When Expansion is Dilution

Demonstration-1-Large Metro Rapid

My post on crowdsourcing bus stop design included a pitch for the importance of branding in making a particular quality of service visible.  I cited the obvious example of the Los Angeles Metro Rapid, the region’s network of frequent and relatively fast buses.   Integral to the Rapid product was a distinctive logo, colour scheme, and on the first lines at least, shelter design.

But Los Angeles commenters such as Wad pounced, reminding me that as the Rapid brand expanded, bits of it started falling off:

Those canopy stops for L.A.’s Rapid are only on the two demonstration lines (Wilshire/Whittier and Ventura). Now that Metro has 28 Rapid lines, it’s going to become impossible to deliver any improvements. … Next, we have to work on fully decoupling the notion that Metro is any sort of bus rapid transit. It’s limited-stop bus service with marketing.

Yes, the specially-designed Rapid shelters and stop furnishings were deployed only on the first two lines.  But the success of these lines led to very fast expansion — perhaps too fast.  On the one hand, it’s impressive that a network of 28 lines with any consistent service features came into existence in such a short time; I cite that fact often when trying to inspire other cities.  But fast expansion is often dilution.  
That was certainly the case with the Rapid’s stop amenities.  On my last visit I recall waiting for a Rapid at a stop on Ventura Boulevard (just east of 405) where several Rapid lines stop.  The expensive information displays talked only about the first line, not about all the others that stop there, and the effect was simply confusing.
While there’s no excuse for confusing signage, I do sympathize with MTA’s decision to downsize their capital investment in the Rapid so that they could afford to expand the service itself.  Los Angeles is huge and fractious and ferociously hungry for transit, so its district-based politicians are understandably prone to envy every improvement that happens in anyone else’s district.  “Hey, she got one,” they say, “when do I get one?”  When something good is invented, everyone wants it now.  These politicians are the boss, so the transit planners scramble to comply.
The same expand-but-dilute pattern happened a few years earlier with the City of LA’s local shuttle bus system, DASH.  DASH was originally conceived as a super-frequent shuttle system within downtown, where super-frequent service makes sense.  But inter-district envy soon required it be replicated all over the city, including some places where the original high-frequency service model wouldn’t really work.  So now DASH is little buses running all over the place, at various levels of service, and as a result the brand is diluted, it means less.  And if we want people to be able to find services that will be useful to them, meaningless brands are a distraction.
Having said that, the Metro Rapid brand certainly isn’t meaningless.  The core of the brand is the frequency and stopping pattern, and those are intact.  (As Wad notes, it’s not true “Bus Rapid Transit,” because it’s in mixed traffic, but the branding acknowledges that.)  The Rapid was still a remarkable effort to step up mobility all over the city in a very short time.  And yes, when you accelerate something that fast, bits of it tend to fall off.  On balance, the bits that fell off the Rapid were less important bits.
But the expand-but-dilute dynamic is always worth watching for.
When a new product is first being proposed as a demonstration, you should ask:  Assuming that this new product catches on, and everyone wants one, are all the shiny, sexy features you’re selling me really going to be viable on a large scale?
Once the demonstration project is working and everyone does want one, the question to ask is:  OK, we need more of this thing and we can’t afford to do all of it with the expensive features of the demo.  Are you sacrificing fundamental features of the product?  In other words, if we eliminate some features of the brand, does the brand still signify a distinct product that does what it claims to do?

5 Responses to When Expansion is Dilution

  1. Wad June 18, 2009 at 8:27 pm #

    Rapid is even less bold when you consider that only 4 are “virgin” lines — never existed before the Rapid program. The rest of them all started out as limited-stop lines.
    You could look at Metro’s lines numbered 300-399, as they are the same thing.
    What Rapid did was add off-peak service to lines that typically ran during rush hours only.
    And limited-stop service had been in place for decades. The planner now in charge of the Rapid program told me that it was a common misconception that limited-stop service was done to speed up service.
    It wasn’t, and he said Metro doesn’t care how fast a bus runs except for scheduling purposes. The point of limited-stop services was to manage overcrowding. A bus line must have very high frequencies and high transfer activity in order to get a limited branch. He said those two conditions have to be met in order to create limited runs.
    So the Rapids weren’t a bold leap except for the four never-before-seen lines.
    What, IMO, makes Rapid so vapid is that Metro knowingly planned for BRT that it could not deliver yet still pushes the services as BRT.
    Metro can only operate the bus services, but it cannot oblige the cities it serves to accommodate BRT. Bus-only lanes? Can’t do it because of the negative traffic impacts. Ticket machines? Opposed because of concerns for costs and crime control. Signal priority? Only the city of L.A. offers it, but it adds so many conditions that it’s all but useless. Faster service? Yes, but just like limited-stop bus service, it’s a side effect of not having to stop everywhere.

  2. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org June 18, 2009 at 8:50 pm #

    Wad. Thanks for the quick riposte.
    I’m sure you can find an anonymously sourced contact in most agencies who will describe the agency’s decisions in fairly cynical terms. I can find such a person in almost any transit agency, and sometimes they’re right.
    But speed matters to every transit agency. It not only makes customers happier, it also makes each trip cheaper to operate, because transit’s operating cost varies with time more than distance. You can describe their interest in speed cynically, by reducing it to capacity and throughput, but the result is still that you get there faster, all day.
    I’ve ridden the Rapid and seen the evaluations of the demo corridors, and there’s no question there was a speed and frequency improvement.
    Yes, the Rapids were mostly built on corridors that already had limited-stop service, but the addition of frequent all-day service made these a fundamentally different product. Before, limited-stop service was something you added only when the locals were already overcrowded; it was considered supplemental to the locals. The Rapid has the potential to turn that dynamic around. Now the fast service is the basic service, the one you’re encouraged to count on all day.
    I know that as a locally-based activist you have access to the mixed day-to-day experience and the frustrations that agency staff may express. The compromises that were made in implementation include some unfortunate ones. But I still think the product was a great idea.
    Please tell me more about how you think MTA promotes the Rapid as BRT. Proper exclusive-lane BRT is represented in LA by the Orange Line (which, yes, involves its own compromises.) I’ve never heard MTA staff describe the Metro Rapid as full BRT.

  3. Wad June 18, 2009 at 11:14 pm #

    My source was not an anonymous ax-grinder, but the person who would wind up in charge of the Rapid program.
    The context of limited-stop happened when I asked him why a branch of an interlined route was getting limited-stop service while the limiteds would turn to locals on the other route. I had asked why can’t the unserved street get faster service as well.
    He said — and I am paraphrasing here — that it’s a common misconception that people think limited-service is run in order to give people a faster commute. (At public meetings, people often call the buses “expresses,” which have an entirely distinct service definition.) It’s not, and the faster speeds happen to be a byproduct. The criteria for a limited-stop route:
    1. The local line must have a very high peak frequency (usually when it gets to single-digit headways).
    2. The local line must have heavy transfer activity.
    This cancels out some lines that could have service improved through limited-stop complements. We have heavy transfer routes that have low frequencies, so if service needs to be added, it makes sense to just add more local trips. Then we have some lines with heavy ridership, but spread evenly throughout the route and/or few potential transfers.
    The limited lines help facilitate transfers, while the local services are more for one-seat riders.
    So, Metro has always had the idea and the know-how to make limited-stop service work. Planners typically had to work with the constraint of zero-growth schedules (they had to form a schedule without being allowed to add more buses unless duly authorized).
    Rapid gave Metro the excuse to take what is essentially limited-stop bus service and sell speed for the first time. This begs the question why it hasn’t sold the 300-series limiteds the same way.
    Metro does officially treat Rapid buses as BRT. The FTA and other agencies acknowledge Rapids as BRT. Even in planning, Metro can consider a garden-variety Rapid route as BRT in alternatives analysis and give it equal weight! In the Orange Line extension to Chatsworth, Metro had to consider — with a straight face — choosing between using an old right of way much like the existing service or deliver similar service on parallel streets. Even after due consideration, and public comment that apart from a small and dwindling number of NIMBYs selected almost 100 percent to extend the bus line on the right of way, Metro ended up ratifying logic by opting for the right of way.
    I do have a conjecture, albeit a cynical one, why Metro holds out Rapid as-is as bus rapid transit. Metro took advantage of one of the flaws of FTA’s BRT demonstration program and milked it for all it was worth. BRT in America is very much a product of Bush-era thinking: Reality is nothing but perceptions built around consensus. BRT was flexible to the point of being putty in an agency’s hands.
    Metro called its red limiteds “bus rapid transit” because it could apply for a capital grant and essentially turn all of the money it received to pay for operations. Only Bernie Madoff could pull off a more elaborate swindle.
    The feds more or less blessed the practice and even hold out L.A. as a case study for success. You’d think there would be someone in the FTA, DOT or Congress who is incredulous to read a bus schedule.

  4. anonymouse June 19, 2009 at 3:46 pm #

    And this is the great weakness of BRT: it’s very vulnerable to dilution of every kind, because it’s so easy to just paint your limited stop bus red and call it “Rapid”, or to let cars onto the busway because it looks so empty, or whatever. Though in fairness to the MTA, the Rapid program did include a guarantee of frequent service, the signal priority transponders, and a step up to the level of service from what the Limited it replaced had (nonexistent to rush hour only to weekday to 7-day). And to some extent the branding and fancy bus stops were a good idea: they provided riders with information, and set apart the Rapid lines as a network of guaranteed frequent service. It’s really too bad they didn’t post that sort of information at all the stops, as it would have made the system much more visible, comprehensible, and therefore attractive to new riders.

  5. Louis July 31, 2009 at 9:04 am #

    When I was an intern with NYC Transit, there was a basic rule for Limiteds and Locals. The scheduling goal was to have 50/50 ridership. The main goal of Limiteds/Locals is indeed to accomodate high ridership, and reduce bus bunching, etc.
    In fact, the entire reason for Express/Local Subways is not necessarily for transferring, indeed, very often the express service bypasses transfer points (NOT true for limited buses, although one does bypass a Manhattan subway station). One has to make an easy transfer to a local, or simply take the local all the way to the transfer point, and then transfer (or interchange/connect). The purpose, again, is moving crowds. Sometimes, I imagine, separating the transfer crowd onto the local train is better than trying to give the distance-rider and the transfer-rider both a quick trip.