Greater Greater Washington

Transit


LA's Orange Line shows the way for Montgomery BRT

The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy isn't so sure about many of the proposed Montgomery County Bus Rapid Transit lines, because of the county's spread-out, suburban character. But I took a trip on Los Angeles' first BRT line, which shows how BRT could indeed transform suburban commute patterns.


Boarding an Orange Line bus at Reseda. All photos by the author.

Built in 2005 and extended earlier this summer, the Orange Line runs between North Hollywood, Warner Center and Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley. It's a suburban area with over 1.7 million people, known for wide boulevards, tract houses and shopping malls that gave rise to the infamous "Valley Girl."

Like Montgomery County, it has not one but several "downtowns." And like the Valley, Montgomery County has become more diverse, with more younger, immigrant or low-income residents who depend on transit, but also a growing interest in alternatives to driving among more well-heeled residents.

Why does the Orange Line work? It goes where people want to go, it's frequent, and it connects to the subway, major bus routes, and commuter rail. But more importantly, it gives riders a fast, pleasant experience that rivals driving in a place known for its car culture.

Orange Line Platform, North Hollywood
Passengers board a bus at North Hollywood Station.

The Orange Line includes many of the same features as Montgomery's BRT proposal, giving it the feel of a train. For instance, the stations are more substantial than normal bus shelters, with ticket machines, maps and benches, and signs saying when the next bus is coming. They have distinctive canopies that provide shade while giving the line a unique visual identity.

The buses are long and sleek, with big windows that make the inside feel bright and airy. They're actually the same buses the Los Angeles Metro uses elsewhere, though with a different paint scheme. Passengers pay by tapping a smart card at the station, and when the bus arrives, they can get on or off using any door, as they would on a train. I never had to wait more than 5 minutes for buses to arrive when I rode the Orange Line around 2pm, though they were still packed.

What makes the Orange Line really effective, however, is that buses have their own special lanes for the entire 18-mile route, the result of using a former rail line and a wide boulevard. There are also special sensors that turn stoplights green when buses approach so they don't have to stop. This allows buses to reach speeds of up to 55 miles an hour, cutting commutes across the Valley nearly in half and making it as fast, if not faster, than driving. The busway is lushly landscaped, while a popular bike and foot path runs alongside it. The result is a commute that's not only convenient, but very pleasant.

Bike Path + Transitway, Between Woodman + Valley College Stations
A bike path next to the Orange Line busway.

As a result, ridership has almost doubled from 16,000 people each weekday in 2005 to 31,000 today. That's the same number of riders planners anticipate will use certain BRT lines in Montgomery. By comparison, the busiest conventional bus routes in both the Valley and Montgomery County carry just 10,000 riders per weekday.

One rider told me, completely unprompted, how much he liked the Orange Line. "Thank God for Metro," he said. "I'm glad they have all these buses and trains now. Back in the day, we didn't have none of this and you had to have a car."

Unfortunately, Montgomery County's BRT plan wouldn't always give buses their own lanes, even in congested areas like downtown Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring. Buses would be stuck in traffic with everyone else, making it a lousy alternative to the car.

Busway on Chandler Boulevard, Laurel Canyon Station
Orange Line buses run in their own lanes on busy Chandler Boulevard.

That said, at $25 million per mile, the Orange Line cost nearly twice as much to build as Montgomery's BRT is expected to, and we can't afford to make that kind of investment in places where it's not warranted. Some areas in the 160-mile system envisioned by the county's Transit Task Force might be better suited for smaller improvements, like the Metro Rapid buses in Los Angeles that inspired MetroExtra service here.

However, in areas where transit use is already high, we should go all out to encourage more of it. The Orange Line didn't require taking away lanes from cars, but we will have to in Montgomery County to get the same quality of service. It won't be easy, but it can and should be done.

It's no surprise that some officials, like County Councilmember Nancy Floreen, are skeptical of Montgomery's BRT plan. "This is suburbia," she told the Washington Examiner. "To assume that everyone is going to switch to a nice, snazzy looking bus is not particularly realistic."

And she's right: no one's going to ride the bus, especially if we don't make it worthwhile. The Orange Line shows us that in the right places, you can get suburban riders on the bus if you give them a fast, frequent, and pleasant experience. We'd do well to follow their example.

Check out this slideshow of the Orange Line.

A planner and architect by training, Dan Reed also writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. 

Comments

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The Orange line was supposed to be light rail, but because of a light rail and subway moratorium (since overturned), it became a busway. Unfortunately the Valley gets the busway, while the suburban towns about 40 miles east of LA will get light rail.

The Orange line is severely overcrowded, and could benefit from a conversion to light rail.

by John P on Oct 22, 2012 11:01 am • linkreport

It seems like the key to this success (and the other ones we've read) is the separate ROW. Only that can allow the speeds necessary to become competitive to driving. If MoCo isn't serious about separating ROW then it isn't serious about BRT.

Kind of analogous to CABI (though the capital costs are much higher) that it is/was better to concentrate service in a few areas and then expand. If MoCo only has money for 25 miles of separate ROW vs. 50 miles of mix then it will see more return on the 25 miles.

by drumz on Oct 22, 2012 11:12 am • linkreport

I'd think in this area you'd want station that are enclosed and have climate control.

by charlie on Oct 22, 2012 11:27 am • linkreport

Sounds like LA did it right and made the buses a real alternative to driving.

by Jasper on Oct 22, 2012 11:33 am • linkreport

I have to say, charlie, that I expected I would want enclosed, climate-controlled stations, that when I rode (a few days after Dan), that all in all, I didn't yearn for A/C the way I was expecting to.

by Aimee Custis on Oct 22, 2012 11:34 am • linkreport

@drumz

I totally agree, though of course the issue becomes where those 25 or whatever miles go, and that will be politically difficult to do - after all, everyone was promised a BRT line in their neighborhood, and it'll be hard to say (even with the right reasoning) that Rockville Pike gets one, but Georgia Avenue and Columbia Pike don't, for instance.

@charlie

Maybe. It was 89 and sunny when I was in LA last week, so it was pretty nice underneath the station canopy. It's also drier than it is here, so it doesn't get all muggy and oppressive when it's hot.

Of course, that may just be my Northeastern bias; Jarrett Walker suggests that the novelty of sunshine has worn off on Angelenos, so perhaps more shelter is needed.

by dan reed! on Oct 22, 2012 11:34 am • linkreport

I'd think in this area you'd want station that are enclosed and have climate control.

In Southern California? No. There's no humidity there. Provide some shade and you'll be fine.

by Alex B. on Oct 22, 2012 11:37 am • linkreport

Sorry, let me be a bit clearer: If you want BRT station in DC you need climate control. LA should be fine if you have shade and maybe a fan.

by charlie on Oct 22, 2012 11:50 am • linkreport

it seems the study done by ITDP could play well into some of the discussion on this and other threads regarding the BRT. Some of the corridors such as US 29 never really can work as a typical BRT, because it's a limited access highway to start with, and other corridors such as Connecticut Avenue have such low density along much of the route, that stations would not be serving as much more than transfer points. These low density lower bus ridership corridors should have more 'extra' or 'express' buses. If there is traffic on the corridor it would not get you to your destination 'quicker' but it would not be any slower than driving either, which the current system is much slower than driving. The corridors like Georgia Ave and Rockville Pike which have high use along the existing corridor, providing physical improvements to the road and creating a true BRT makes more cost effective sense.

The County knows where it wants to urbanize (inside the Beltway, Wheaton, the 355/270 corridor) and should focus the high quality BRT in those areas. I have a car but will often opt for transit when I don't want to be the person responsible for driving in traffic or finding parking, and would opt even more often with small improvements to the network with more limited stop service. We should see the push for BRT as more of a thought provoking mechanism for improving transportation options, not as the planning Bible that has to be implemented without change.

by Gull on Oct 22, 2012 11:57 am • linkreport

Good post. I hope you write another one about LA's subways and light rail. We were in LA for 4-5 days over Labor Day weekend and only drove once. I think LA's rail network compares favorably to metro here in DC. A day pass is $5 in LA vs. $14 here in DC. All the escalators in the stations seemed to work fine. The headways were decent. The stations and the rail cars were clean. LA's heavy and light rail system is also surprisingly extensive.

Regarding the bus, we took the Big Blue bus from LA to Santa Monica one day. Admittedly, it was over a holiday weekend but it was very convenient and reliable.

by Ben on Oct 22, 2012 1:42 pm • linkreport

BRT is an excellent alternative when there isn't much demand for public transit. But if your ridership is going to be in the tens of thousands, like the Orange Line (currently over 30K daily riders), then buses just can't meet the demand. Be sure you know your demographics before spending hundreds of million on a project that will do little for the community, like the orange line did for Los Angeles.

by Mark LA on Oct 22, 2012 2:01 pm • linkreport

I love the "it's too crowded, nobody rides it" comments.

You know, you dont need rails embedded in the ground to run longer vehicles right? The rail doesnt magically allow you to add 50 feet to the length of your vehicle.

If the articulated buses are getting crowded, then buy a bi-articulated bus thats 20 feet longer.

Congestion solved.

by JJJ on Oct 22, 2012 2:08 pm • linkreport

31,000 on one line drawing from 1.7 million potential ridership isn't all that much if you consider all the sweeteners (separated guideway, etc.). DC's highest bus ridership buslines--30s,S,70s,90s,X, maybe 50s--all get about 15,000 daily riders.

JJJ -- maximum legal bus length in public ROW is 60 feet. It's possible that FTA might allow an 80 foot bus if the transit way is separated and there are no crossings with regular roads, I don't know.

It's been decades since I've been to Disney Parks, but my understanding is that on those private "campuses" they do use the 80 foot long Van Hool buses.

by Richard Layman on Oct 23, 2012 7:03 am • linkreport

The reason the Orange Line in LA works is because it's built on an abandoned rail ROW. It shows the way not for MoCo's BRT but instead for the Purple Line.

by MDE on Oct 23, 2012 10:11 am • linkreport

MDE -- that's the same with the transitways in PGH. A person in another entry mentioned Ed Tennyson, who has written a lot about BRT failure to achieve stated ridership numbers. There are problems with "BRT" in PGH--no prepayment primarily--but the reality is that it's fast, just that people don't ride it.

WRT points, my understanding is that anything less than 15000 riders day you wouldn't do LR, and frankly anything less than 30000-40000 riders/day doesn't really justify the expense of LR, especially over long distances. While Denver and Dallas get lots of props for their LR system, it sure doesn't seem to have much in the way of ridership, comparatively speaking. I guess it's all relative, but just think if those investments were put into Baltimore and other cities where you could reap high ridership instead.

by Richard Layman on Oct 23, 2012 11:55 am • linkreport

anyone who thinks the Orange line is a great idea have probably never ridden it. the ride is horrible, bouncing and jostling every which way. noisy vehicles and tight interiors. with wheelwells all over the place.
the only thing that makes it work is the exclusive right of way and without that it is just a bus, we got a lot of those and few who ride them wants them over rail I don't think.
bottom line, I ride Metro, in Baltimore and LA I ride light rail. in Montgomery county I would probably ride light rail but BRT, I'll drive instead.

Bob

by Bob on Oct 24, 2012 7:47 pm • linkreport

Yeah, I'll have to agree - taking the Orange line is a real drag. I don't think it is at all fast. It seems to be way too crowded to be of any comfort. It's just a bus, of course with ROW, but still. The bike path however, is amazing. Light rail should have been used, but of course, that isn't happening anytime soon.

by Oscar on Oct 25, 2012 8:46 am • linkreport

The proposed portion of the LRT Purple Line in the Mont. Cty. should be modified to BRT. Since all the lockstep politicians and their servile planners "know" that BRT is better for all the bogus reasons they provide it would be best to have 100% bus in the county. The portion in P.G. County can remain LRT as they are strong supporters of rail.

The Governor has committed to another LRT line Baltimore, the Red Line. But in the desperately congested N/S I-270 / 355 corridor of upper MC and Frederick County he selected the bus and not LRT. A plainly very bad decision followed by the political chest beating of the MC pols and servile planners.

None of these people have any real experience with BRT and they expect the wealthy MC and Frederick car commuters to ride the lipstick bus. I have repeatedly asked the pols who among them rides the bus regularly now. Not a word.

by George B. on Nov 29, 2013 10:54 pm • linkreport

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