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L.A.’s Orange Line: Bus Rapid Transit (plus bike path!)

Who would have thought that one of the best Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems in the U.S. would be in its most crowded, congested, sprawling city? Well check this out. It's really fabulous.

In October 2005, the Los Angeles County Metro Authority (or Metro) debuted a new 14-mile BRT system in the San Fernando Valley using a former rail right-of-way. Unlike many "rapid" bus transit systems in the U.S., the Orange Line is true BRT - it features a dedicated roadway that cars may not enter, has a pre-board payment system so buses load quickly and efficiently, and uses handsome, articulated buses to transport passengers fast - sometimes at speeds approaching 55 mph! The roadway is landscaped so ornately you could almost call it a bus greenway.

But that's not all. The corridor also boasts a world class bike and pedestrian path which runs adjacent to the BRT route for nearly its entire length, giving users numerous multi-modal options. Each station has bike amenities, including bike lockers and racks, and all the buses feature racks on the front that accommodate up to three bikes.

Perhaps the biggest problem is its soaring success: ridership numbers have some calling for the BRT to be converted to rail, and Metro is exploring ways to move more passengers, including buying longer buses. Plus: expansion plans are underway. Whatever way you slice it, this is truly a hit with Angelenos. A formerly 81 minute trip now takes 44-52 minutes - over an hour in round-trip savings - making a bona fide impact in the lives of commuters.

Gary S. Spivack:  The Orange Line is a 14 mile exclusive bus way with 14 stations.  The buses run starting from 5:38 in the morning and their schedule around [00:30] 1am.  They are timed to meet with the Metro Red Line trains and also to bring people to the North Hollywood Transit Centre.  Before this line was put in place it would take about 81 minutes to take local services from Warner Centre to Universal City.  Now this trip takes on average between 44 and 52 minutes.  When we first opened the line we expected to be able to carry nine to twelve thousand people, [01:00] but now we’re between 26 and 28 thousand daily riders on the service.  This is about 35 miles an hour.  We’re restricted in this particular area, but the max speed that we get to is 55 miles an hour.   

Bill J. Shao:  Just want to show you Orange Line, one of the intersections, there’s cameras near, one on Channel Boulevard near Lower Canyon, we’re zooming in at one of the locations.   

Gary S. Spivack:  The signal system which gives us priority along the exclusive bus way, [01:30] gives us about 75% green time, so as a bus approaches there are loops in the roadway which sense when a bus is coming and determines whether or not the signal can go green for the bus.   

Bill J. Shao:  For whatever reason they are late to their destination and the next bus stop or the certain clock time they are supposed to meet, the traffic signal downstream would know that and the light, the green duration will favour the bus way in such a way that helps the buses to recover their lost time and their headways to the next bus stop.  [02:00]   

Gary S. Spivack:  The system was designed as a rail emulator, so you pay off the bus.  There are ticket vendors where you buy your fare, you have to carry that for fare inspection.  The TAP card system allows people to preload fares, you can buy a monthly pass, a day pass, and you have unlimited riding throughout the system.  It’s a very simple design, everything is low floor so people don’t have difficulty getting up to a step.  We can handle up to three bicycles on every bus, [02:30] there’s a rack that has been specially fitted for our coaches.   

Lynne Goldsmith:  So we went from double racks to triple racks on all of the buses along this corridor, because they’re heavily used.  Here comes another one with a bike on it.  One of the things that’s very different about Los Angeles is we are so spread out and our employment centres are so decentralised that people are going everywhere all the time.  So we know that bikes with Transit is a key component in solving [03:00] the transportation problem.   

Jonathan Hui:  Orange Line bikeway was built in conjunction with the Orange Line bus way.  It stretches about 14 miles from Canoga Park to North Hollywood. 

Paul Meshkin:  The good thing about the bike path is a separate facility.  It is much safer than a bike lane on a street.  [03:30]  It provides safety at the same time providing next to an active bus way.  You can always stop at stations, jump onto the bus. 

Gary S. Spivack:  The corridor was designed to have a lot of foliage, a lot of greenery, and to make it accessible to people.   

Lynne Goldsmith:  This bike path and the landscaping, the lighting, everything, is specifically for a cyclist experience, was paid for by Transportation Enhancement Funds.  In Los Angeles Transportation Enhancement Funds are particularly important to us.  [04:00]  That is where all of our bikeway funding comes from.  Every station has eight lockers and racks, but we realise that racks are really more of a short term parking solution because the security in racks is not as great as it is with a locker.   

Bill J. Shao:  There was a lot of scepticism on a bus run time between the east side of valley, the west side of San Fernando Valley, but the bus has been proven to be a major success.  I mean the ridership is going through the roof.  [04:30] 

Gary S. Spivack:  It’s not uncommon to see very heavily utilised buses late at night into the wee hours. 

Lynne Goldsmith:  We’re starting to add lockers to many of our stations because our demand is getting so great.   

Gary S. Spivack:  We work with people from Las Vegas, Seattle, New York, Cleveland and many, many other folks from around the world have come here to see what we did.   

Transcription Sponsored by: Transcript Divas Transcription Services

Clarence Eckerson, Jr. has been making fantastical transportation media in NYC since the late 1990s. He's never had a driver's license and never will.

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  • the bus man

    Bravo! My city has a lame attempt at BRT that so far is not working that well. this would do nicely.

  • Alek F

    Yes,
    Bravo indeed! For implementing a mediocre system that has a very limited capacity, that runs at slow speeds, that has an astounding accidents records, that provides a bumpy, lousy ride...
    Yeah, bravo to MTA for embarrassing itself to the nation,
    and proving that BRT is a joke, comparing to efficiency of LRT or Subway!

  • jdub

    Amazing and a bit sad.

    Note that in the 14 miles of bus route they have 14 stops, implying a stop spacing of 1 per mile. Here in SF, we have 8-9 stops per mile. They have transit priority signaling while our buses stop and stop and stop some more. They have 35-55 mph hour buses, we have some buses that travel at 3mph, slower than walking. They have a 14 mile dedicated bikeway to go with their bus system. We have...

    Congratulations to LA for creating this line. It really is fantastic. How can a place that has a car culture as strong as LA's do something like this while we in SF with a seemingly progressive culture are still fighting about the Geary BRT and other improvements?

  • m

    The vehicle speed is not the only way that BRT gets trememdous time savings -- the almost complete lack of conflict with other vehicles brings huge time savings. When buses have to deal with cars backing in and out of parking spaces, making left and right turns, changing lanes, and all that crap, it seriously takes a lot of time. When you combine that with pre-paid boarding, articulated low floor buses, and signal priority that is green 75%(!) of the time, you get massive time savings. The bus speed is only the icing on the cake and saves a couple more minutes. At even a mile between stops on average, you can't get up to 55 mph or sustain it for very long.

  • Nathan

    The Orange line is pretty remarkable to connect an area that is twice the size of San Francisco rather efficiently. One part that is missing is that half of the stops have free, well-lit parking lots.

    As for the criticism in comment #2... to clarify, its accidents are mostly vehicle drivers hitting the bus itself, not the other way around. Cyclists are safely segregated from both bus and vehicle traffic. The orange line's corridor is best suited for light rail, that is correct, and MTA would have the option of converting at this point once the maximum number of buses have been added.

    What's cooler about MTA's fee structure is that the pre-boarding payment is not only good for the Orange Line, but for all-day riding throughout the system. SF can benefit from this model for the Geary and Van Ness corridors by merely reconfiguring the roads; the bus infrastructure is already there.

  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/trorb Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    Thanks for the diversity of comments. The Streetfilm we produced accurately depicts the corridor and its current conditions, it is fast, the amenities are modern and the bus ride is pleasant. I rode about 10-12 miles worth of the system on two different days on at least five different buses - sometimes crowded - and except for maybe if you need to stand, it was a fine experience.

    Although we would have loved to make it even more comprehensive a study, our objective is to produce under 5 minute films (and usually closer to 3 or 4) where we can show the general public bike, ped, open space and transit conditions and how they work. You could make an hour film on Orange Line BRT, but the question is how many people would want to watch it.

    In the write up we did point out it is a former rail right of way and did mention there is a big push to convert the corridor back to rail. But that is not for us to decide. Would it work better as LRT? At this point it probably could. But again, that would require investment and more planning.

    One thing - again - that I will point out, anytime you post a video on how great BRT - you will always get people who believe hands down that LRT is the only way to go. And the opposite is true of some BRT advocates fighting for BRT when LRT is good. The truth is, both are systems that move people - usually effectively - and some may be apropos for some cities/corridors and not for others. I have seen this back and forth squabbling on so many sites and it is very tiring to watch. Sure, learn from each instance and move on, but for commenter #2 to write that it is an embarrassment, that the buses go slow, and it is a lousy ride is just not true. Here in NYC, if we had buses running up the Avenues that even averaged running a steady 15 or 20 mph we would think it was a miracle...

  • Interurbans

    This was a great 4 minute film. But what it did not show was the slow brumby ride, the long dwell times to load or unload the bikes and wheelchairs on the bus. It does not show that a LRT line would carry 5 times the riders with the full trip taking half the time with half the employees and half the operating cost.

    It does not show that the Orange bus line was at capacity within months of opening and additional service can not be added do to delaying cross traffic. It does not show all of the Orange bus line riders who returned to driving after their poor experience of overcrowding, a rough ride and long running time.

    This film does not show what a real failure this line is compared to how good a line it could have been as a LRT or an extension of the Red Line.

  • Tom in SF

    San Francisco's Muni transit system is far from perfect, but sometimes there are apples-and-oranges problems when comparing SF and LA, both positively and negatively. San Francisco city limits contain only the most densely developed 49 square miles of the entire SF Bay Area and only 800,000 of its 7-million-plus total population. Metro LA doesn't really have any comparable density, anywhere. A BRT line in the San Fernando Valley is probably more akin to one of the light rail lines in San Jose (and only the outer reaches of San Jose, not downtown) or maybe converting the Iron Horse Trail between Walnut Creek and Pleasanton to BRT with bike and ped paths. Picking on Muni for dragging its feet isn't exactly fair.

    Having said all that, at the very least Muni and the City of SF ought to get off their asses and, just off the top of my head, put BRT on Geary and Van Ness, and extend the F-line from Fisherman's Wharf to the Presidio, and... Aw, don't get me started.

  • http://scottmercer.us Scott Mercer

    Tom, yes, Los Angeles DOES have comparable density to San Francisco, in many places. Downtown, Hollywood, Koreatown, East L.A. Some of these areas are the densest in the USA, outside of Manhattan Island, even more dense than San Francisco.

    Yes, the BRT runs in a much less dense area, with suburban style density in most of the places, outside of a few "activity centers" like NoHo, downtown Van Nuys and Warner Center.

    But, having an LRT along this corridor is about making the whole system work more efficiently. Relatively few commuters travel only within the San Fernando Valley, though there are some. Many commuters are going from the SFV "over the hill" into the Los Angeles basin, into downtown, Hollywood, West Hollywood, Century City, or West L.A. Eventually, all these areas will or could be served by rail. The Orange Line could connect to the Red Line as it does now, making it LRT to heavy rail instead of BRT to heavy rail. Then, a commute from, say Canoga Park to Hollywood would take 35 minutes instead of the 65 minutes it currently takes. And before we even built a rail system? Forget it, that would have been a 90 minute bus ride, even on a "freeway express" bus.

  • Lee Cryer

    I was disappointed to see cyclists riding on the wrong side of the path and pedestrians walking on the bike section. This bugs me here in Denver and Boulder, too. Those lines are there for a reason.

  • Frank d

    Some of us feel that the Orange Line has been a disaster for our community. Ruining our towns so a fraction of the population can pass through is selfish and short-sighted. Thousands of vehicles now stop at red lights--behind intersections that are 12+ lanes across. Who can get across a twelve-lane intersection? Certainly not our kids. And what about giant walls that have blocked some of the best views in the valley. Would those walls go up in Malibu? The San Fernando Valley has been overrun with streets and really needs greenbelts. Bus traffic should be run on existing streets and the people who live in our communities should be treated much better and with more consideration than they are now.

  • Onlineo

    Great film, I live in England so no nothing about LA. It stkes me that the orange line is just a cheap slower alternative to extending the red line! with the added bonus of having to change from bus to train.

    Hopefully they will see sense and extend the red line along the whole route as I bet that would reduce the travel times by more than 50%, and save everyone the bother of changing from the bus to a train.

    The line is a start and the buses are obviously going to be quicker than normal buses as they only have 14 stops and no traffic to contend with. Surely much better than normal buses but where it connects into.

  • http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joel-epstein/ill-have-a-brt-with-the-s_b_452774.html Joel Epstein

    Great film from a city that is finally catching up transitwise with Measure R and the 30/10 plan. The Orange line has been a welcome addition to transit in the San Fernando Valley.

  • http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joel-epstein/ill-have-a-brt-with-the-s_b_452774.html Joel Epstein

    Great film about a city that is finally catching up transitwise thanks to the voter- approved Measure R 1/2 cent sales tax and 30/10.

  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/Green_Idea_Factory Todd Edelman

    I grew up in Canoga Park and very vaguely remember the rail line on which this was built... I think it was a freight line, because I do not think the streetcar system extended this far west (the subdivision I lived in was built in the late 1950s, after the streetcar dismantling had begun).

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  • Mrl Paul

    "The corridor also boasts a world class bike and pedestrian path..."

    The structure pictured is not a "path", or "pathway". It is a highway structure for both walk and bike, with separte striped lanes for each. A highway is defined as public way freely accessible and open to everyone. A structure for just motor vehicles is not accessable or freely open to everyone, and therefore not truly public. Lets build our public ways to be truly accessible for everyone. 

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