Train on wheels – the growing popularity of BRT in Los Angeles

By Mary Ebeling

The east-west Orange line is just seven years old, but skyrocketing ridership on the original North Hollywood to Warner Center section, and proven ability to relieve freeway congestion, has already lead to a four-mile extension to Chatsworth. 

The success signals to transit planners in Los Angeles and across the country that more attention should be paid to adding Bus Rapid Transit to our growing transit systems. The Orange Line is a popular and effective BRT line, referred to as “Fast Buses” by the city. Transit officials are proud of the route, which has reduced automobile congestion in a historically congested area.

Less than a year after opening, the Orange Line’s ridership had more than tripled to 22,000 per day, and a study by UC Berkeley researchers found it even helped relieve morning traffic on the 101 Freeway, which parallels the busway. By May of this year, daily ridership had climbed to 26,670 on the bus line. It is worth noting that the cost of the Orange Line was significantly cheaper to build than its light-rail counterparts, including the Blue, Green, and Gold lines.

BRT offers modern, appealing service with competitive commute times that can attract increased ridership and choice riders. “The Orange Line and Metro Rapid are so successful that it ought to lead to more commitment in that direction,” said Martin Wachs, a transportation researcher at Rand Corp. “It can complement the rail investments by extending their reach, just as the Orange Line has done.”

Recent discussions on the relative merits of BRT and light rail reflect further on how they can complement each other, helping to support a community’s vibrant transit system. For the U.S. in particular, inserting a two-lane busway onto existing arterial roadways is feasible from a design perspective, although not without controversy, and may be beneficial in other ways by improving the quality of the overall transit infrastructure. Certainly, even the most basic transit improvements associated with BRT – modern buses, well-designed stops, traffic signal priority – improves transit service.

Seventy-eight percent of transit users in Los Angeles ride the bus. With ridership on the Orange Line tripling in just one year, the success of this BRT line is unquestionable. In the words of one commuter, “It’s much easier to ride this than it is to drive; it’s like a train on wheels.” The recently expanded Orange Line illustrates that a bus line can be economical and popular.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst with SSTI.