Going Hollywood

Because of its flexibility, bus rapid transit (BRT) allows cities not only to deploy a system in a very short amount of time, but also minimize their project development risks and better manage their costs with an incremental deployment strategy: start small and then expand as fast as the money and politics allow.

No better example of this approach can be found than in Los Angeles. There, a relatively modest demonstration project on two heavily traveled bus routes resulted in impressive ridership net gains of more than 40 percent. So pleased with this demonstration program, which cost the agency less than $400,000 per mile, including the buses which it had planned to order anyway, the Los Angeles County Metro board voted to expand the program by 28 routes by the end of 2008.

The demonstration also gave the agency confidence in going forward with another BRT project, the $300 million Orange Line serving the San Fernando Valley in the northwest part of the county. Implemented in less than five years and opened in the fall of 2005, the 14-mile project incorporates a dedicated “rubber-tired rail line” involving state-of-the-art vehicles, as well as bike paths and lockers and its strategies for transit-oriented development (TOD). The line has steadily defied projections, attracting more than 23,000 weekday riders currently and having a measurable impact on the nearby overcrowded 101 freeway, according to a University of California study.

Now other cities are going Hollywood — when it comes to BRT, at least. Oakland, Phoenix, San Diego, Kansas City and Washington, D.C., are just a few of the U.S. communities that are adopting an incremental deployment of BRT. The typical strategy involves the launch of a modest branded arterial system just as in Los Angeles, followed by a network expansion when success of the concept has been proven, with perhaps part of the expansion involving more extensive infrastructure investments.

We will take a look at why the incremental approach helps to minimize project risks, the down sides to such an approach and implications for others planning such systems. Before this, however, we will begin where and how this idea began in the United States in Los Angeles.

How BRT Began in Los Angeles
BRT began in Los Angeles with two demonstration lines that, at $14 million in reprogrammed capital funds, were virtually no new cost to build and operate. The project started as an investigation into methods of increasing bus speeds, which had declined an average of 1 percent per year since the 1980s. In addition, a delegation of officials from Los Angeles County, including then-Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, visited the BRT system in Curitiba, Brazil. Riordan especially became impressed with how that city significantly changed the market share for public transportation with much less investment than a rail-based system.

These officials and Metro staff identified 12 elements of BRT’s success in Curitiba: more frequent service, priority in traffic at signalized intersections, headway-based schedules (as opposed to fixed timetables typical of bus service), simplified route structure (again like rail), fewer stops spaced about a mile apart as with light rail service, integration with other modes and types of bus service, level boarding (in South America using high platforms and standard floor buses but in Los Angeles using low-floor buses), coordinated branding that is used on both the buses as well as stations and passenger information, higher-capacity buses, exclusive rights-of-way to take them out of slower traffic flow (again like rail), prepaid fare collection and bus feeder services (common with rail systems). For this demonstration program and the BRT service in Los Angeles to date, Metro planners incorporated the first eight of these attributes.

The plan, called Metro Rapid, was a no-frills approach. It debuted in the autumn of 2000 with two corridors totaling more than 40 miles, running on Ventura Boulevard and Wilshire Boulevard, two of the most heavily patronized bus corridors in the county. The lines currently in service use conventional stepped-low-floor 40-foot buses powered by compressed natural gas, but with branding of both the vehicles and the stops that is distinct from the rest of the service in the city. The buses typically run in mixed traffic, with priority at traffic signals and along simple, straight routes that have fewer stops spaced seven-tenths of a mile apart. Also known as “arterial BRT,” Los Angeles’ Metro Rapid, Kansas City’s MAX along the Southland corridor, Oakland’s San Pablo Rapid and Trent, England’s Rainbow services are also examples of this approach.

For those who might think of these services as not really being BRT, most FTA-funded industry guidance documents conclude that they are. In 2004, the FTA released the first and still perhaps most important of these, called “Characteristics of Bus Rapid Transit for Decision-Makers.” It lists six “elements,” or major planning and service aspects, of this new mode: running way strategies, ideally to minimize being caught up in mixed traffic; cashless (ideally prepaid) fare collection to speed up boarding; rail-like, branded service plans such as greater frequencies with fewer stops; distinctly branded low-floor and in most cases higher-capacity vehicles; improved, branded passenger stations with good signage, lighting and other attractive amenities; and use of intelligent transportation systems (such as real-time passenger information or traffic signal priority). The first Metro Rapid routes incorporate all but the first of these elements now, and all but the first two when the first lines made their debut in the fall of 2000.

The result of these first two demonstration lines is now famous throughout transit. The two corridors increased ridership by more than 45 percent; one-third of those riders were new to transit and previously commuted by automobile. In fact, the ridership increases on the Wilshire line, at 45,000 weekday boardings, rivals most U.S. light rail transit lines.

Buoyed by these results, the Metro board voted to expand the system to a 28-route network comprising 450 miles. The expansion timetable is aggressive, launching an average of two new routes every six months through the end of this year. Since that announcement, the agency has combined several routes and reconfigured others to include “Rapid Express” routes, which are skip stop routes along existing Metro Rapid corridors. Thus the total number of traditional Metro Rapid lines envisioned has been reduced to 22, which will now be finished by the middle of this year.

In addition to expanding the network, the Metro board also committed to further upgrades of the BRT program in two other important ways. The first was the procurement of hundreds of higher-capacity, stylized vehicles for the new service, all powered by CNG and designed to operate more quietly than earlier buses in the fleet. The first of these contracts was for 100 45-foot advanced composite CompoBuses manufactured by North American Bus Industries (NABI). (Subsequently, the board had directed staff to procure more composite higher-capacity buses, yet no manufacturer has put forward a proposal.) Designed with 15 percent more passenger capacity than a conventional 40-footer, they are fully deployed throughout the Metro Rapid network, primarily on the lines serving the most heavily used lines in the western part of Los Angeles. Meanwhile, deliveries on another contract, for up to 600 advanced-design low-floor CNG articulated vehicles also being built by NABI, have also been underway. Some of these comprise the fleet of the Orange Line, Los Angeles’ 14-mile exclusive BRT line contained in a dedicated busway in the San Fernando Valley.

The second major network upgrade decision that the board undertook was to make several requests for federal Small Starts funds in order to complete the network expansion. Last year, Metro successfully received $16.7 million for the $25.7 million Metro Rapid Gap Closure Project, which also received a Small Starts Project Development Grant Agreement (PDGA). Its goal is to reduce passenger trip times along eight new Metro Rapid corridors totaling 120 additional miles. Four of those were rolled out this past December, while the remainder will be introduced in June.

This year, it received another PDGA and an additional FTA commitment of $23.3 million for the $31.5 million Wilshire Boulevard Bus-Only Lane Project. It involves design and construction of a dedicated bus lane along portions of a 12.5-mile stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, one of the first two highly successful Metro Rapid demonstration project lines, on the western portion of the line, between downtown Los Angeles and the city of Santa Monica. The project features 9.6 miles of curb lanes converted into an exclusive facility during morning and afternoon peak-period operations. The lanes will be differentiated in their appearance with pavement markings and line delineators, and will be enforced by the Los Angeles Police Department for moving violations. The Los Angeles Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the city’s street and traffic control networks, is also a project partner. FTA recommended $10.95 million in Small Starts funding for the project in its FY 2009 budget request to Congress.

Two other projects were not funded this year but Metro will likely resubmit the requests again next year, just as it did when the Wilshire exclusive bus lane plan was not funded in FY 2008. These include the Sepulveda Corridor Bus-Only Lane Project and the Van Nuys Corridor Bus Speed Improvement Project, designed to improve two other well-used San Fernando Valley Metro Rapid Routes with additional infrastructure improvements, such as segments exclusive bus lanes. If eventually successful in obtaining its sought-after PDGAs, it would receive nearly $37 million in additional Small Starts funding.

Metro officials often point out that none of these successes at either the federal or the local levels would be possible without the successful lower-risk, lower-cost initial demonstration project. This success-breeds-success approach has been used by Kansas City, Seattle and Eugene. The former two also began with arterial BRT lines, and also received federal Small Starts PDGAs for more corridors, while Eugene’s starter line involved a short line in exclusive running way in the center of streets.

Orange Line Even More Auspicious BRT
Perhaps the most dramatic index of the Metro Rapid program’s success is the consensus that developed and was sustained behind the ambitious $330 million Orange Line. Following an abandoned railroad right-of-way that Metro purchased in the 1990s, and expensive by BRT standards at roughly $24 million per mile, it is nearly 30 percent less expensive than the average light rail system. The line uses prepaid fare collection for the first time in the authority’s bus system other than passes and transfer media, with automated ticket vending machines at each of the stations. In addition, “next-stop” variable message signs are incorporated into the Orange Line, a feature of the arterial BRT service that has been hugely successful in Los Angeles and elsewhere. The stations are also fully accessible to the mobility impaired, with attractive, tiled platforms, complemented by a healthy budget for station art.

Metro’s staff also planned for possible future light rail upgrade on the Orange Line — another aspect of the agency’s incrementalist approach. The stations, two bridges and the road bed were designed to accommodate light rail vehicles. In addition, TOD concepts are being employed, with good neighborhood access and rezoning strategies for higher densities.

This strong political consensus was not free of challenges. A neighborhood group objecting to the line on noise and other environmental grounds sued Metro and obtained a temporary restraining order that halted the project for several months until the court ruled in the agency’s favor. In addition, some of the region’s worst winter rains in history slowed construction for several more months. Finally, after the line made its debut only a few months behind the original schedule despite those uncontrollable delays, a few high-profile traffic accidents caused by motorists crossing the busway through red lights forced Metro staff to make some schedule adjustments and undertake other safety precautions, such as slowing the BRT vehicles to 10 mph through the intersections which has eaten into the line’s travel time savings. Throughout all these obstacles, however, the political consensus held solidly behind the project.

Why the Incremental Approach?
As indicated earlier, the Los Angeles experience has several lessons being emulated by other public transit agencies. First, the modest start-up of the initial two lines was implemented with virtually no net additional operating or capital funds. This is because the travel time improvements of between 24 and 29 percent in the arterial BRT network resulted in the need for fewer buses in the corridor, which were redeployed in the branded Metro Rapid service. Per-passenger operating costs thus actually declined in each of the 18 corridors, according to Rex Gephart, director of regional planning for Metro and the architect of its arterial BRT network. Moreover, because the signal priority and bus fleet were taken from existing infrastructure, the only marginal capital costs of the program were software reprogramming for the automatic headway-based signal priority system; the next-stop variable message signs and modular stations, which totaled less than $10,000 per station; and marketing expenses. Total one-time capital costs for the 20-corridor, 356-mile expansion (i.e., after the first two lines and excluding the Orange Line) are $110.5 million, according to Metro budget documents — slightly more than $300,000 per mile.

The second lesson is that such a low-cost strategy can be implemented quickly and with much lower risk. “If it didn’t work we were out very little money, which is why [former L.A.] Mayor Riordan just told me to do it and analyze later,” says Rex Gephart, the system’s project director.

Third, Los Angeles and other arterial-based BRT networks are examples of how BRT systems can be configured to accommodate rapidly changing population shifts. Fixed guideway solutions require years of planning, design, public input and construction, and by then the population and employment centers could have shifted travel patterns. In fact, it happened in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, when the Green Line was opened. The LRT line was designed to serve part of Los Angeles’ then formidable defense industry. Initial ridership was well off original estimates because of the steep recession in that industry following the end of the Cold War.

Fourth, the scaleable and less-risky approach represents real opportunity for attracting more private capital to these projects. Metro financed part of its Orange Line project in the bond market even though it lost some expected state funding. In the United Kingdom, virtually all BRT-type projects, whether arterial or employing fixed guideways, employ substantial amounts of private financing. Houston and Denver are following suit with part of their BRT financing strategies.

Finally, there is another, undoubtedly even more important rationale for such an incremental BRT approach. Despite record levels of federal funding during the past decade and by all indications from Congress for the foreseeable future, competition for federal transit funding in the Major Capital Investment Program has been acute. Moreover, this does not include many of the BRT projects contemplated by the 80 cities cited recently by WestStart-Calstart data in a study for the FTA. Many of them likely will not ask for Major Capital Investment Program money, relying instead on available state and local funds as well as federal formula grants. Little wonder, then, that low-cost and incremental BRT solutions are becoming more attractive. Indeed, of the 13 PDGAs approved by the FTA to date, 10 are for BRT. Of those, seven are mostly arterial-based BRT projects.

Some argue that incremental BRT is less than desirable, “compromise” BRT. On the contrary, whether to offer higher-quality service to choice riders, change the modal split and mitigate congestion or stimulate economic development, the Los Angeles incremental approach and other relevant experiences around the country demonstrate how a mix of the previously mentioned eight elements will achieve these rationales without spending the highest possible sums.

Cliff Henke is a senior analyst and member of PB's Americas Transit Market Leadership team based in Arcadia, Calif.

More Related Information:
Archived Article: BRT Update
Archived Article: BRT Improving the Environment
Archived Article: Transit’s Role in a Sustainable Future
Mass Transit Buyer’s Guide: Bus Builders, Rebuilders, Distributors