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.