The Bus: The Rodney Dangerfield of Public Transportation
“I told my psychiatrist that everyone hates me. He said I was being ridiculous, everyone hasn’t met me yet” — Rodney Dangerfield
Why do so many people hate the bus? Seriously. Maybe it is some kind of latent feeling from childhood. For me, I had good and bad experiences on a bus as a kid, riding to school, exploring far flung shopping malls in the 1980s, and my favorite, traveling to ice hockey games with my High School team in the early 1990s.
Sometimes it does seem like everyone hates the bus. On the flipside, it seems like everyone loves trains. Heck, I love trains. I grew up around trains. My father worked for a while as a brake inspector on the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, and I have fond memories of crawling around under trains in the bowels of Chicago’s Union Station as a young kid.
I’m lucky to get to work in Southern California in the field of transportation engineering, and even luckier still that I have been able to work for and with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority to help expand the public transportation system. To paraphrase another old saying, “I’m also a customer!”
For the past three years I have been the Project Manager on a variety of efforts to improve the rider experience and overall operations of Metro’s Orange Line. The Orange Line is a bus rapid transit (BRT) route that runs on an abandoned railroad right-of-way. That means that the bus has it’s very own road! It is a true BRT line, in the sense that it has stations, and passengers pay their fare before they board the bus. Other buses in Metro’s system are the more standard “pay when you board” model. The Orange Line is the only BRT running in an exclusive right-of-way in Los Angeles County, and you can read a lot more about it in this article from Curbed.
Unfortunately, as the Curbed article points out, the poor Orange Line, like Rodney Dangerfield, can’t get no respect!
In November 2016, LA County voters approved the Measure M sales tax measure. In order to get voter support from across LA COunty (2/3rds, mind you, due to California’s skrewy requirements pertaining to tax measures — thanks Prop 13!), Metro had to include a broad list of projects for stakeholders across the diverse County. In the San Fernando Valley, where the Orange Line runs, Measure M promised to ultimately convert the Orange Line to light-rail — at a 2015 estimated cost of nearly $2B. Why? Well, because there’s light rail in other parts of LA County, darn it!
Seriously, that is the basic argument. Converting the Orange Line to light rail would not do the following:
- It would not change the existing station locations;
- it would not change the fact that the train would stop at each station; and
- it would not change the route.
Converting the Orange Line to light rail would do a few things:
- It would cost at least $2B (and probably more, the way these things tend to go); and
- it would require improvements (like gates or full grade separations — e.g., bridges or tunnels) to all 43 of the existing public street, pedestrian-only, and private road crossings, similar to other light-rail lines in LA County.
For me, as a taxpayer in LA County, converting the Orange Line to light rail is a monumental waste of money. Looking at the lists above, the Orange Line could benefit from some improvements, sure. But $2B? That’s a heck of a lot of money; and that money could be put to better uses in other parts of LA County that are in dire need of public transportation options.
BRT is a cost-effective way to transport large numbers of people. In a region like Southern California, with approximately 15 million people spread across a wide geographic area, BRT could expand public transportation access and mobility for far more people than expensive rail lines. Again, rail lines are great and useful, and they cost a lot of money.
I’d like to see elected officials in Los Angeles get “on the bus” so to speak with the idea that BRT is a viable and cost-effective public transportation option. Maybe even consider building exclusive facilities in other locations. Even the libertarian Reason Foundation supports this concept — and they are traditionally against public transportation investment (particularly rail)!
I’m sure you’ve seen the image showing how much roadway space it takes to fit 40 people in cars versus buses and bikes.
Biking is a great way to get around LA County, and many people need something more mechanical (and air-conditioned) to meet long distance travel needs. So check out how effective a bus can be!
So rather than spending billions of more dollars to convert bus lines to rail (and cause some serious impacts to bus service while constructing the conversion!), I’d like to see our elected officials support the expansion of BRT and similar service. Maybe they all just need to get on the bus?