Streetfilms: 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

  • AP

    Wow, cool! So time and time again, SF is being left in the dust!

  • 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?

  • So where in San Francisco would we see BRT achieve speeds of 55mph or trip reduction times in the range of 50%?


  • 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.

    As long as you have too many stops, it’ll kill you. Until SF realizes that the bus should not stop every block, it’ll never have reasonable transit. There’s some lines that have four stops in two blocks, when there should be one stop total.

  • Exactly m…

    Though it may hit 30,40,50 mph it is the fact that there are no other impediments (double parkers, other cars, delivery vehicles, police cruisers) and quick loading which is the true focus which makes the bus fast.

    As SF and NYC residents know it is infuriating to get on a bus and just watch cars clog up the lanes. How the right of one person in a car is treated as the same right as 50 on a bus is so wrong. As Spock said, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few – or the one – surely applies (oops, went geekout there!) If you are willing to get on transit and save your city money and congestion you certainly deserve to get where you are going without those selfish folks in SOV blocking or obstructing your way.

    The speed at which this bus moved was incredible. While riding I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what a speed like that going up 2nd Avenue in Manhattan would feel like. Years ago I would think it was just a pipe dream, but NYC is changing so fast I can actually see it happening. Maybe SF too – if enough people rally?

  • Okay, LA had a rail ROW to convert to BRT and greenway.

    SF has to navigate the dense grid and there is no way that you can configure traffic signals to obviate delays..

    What does the MTA expect BRT to deliver? If memory serves, and I’m too hungry to look it up, 25-33% reduction in trip time, ten minutes on a 45 min trip, which is 20 min per day on that segment of the route.

    Its better than nothing, but if SF wants to see improvements in transit experience proportionate to what LA is seeing, then it needs to confront the fact that we are already built out and don’t have a suburban layout with spare rail ROW capacity lying around.

    BRT is a technology that works really well in long distance suburban to urban routes but faces significant challenges in the city as the projected deltas in trip time indicate.

    What we need is 4 track subways with express service to obviate the grid and all potential conflicts with surface modalities and draw more riders than any bus line ever would.


  • m

    while the orange line is indeed built largely on an unused rail ROW, it does have to cross cross-streets at every block just like buses here. The available ROW made it convenient to build and not have to take away any auto capacity from cars, but it still has to deal with all the cross-streets of major multi-lane arterials generally every 1/2 mile.

    A 25-33% of time savings is MASSIVE! It may not seem like much on an absolute individual trip, but addeed up that’s a tremendous gain in efficiency. That means you can provide the same level of service with 33% fewer buses, drivers, etc., or on the flip side, you could provide service that is 33% better with the same amount of resources. Those percentages are huge. A 10 minute deduction from a 45-minute trip is a very large improvement. It also means the transit shed for individuals increases significantly.

  • One of the most pleasant drive in San Francisco is Franklin St. It is one way from Market St to Lombard St. Traffic signal is timed in such a way that, outside of rush hour, sometimes I can travel the entire stretch without hitting a single red light. When drivig on Franklin, it is very important to not exceed the speed limit of 25mph or you will just miss the timing and end up stalled at a red light. At 25mph, the entire stretch of 1.7 miles of Franklin St, which is basically the western perimeter of the downtown, can be completed in 4 minutes!

    Suppose we put an BRT on this kind of street. Using the 1 stop per mile density as in LA there will be just 3 three stops on this route. One on each end and one in the middle. It shouldn’t be difficult for a BRT to complete this trip in 6 minutes. Even if we slash the distance between stops in half, there is still only going to be 5 stops.

    If only we can give the bus a lane it deserves and a signal priorty that works, I don’t see how it won’t beat the existing crawler bus by 50% or more.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    The sick joke is that the free-flowing Franklin and Gough streets make it impossible to transit Pine and Bush freely. Six express bus lines crawl between Octavia and Polk, usually stopping at all the lights. In the evening they crawl in the other direction on Pine. Meanwhile people from Marin driving to their jobs on the peninsula sail down Franklin unimpeded.

  • @m (#4)

    I’d clarify that a bus is not a bus is not a bus. There are buses that are meant to speed people across town (14-L, 38-L, 9x), which sounds like what you are thinking of. But there are also buses that provide slower, more local service along less heavily-traveled routes (48, 33, etc). These buses shouldn’t sacrifice accessibility for speed, their niche is best served by having frequent stops and fewer buses per hour.

    Muni would be a worse system if it completely lost its attention to trips outside the busiest routes. Those lines that let people catch a movie or go shopping across town have fostered a population of San Franciscans who are completely car-free (rather than just commuting by bus or rail), and this population is a larger percent of our city than it is in many cities of similar size as a result.

  • Somebody has to stop at the light. In anycase you can always fine tune these things to make it work better for maximum number of people. The point is even in a dense city we can still design corridors that works well. For sure the corridors will intersect in a few places but it can still be way better than the existing roads.

  • What people really need to take from this Streetfilm is that we can and should design better, faster buses for everyone – and it is possible. We may not be able to have 30 – 40 mph buses moving everywhere, but there are very dense roads with lots of bus service, and somehow, someway those buses need to get priority so we can move them along faster, some express, some still making numerous stops but able to move more freely. And it can’t be pretend BRT, where we just cross our fingers and hope cars don’t clog up the lanes. They need to be physically separated or controlled with cameras where cars get automatic tickets, etc. etc.

  • m

    @Josh(#10) — Accessibility is one thing, but no bus line, I’m sorry, needs to have 2 stops on one block, or ever needs to stop every block. I myself am carfree (have been for 15+ years), and I live on the #21 line. That f—ing bus stops every block for the entire length of Hayes Street, and stops TWICE on many blocks, and these are blocks that are not very long. It’s freaking ridiculous and it makes you want to tear your hair out. No little old lady is going to be disserviced by losing the extra stop on those double-stop blocks or by eliminating every other stop. It still would have incredibly dense stop spacing! Even Market Street does not need to have stops every single block.

  • SFMTA hasn’t taken even the most basic step of clearly marking the bus lanes where they have already been a dedicated right of way. Until recently, dedicated bus lanes were marked with the same diamond symbol that means carpool or HOV everywhere else.

    I’m not saying we should stop there, but we really haven’t even started with the most basic things which can do done right here and now to start improving service. I bring it up because someone reminded me last week of a 5 year old TA study saying this and from my doctor’s office downtown this afternoon I watched three private cars in the bus only lane of market cause one bus to unload near the back of the platform, while the articulated bus behind it had to wait an entire cycle because it had been pushed far enough back that it wasn’t on the platform.

  • m

    @Josh(#10) — (more)
    This isn’t about sacrificing day-to-day transit accessibility for the carfree-by-no-choice to the choice long-distance commuters. This is about making transit a reasonable way to get around that doesn’t crawl like a stubborn mule, so that far more people will actually choose to be carfree and use transit, rather than just the poor and the carfree fanatics, like ourselves. People are willing to walk an extra couple blocks for transit that moves and is reliable. They are not willing to give up their cars for a system that will take them an hour to 3 miles!

    Subways don’t stop every block, bu millions of people in places like NYC and Paris and London live completely happy car-free lives relying on a subway system, and those do not stop on every, or every other, block. But they zip you around town, and the massive time savings of a reliable, fast way to zip around makes up for the fact that you have walk a few extra blocks on each end. Because we don’t have a subway system, we need a core bus network that functions like a subway system, and the plodding stop-every-block local buses should be a small part of the system that connects the gaps.

    No, not every bus needs to be super speedy, but the vast majority of them do, and all of the most heavily travelled corridors do — Mission, Geary, Van Ness, Potrero, Fulton/Hayes, Fillmore, Divis, etc.

    And the #33? I take it all the time. But I’m sorry, on 18th Street it doesn’t need to stop at Church, Dolores, Guerrero, Valencia, AND Mission. It’s pathetic and as a transit rider, it’s infuriating.

  • @josh and @m:

    We’re talking about BRT in San Francisco along streets with topologies like Geary and Van Ness.

    The North of Market blocks are ~200′ long. That means that a BRT setup which had to deal with 2 stops per mile on the Orange BRT Line would have to deal with potentially 26 intersections per mile along Van Ness or Geary. Block lengths along the avenues are even shorter. Each block adds another moving part to an already complex system.

    Shaving 10 minutes off of a 45 minute trip on a best case is good, but we can do better if we divorce ourselves from the notion that a congested dense urban street grid can be effectively and reliably tamed with BRT and start digging tunnels for the rapid rail transit system we need.


  • zig

    What this tells me is BART should cease from considering building any more conventional BART and should take a good look at BRT for “EBART” and “TBART” or any other extension they think they need.

    This resembles the type of BRT I can imagine in places around the Bay Area but if the T-third is a guide to stop spacing in SF, nothing like we will get in the city

  • @marcos, this is my point. Thanks for articulating it so well in that last paragraph

    @m, I think we agree – especially after reading your last post. I get a little scared, however, when I hear proposals to increase service by reducing what I see as a truly valuable aspect of our current service. I agree that the underserved niche in Muni’s network is rapid crosstown service. My preferred solution, however, would not be to remove bus stops, but to add new rapid lines and routes to our existing service.



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