, called the Orange Line. Originally, the 14-mile-long Orange Line was supposed to be built as an extension of the Red Line subway on an abandoned right- of-way. But when rail costs got out of hand, MTA decided buses might be able to do the same job for less money.

The Orange Line began operation in October. Sleek silver vehicles with the angled nose of a bullet train run every five minutes at rush hour on a two-lane roadway that is for their use only. Passengers pay their fares ahead of time at vending machines located at any of 13 bright stations. The buses ride smoothly and quietly, and riders are entertained on board by flat-panel TV screens that flash news headlines, weather forecasts and local trivia.

Unlike Metro Rapid, the Orange Line is marketed squarely at suburban commuters. MTA is trying to persuade drivers to give up driving the congested 101 Freeway and leave their cars at Orange Line park-and- ride lots instead. Bright orange banner ads where the busway crosses auto traffic tout the Orange Line as "A Breath of Fresh Air," and the "Easy Way to Cut Across the Valley."

It seems to be working. MTA had predicted that about 6,000 passengers a day would ride the Orange Line at first. The numbers have been more like 16,000. (By contrast, MTA's Gold Line light-rail to Pasadena, which cost nearly three times more to build, carries roughly the same number of passengers.) A study by researchers at U.C. Berkeley found that rush hour traffic on the 101 moves 7 percent faster since the Orange Line opened. "No doubt, we've taken some people out of their cars," says Zev Yaroslavsky, an L.A. County supervisor and the Orange Line's biggest champion. "The myth that Angelinos won't ride a bus of any kind is bogus."

HOW MANY BUSES?

Of all the consent decree's outcomes, the most contentious and expensive to implement have had to do with overcrowding. The special master set a series of numerical targets keyed to the number of passengers who have to stand up. This has been interpreted to mean that MTA must buy more buses, and lots of them. Since 1996, MTA has put 2,000 new buses on the road, increasing the overall size of the fleet by 520 vehicles.

MTA officials don't think all the extra buses have helped much. Roger Snoble, who came from Dallas to be the authority's CEO, makes no secret of his disdain for the consent decree he inherited. When asked what L.A. has gotten for its massive investment in buses, Snoble replies, "a billion dollars without much return."

What he means is that simply adding a bus to a busy route doesn't necessarily reduce crowding. Riders tend to jam onto the first bus that arrives, regardless of whether another one is coming along behind it. "It's really added a lot of service to our system that is just not productive at all," Snoble says. "We have a lot more empty buses than we do buses with standees on them." Rather than buying more and more vehicles, Snoble says he would prefer to revisit routes that haven't been changed in 30 years. "We need to make the system much more relevant to a lot more people," Snoble says. "The consent decree has kept us from doing that."

Talk to Manuel Criollo, the lead organizer for the Bus Riders Union, and you get a different picture. Criollo, dressed in one of the B.R.U.'s yellow t-shirts, sees the debate essentially as one of bus versus rail, and of which form of transportation yields a bigger bang for the buck. "Do the math," he says. "They spend a billion on buses that serve half a million people a day. And $6 billion on the Red Line subway to serve 75,000 people." (MTA puts Red Line costs at $4.5 billion and daily ridership at 120,000.)

With the consent decree set to expire in October, the big issue now is whether the court will extend it. MTA officials are desperate to see it go away, giving them the freedom to manage their service without court supervision. The Bus Riders Union wants to extend the consent decree by four years. Both sides will argue their case with reams of statistics showing either that service is better or that it hasn't improved enough. But whatever the court decides, a deeper philosophical issue will linger on.

"The lawsuit was ostensibly about fare increases and reducing crowding on buses," says UCLA's Brian Taylor. "But it's fundamentally about one question: Should we use transit as a social service for people without automobiles or as a broader service to draw people out of their automobiles? That's the fundamental tension going on here. It wasn't resolved in the lawsuit. And it's not been resolved since."

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