Los Angeles: Columnist’s Insight Solves Everything

David Lazarus’s Los Angeles Times column today lays out what everyone who’s studied the problem knows needs to be done.

  • DSCN2519 Since we can’t afford subways everywhere we need them, create “virtual subways,” i.e. exclusive bus lanes on all the major boulevards, by eliminating car lanes.  (The Metro Rapid bus network, compromised as it is, was in many ways designed to help people discover this for themselves.  When the Rapid was being invented in the 1990s, the LA city council wasn’t willing to consider bus or HOV lanes on arterials.  So Metro took the view, “let’s do everything we can to make an attractive fast rail-transit-like bus service, so that more people will care about buses getting through.”  That’s pretty much what the Metro Rapid is, and did.)
  • Fund transit expansion by hitting up motorists, via gas taxes or congestion pricing.

He also mentions one idea that may be a bit more divisive among transit advocates:

Longer term, although I believe subways are best for
metropolitan areas, L.A. would probably be best served by an elevated
rail system — maybe a monorail, maybe something else. Elevated lines and
stations are significantly cheaper to build than subways, and it would
be relatively easy to begin with existing freeway routes.

example, an elevated track could run down the center of the 405 to the
10, make its way downtown and then loop up the 101 back to the 405. Once
that’s running, we build out from there. Getting a line to Los Angeles
International Airport would be very high on my to-do list.

I wonder if that bit was influenced by Steve Hymon’s recent survey of past monorail visions in LA.  Apparently there was a plan in 1960 for monorails along all the major freeways, and also on Wilshire Blvd.  It looked like this:

(From Dorothy Peyton Gray Library at Metro, via The Source)

Rail transit in freeway medians still presents major challenges for both land-use and customer experience, as explored here.  If the line is elevated over the freeway, as a monorail would be, you would have problems with siting stations, as they would need to be high above freeway interchanges, possibly quite a long way, both horizontally and vertically, from anywhere anyone might be going.

Still, it’s interesting to see this kind of thinking — especially the practical notions about bus lanes and funding — coming from a mainstream columnist.  None of it is his idea, but when you’re a columnist, anything can be your idea.

28 Responses to Los Angeles: Columnist’s Insight Solves Everything

  1. Alex B. May 21, 2010 at 6:23 am #

    Hooray! Lazarus has solved all of our problems!
    I kinda feel a little like Monty Python here. You mean all we have to do is give transit dedicated space? That’s easy!

  2. Chewie May 21, 2010 at 6:33 am #

    Despite their flaws, the Rapid buses in LA are a huge step up over what was there before: just your typical bus stopping every two or three blocks.
    On Wilshire for example you’re talking about a bus ride from Figueroa to Westwood Blvd. that takes 67 minutes (non peak) on the regular bus and 38 minutes on the Rapid bus! Now if only the streets were well maintained enough for that ride to be non-bumpy . . .

  3. anonymouse May 21, 2010 at 8:28 am #

    What was there before was a bus stopping every mile or so. Except it didn’t have signal priority, wasn’t painted red, and the route number was 3xx instead of 7xx. So, your typical pre-rapid bus made the exact same stops as the Rapid, and took only a little bit longer to do so. The Rapid wasn’t as huge an improvement as you think.

  4. W. K. Lis May 21, 2010 at 9:25 am #

    To use any kind of public transit, it has to be frequent. For public transit to be frequent, it needs people. For people, you need higher density, walkable, mixed development. It starts with overturning current zoning and by-laws that creates sprawl.

  5. anonymouse May 21, 2010 at 9:55 am #

    Large parts of LA already have the high density walkable neighborhoods. Of course, it could do with more of them, and more housing in the existing ones, and that does require changes to the zoning and planning policies. Just don’t underestimate what’s already there. And I think that for people to take transit, you need it to be at least comparable in speed to driving. Why take the bus when it’s stuck in the same traffic as your car would be, only going slower because it has to make stops?

  6. Alon Levy May 21, 2010 at 9:57 am #

    The problem with the rapid-buses-everywhere solution is that it loses the biggest advantages of subways. There’s no way to have vehicles longer than 80′ and headways shorter than 3-4 minutes, which limits capacity. Street-running with grade crossings limits speed; the fast surface rapid transit systems are those that run on grade-separated highways or railroads. Slow boarding (limited by door capacity even when there’s good POP) and grade crossings make it impossible to run as reliably as a subway.
    Els on freeway corridors make somewhat more sense. It depends on which freeway it is and what happens at the ends of the freeway, but the 405-Sepulveda corridor could have a grade-separated train running mostly elevated or in the median to reduce costs. It would have to be underground at the ends, though.

  7. anonymouse May 21, 2010 at 10:42 am #

    By the way, I think it’s great that someone is seriously proposing taking lanes away from cars. That would make the Rapid network at least reasonably effective. As for this guy’s el-in-freeway proposal, I think he’s making the common mistake of not thinking about station access. With freeways, high-density destinations are in the way, whereas with trains, they’re on the way. He also overestimates the savings of els versus subways, and fails to notice that some of the areas most in need of subways also lack freeways. But I think in general this guy has the right idea, and I’m happy to see these sorts of proposals being seriously discussed in serious newspapers like the Times.

  8. Brent May 21, 2010 at 12:46 pm #

    Isn’t there a proposal to dedicate Wilshire Boulevard’s parking lane to bus travel during peak periods?

  9. Carter R May 21, 2010 at 1:23 pm #

    Brent – yes there is ( http://www.metro.net/projects/wilshire/ ). It should be a good trial run for doing similar projects on Olympic and Pico, although Beverly Hills is unsurprisingly intent on not giving up its Wilshire lanes to buses.
    2 things that don’t make sense about his rail on freeways comment.
    1) The exact example proposal he makes is essentially what will happen already with Measure R. The Expo line is running basically parallel to the 10, and then there is a funded option for rapid transit through the Sepulveda Pass along the 405. I’m hoping that option will be LRT, so it can make direct connections to the Expo line. (Project Map is here http://www.metro.net/projects/measurer/ )
    2) The last thing LA needs is another mode of rapid transit (monorail) to add to the already incompatible network of light rail, heavy rail, BRT, and the streetcar that looks to be built in downtown. Just imagine trying to get to LAX from the valley via Orange Line bus way to 405 light rail corridor, to Purple Line subway, to Blue line light rail to green line light rail. That would be an untenable number of transfers.
    We already know that MTA is looking to make the whole network more integrated, as evidenced by high priority of the downtown Regional Connector that would allow one continuous trip from Pasadena to Long Beach, as well as East LA to Santa Monica.
    There needs to be a concerted effort to make the whole system more integrated going forward. I think that tips the scale towards more LRT going forward, for 405 corridor and Crenshaw, etc.

  10. Wad May 21, 2010 at 7:16 pm #

    (This may or may not close the bold and italics.)
    In L.A., the reception David Lazarus is getting may have backfired. I wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes an ‘net meme.
    Talk about being the last guy to arrive at the party. In Lazarus’ case, it’s as though he’s preparing to go up to San Francisco this weekend with a pack mule and prospecting equipment.
    Every recommendation he has proposed has been mentioned, advocated or even officially studied from professionals to John and Jane Public.
    Lazarus wrote columns that may be serviceable linkbait, but his recommendations expose him for being less informed than his audience.

  11. Joseph E May 22, 2010 at 8:19 am #

    “Apparently there was a plan in 1960 for monorails along all the major freeways, and also on Wilshire Blvd. It looked like this: [Map above]”
    Actually, according to the article at The Source and the map, only ONE of the planned monorail lines was on a freeway. The initial segments (solid lines) follow the 10 freeway to the east (but it should be noted that this freeway follows an earlier interuban light rail and freight route), Wilshire Blvd to the west, and Fairfax north to Hollywood, with a tunnel under the Sepulveda pass. The subsequent lines would have gone diagonally south-east and south-west thru neighborhoods, and north-west along San Fernando Road or the parallel freight rail line. The north-east route parallels the modern Gold Line, which is an old interurban and freight rail corridor, and the south-bound line on the map is now the Blue Line light rail to Long Beach.
    Even in the 1960’s the monorail planners understood the need to keep rapid transit off of the freeways, and many of the planned routes have been built or are in the current long-range transportation plan: http://www.metro.net/projects_studies/lrtp/lrtp.htm

  12. dejv May 22, 2010 at 8:54 am #

    W. K. Lis:
    it’s possible even when it’s not frequent – with some measures:
    – predictable, preferably clockface schedules
    – integrated schedules with timed transfers
    – reliability approaching 100 %
    this way, some european countries manage to cover even their rural areas
    Carter R:
    in principle, it’s quite easy to make streetcars and low-floor LRT interoperable. The technology is essentially the same, there’s just tradeoff between minimum turning radius and maximum speed. If the city manages to keep wheel/rail profile, vehicle width, platform/floor height and catenary height and voltage interoperable, some stretch of track shared by streetcars and LRVs is feasible.
    Similar stuff applies to high-platform LRT and heavy rail (keyword: tram-train), but it’s legally impossible in USA now. Things may change after advent of PTC however.

  13. EngineerScotty May 22, 2010 at 9:12 am #

    A couple things to remember:
    * We aren’t the intended audience for a local hack’s column
    * The format of a newspaper column generally neither admits nor expects many of the trappings of scholarship (whether formal citations, or even informal grants of credit).
    * While the columnist (and the general public) is FTMP uninformed about matters of transit–they do consider it important.
    Getting annoyed when some nitwit on the Metro page with a deadline to meet, writes an uninformed piece on a subject which we care about, one which ignores the vast literature on the topic–is probably pointless.

  14. Joseph E May 22, 2010 at 5:17 pm #

    “in principle, it’s quite easy to make streetcars and low-floor LRT interoperable.”
    Yes, but Los Angeles has high-floor LRT, designed for 55 mph operation in exclusive-right-of-ways, with relatively short street-median sections. In some ways it is like a European tram-train, without sharing tracks with freight.
    The light rail trains are getting a subway to complete the gap in service thru Downtown LA (now bridged by two transfers from heavy rail back to light rail), while the streetcar will take a similar route on the surface, but with frequent, low-floor stops and mixed-traffic operation. It won’t even by run by Metro, the county transit system, most likely.
    I don’t see any problem in having different modes for different needs, such as a downtown circulator. Monorail for long-distance routes would be quite silly, on the other hand. Elevated light or heavy rail would work better, and is planned for some future extensions and new lines in Los Angeles.

  15. Wad May 22, 2010 at 8:12 pm #

    EngineerScotty, your words might have held true even up to the early 2000s, but Lazarus and his editors cannot use that excuse now.
    Lazarus’ columns are pathetically out of touch. It’s not the usual problem of a generalist trying to tackle a specialized subject. Lazarus has the Rip Van Winkle problem.
    Even his intended audience already eclipsed him in terms of transit knowledge, and he greatly overestimated the power of his imprimatur.

  16. Nathanael May 23, 2010 at 8:45 pm #

    Monorails are goofy wastes of time.
    Elevateds are already a major part of LA’s light rail system — and will no doubt be extended.
    As for the main points: I’ve ridden the LA Rapid, and it’s nothing like rail. What it is, is a nice bus.
    And my first thought was “This boulevard is HUGE. It’s got four lanes in the same direction plus parking. Why isn’t one of those an exclusive bus lane?”
    So I’m glad that columnists in LA are approving the same thing.

  17. Nathanael May 23, 2010 at 8:48 pm #

    Seriously, every LA street with more than two driving lanes in the same direction should have one of them converted into a bus lane. This would improve the bus movement immensely.

  18. Carter R May 23, 2010 at 10:38 pm #

    Hear hear Nathaniel!
    We’re already going to find out how a dedicated bus lanes looks when Wilshire Blvd. gets one shortly.
    And hopefully if it’s done right, it’ll give the City Council the cajones to put their support behind doing the same on Santa Monica, Olympic, Pico, and Venice (each about a mile apart).
    If all that were done — and coupled with all the other trappings of Metro Rapid’s best lines (shelters, live information signs) — you’d pretty quickly realize that you could move a ton of people for a fraction of the cost of a Purple line or an Expo line.
    I wholeheartedly support all the rail being built, but dedicated bus lanes are going to be a crucial piece of the puzzle going forward.

  19. Wad May 23, 2010 at 11:42 pm #

    We realize right now that bus lanes would move a ton of people for a fraction of the cost of rail line. L.A. doesn’t need to run it to prove it.
    The problem is, L.A.’s going to be paying for it in operations. L.A. has a track record of not knowing how to make things work.
    The capital invested in bus lanes goes into road paving and grading, and all for making buses attractive for only four hours a day. Wilshire, in particular, has a 21-hour ridership problem.
    Wilshire also has ridership that is too heavy for buses to handle. Successful ridership means Wilshire is an enormous resource hog. Almost a hundred buses are required during peak hours to serve Wilshire demand. Meanwhile, it takes just 24 trains per hour to handle double the Wilshire bus ridership on just one quarter of Wilshire.
    L.A. can either pay a lot now or a lot later.
    Paying a lot now, or building the subway westward, leaves us out billions of dollars in capital but saves money in the long run by:
    1. Matching 21-hour ridership with 21-hour service. Subway tracks don’t have to yield to general traffic off-peak.
    2. Having a very low passenger-mile cost compared with buses.
    3. Moving many times more people at a lower cost and minuscule degradation in service reliability. All of Metro’s rail lines operate in mid-90% or higher on-time reliability. Metro’s buses perform their best at night, when both traffic and ridership are at their lightest. With buses, service degrades correspondingly with improved frequencies.
    I don’t discount the use of bus lanes. I think they should be reserved in places where they’d get the most use and have the least interference with car traffic.
    Venice Boulevard, as you mentioned, would be a great candidate. West of Arlington, and especially west of Crackton, Venice is obscenely wide. Here, you can have a dedicated lane 24 hours a day and still have room for cars to make turns without encroaching on the lanes.
    That’s the Achilles heel of the Wilshire bus lanes. Cars would be allowed to turn right in the bus lane. When that happens, cars must wait for pedestrians to complete their walk cycle, then the buses must wait for the cars to clear the right turn queue. Effectively, this is a one signal-cycle penalty per intersection.

  20. anonymouse May 24, 2010 at 2:26 pm #

    A Wilshire subway will have an average speed of 30-35 mph. Buses running on Wilshire have a top speed of 30-35 mph. And given the current level of demand on buses, assuming they’re all full, using the current 6 tph service level should actually be enough to serve the existing ridership, assuming 6-car trains are used. Depending on how service is structured (and on the travel time), that service level could be provided with 8 trains running between Union Station and Wilshire/Barrington. The labor costs for drivers alone would save Metro about $3 million per year, and even though there will be more expense for track maintenance, it should be cheaper than maintaining 50 buses. Plus, the higher speed of the subway would likely attract extra ridership, which means extra revenue.

  21. Wad May 24, 2010 at 2:56 pm #

    The subway would save on labor costs on Wilshire, but that’s through productivity gains. Absolute payroll outlay will still be the same.
    The subway extension would produce a similar effect as was seen on the Blue Line. An east-west subway will draw riders away from Wilshire and nearby parallel east-west buses. Ridership on these lines would go down. Meanwhile, ridership will redistribute to north-south lines. The heavier ridership means resources will go into improving north-south bus service.

  22. anonymouse May 24, 2010 at 5:07 pm #

    Wad: I was going on the assumption that everything else remains unchanged. In reality, yeah, I suspect that the 720 and 920 would be replaced by the subway, the 20 would be cut back to regular 40 foot buses, and some ridership would be pulled in from parallel lines like the 16/316, 28/728, and possibly 14/714 and 30/31/730. Once the subway gets to Barrington, it would make an effective replacement for the BBB express as well. But enough about Wilshire: you can’t afford build subways everywhere, at least not all at once, and there are plenty of corridors that won’t get rail for a while, and that’s where a few targeted improvements can make the rapid bus service that much more useful.

  23. bzcat May 24, 2010 at 5:12 pm #

    I think I get Wad’s point… but subway is a good 7 to 10 years from reaching Westwood. In the meanwhile, we can improve transit time on Wilshire with a bus lane with a modest investment.
    What will be interesting is if the city will commit to expanding the bus lane concept. Certainly Santa Monica, Olympic, Pico, Venice, Lincoln, Sepulveda, La Cienga, Fairfax, Western, Vermont could all use dedicated bus lanes but there is probably not enough political will to see that through.

  24. Carter R May 24, 2010 at 11:38 pm #

    That was more the point I was trying to make. Not so much an either/or proposition, but a both subway and bus solution.
    As Jarrett has dutifully pointed out, LA is laid out on grid that is ideal for running buses, and on top of that it has some obscenely wide boulevards just begging for dedicated bus lanes.
    And above all, let’s not forget that without the 30/10 plan (aka the current situation), the subway doesn’t even reach Westwood for another THIRTY years.

  25. Dan W May 26, 2010 at 12:37 pm #

    Los Angeles city and county, not to mention the state of California, are pinnacles of dysfunction. NIMBY-ism has thwarted the best-intended planners for years.
    There are existing and potential transit corridors in Los Angeles city and county which will never have grade separated heavy or light rail, which could have at-grade modern streetcars and/or buses running in transit-only lanes relatively quickly.
    Good luck finding a single neighborhood where the motorists would willingly give up an auto lane for transit. There were bus-only lanes in west Los Angeles on Wilshire for about 30 seconds before howling motorists started the political pressure to have them removed.
    Once those Wilshire Bus-Only Lanes go in, you will see a firestorm from angry motorists who want to use Wilshire and from neighbors who see their alternative arterials with heavier traffic. I still strongly support them, but the first transit-only lanes will have to overcome tremendous resistance to not only be constructed but then maintain past the initial firestorm.
    After the Wilshire bus-only lanes fly, I would love to see the Metro R-O-W in the back end of Beverly Hills converted into a “transit-only lane” for buses and a streetcar which connects Century City, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, Hollywood, to Sunset Junction and then continues down Sunset through Silver Lake and Echo Park on the way to Union Station.
    Ventura Blvd. could also have a transit-only lane for buses and a modern streetcar connecting Universal City and Warner Center.
    But I don’t underestimate the power and influence of disgruntled motorists on our local politicos.

  26. Phil May 28, 2010 at 10:38 am #

    As I recall, there was an actual public vote in the 1990’s, sponsored by Mike Antonovitch, on public preferences for transportation development in the San Fernando Valley. Monorail on the 101 Freeway won a plurality of votes. The politicians and transit officials then studiously ignored the public’s preference. Perhaps the problem was that the public’s preference was not expensive enough.

  27. Wad May 28, 2010 at 7:23 pm #

    @Phil, L.A. should be glad the US-101 monorail idea got nowhere.
    The Valley did later on get a very good one-two punch in the Orange Line and Line 750. The Orange Line is a very good example of the standard bus rapid transit should be, and the Ventura Boulevard Rapid bus fills its niche by offering the superior transfer to north-south buses (all lines end at Ventura Boulevard).

  28. Alon Levy May 28, 2010 at 8:07 pm #

    The Orange Line doesn’t have good signal preemption, unlike good city buses in cities that care to do it right.