Los Angeles transit officials are eagerly contemplating the opportunity to spend money converting the Orange bus-rapid transit line into a light-rail line. To promote this idea, they are letting people know that light rail will be faster, more comfortable, and operate more frequently (so riders will be less likely to have to stand) than buses.
Of course, all of these things are wrong. The current bus line averages 26 mph, about 4 mph faster than the average light-rail line. Buses can be just as comfortable as light rail, and when vehicles are full, a higher percentage of bus riders get to sit down (about two-thirds as opposed to less than half). As for frequencies, the current schedule of the Orange line calls for one bus every eight minutes at rush hour. Since the road is closed to all other traffic, somehow I think they could squeeze a few more in if they wanted to.
That the line is a bus line at all is due to a curious law passed in 1991 forbidding the use of rail in the corridor, which had been used by Pacific Electric streetcars until 1952. So Metro built an exclusive bus corridor at a cost of $18 million a mile–$22 million in today’s money. That law was repealed a few weeks ago, allowing L.A. Metro officials to think about spending more money in the corridor.
Years ago, a researcher named Jonathan Richmond interviewed Los Angeles public officials and discovered a disconnect between their views of light rail and reality. The interviews would go something like this:
“Why do you support light rail?”
“Because it is so fast, people are sure to want to ride it.”
“You know it will only go 22 miles per hour.”
“Really? I thought it would be faster than that.”
“Yes, and many light-rail lines are even slower than that. So, now why do you support light rail?”
“Because it is so fast.”
The same disconnect continues today. After a collision between a bus and a car at an intersection, officials slowed down the buses, and one state senator warned that the bus line was “unsafe at any speed.” But trains will be able to go faster because being hit by a 300,000-pound train is so much safer than being hit by a 50,000-pound bus.
“With as many as 40,000 new jobs expected” in the area, officials say, “a light-rail system that could handle up to 60,000 riders a day is needed.” Because a bus line couldn’t possibly move that many people per day, could it?
Buses, in fact, have a clear capacity advantage over light rail. For example, Metro could rebuild platforms at each station to handle four buses at a time. Each bus could stop at each station for up to a minute unloading and loading passengers. Then the line could move four buses per minute, each capable of hold 100 people, for a total of 24,000 people per hour. By comparison, three-car light-rail trains, each car hold 150 passengers, can safely operate no more frequently than every three minutes, thus moving about 9,000 people per hour.
Moreover, buses have at least two other huge advantages over rail. First, without reducing the number of other buses, express buses could be added that skip some of the stops along the route. Because light-rail lines have no passing tracks, they have no options for express rail.
Second, when reaching the end of the exclusive bus lanes, the buses can continue on city streets, reaching more neighborhoods and job centers. Trains have to stop when the reach the end of rails, forcing people to transfer.
Los Angeles’ fixation with rail reminds me of Cordelia Chase, the Valley girl who was Buffy’s in-school nemesis in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In an early episode, we overhear Cordelia tell her friends, “When I go shopping, I have to have the most expensive thing. Not because it’s expensive, but because it costs more.”
This attitude has many causes, but it is reinforced by the fact that spending more money creates more opportunities for contractors to earn profits and generates more political favors. But spending more on rail also means spending less on something else. Since rail has no inherent advantage over bus, and many disadvantages, a decision to convert the Orange line to light rail would reveal a callous disregard for both the facts and for taxpayers’ interests.