BEST OF LAIST

Metro's Plan For Bus-Only Lanes Is LA's Latest Existential Battleground

(Photo by Steve Hymon courtesy Metro Los Angeles)

Los Angeles County's public transit system is trying to stop the bleeding.

The number of people who take Metro has been dropping since 2014 and total ridership is down about 17% over the past decade. While the agency's rail lines have lost passengers in recent years, it's Metro's bus fleet that's been hardest hit, shedding more than 25% of its ridership since 2009.

Why the exodus? The main factor, according to a 2018 report from UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies, is rising car ownership and more people driving those cars.

Metro's rail system gets a lot more public attention, but the agency's bus lines account for nearly three-quarters of the agency's total ridership. (Data courtesy Metro from 2014-18; Graphic by Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Researchers also found other possible influences, like changing neighborhoods (aka gentrification), fare hikes, rideshare enticing some riders away and unreliable service, AKA buses getting slower.

And they are.

Buses all over the region have had to pump the brakes more in the past quarter-century, according to data compiled by UCLA. Metro has seen speeds fall 12.5% since 1994. Blame that on our region's worsening traffic which traps Metro's fleet in the same gridlock as cars and trucks.

So how can Metro win back the riders it's lost? It may not be able to, the study's authors said, but it may be able to find some new ones if they can convince the multitude of SoCal residents "who rarely or never use transit to begin riding occasionally instead of driving."

One way Metro is aiming to do that is by expanding its bus rapid transit (BRT), a system of bus-only lanes on surface streets designed to quickly move riders to popular destinations like shopping malls, universities, and connect to Metro rail lines.

Metro refers to BRT as "light rail on tires," because it creates dedicated lanes, the bus stops are more like rail station platforms, there's more frequent service, and the buses get preferential treatment at traffic signals.

This rendering shows one concept for Metro's bus rapid transit project on Vermont Boulevard (Courtesy Metro Los Angeles)

The Orange Line in the San Fernando Valley, which runs from North Hollywood west to Woodland Hills, then north to Chatsworth, is a BRT line — and a big hit for Metro. That success is something the transit agency aims to replicate with the new BRT routes it has planned, said Metro spokesman Brian Haas.

"The hope would be that that would start to attract additional riders and get more vehicles off the road, freeing up those additional lanes," he said.

But unlike the Orange Line, which Haas said Metro "lucked out" with by already having the required space to run a two-way bus path, the new BRT routes will require the agency to turn existing all-traffic lanes into bus-only lanes. That means less space for cars to drive and park on some of the region's busiest thoroughfares.

WHERE ARE THE NEW BRT ROUTES PLANNED?

Metro currently has three bus rapid transit projects in the works (and one more TBD, according to officials), focusing on improving mobility in these key corridors:

  • North San Fernando Valley - including North Hollywood, Panorama City, Arleta and Northridge. The project received $180 million in funding from Measure M and is currently projected to open sometime between 2023 and 2025.
  • Vermont (Boulevard) - spanning from Hollywood Boulevard down to 120th Street in Harbor Gateway North. The project has a budget of $425 million. Metro aims to begin construction in 2024 and open the route between 2028 and 2030.
  • North Hollywood to Pasadena - passing through Toluca Lake, Burbank, Glendale and Eagle Rock. Measure M and SB-1 have provided $267 million in funding for the route, which is expected to open between 2022 and 2024.

Metro's goal is to take buses out of traffic, put more of them on these dedicated rights-of-way and speed up service, enticing more people to take the bus.

Take that stretch of Vermont Boulevard for example. It currently takes buses from 61 to 68 minutes on average to travel up or down the 12.5-mile route, according to Metro spokesman Rick Jager. Metro estimates BRT could get that down to 45 minutes, though that's subject to change as the project is refined.

This rendering shows one possible lane configuration option for Metro's planned bus rapid transit lanes, called combination side and center-running BRT. (Courtesy Metro Los Angeles)

LET'S LOOK AT THE NORTH VALLEY PROJECT

Metro staff is recommending a dedicated bus route from the Red Line station in North Hollywood that would run:

  • North along Laurel Canyon or Lankershim boulevards
  • Then west along Roscoe Boulevard
  • Before cutting north again around the 405 Freeway
  • Then continuing west on Nordhoff Street
  • Until it meets the Orange Line in Chatsworth
L.A. Metro staff is recommending the route in green (click the image for a better look) for its North San Fernando Valley bus rapid transit project. (Courtesy Metro Los Angeles)

The proposed route would include stops at or near Panorama Mall, Cal State Northridge and the Northridge Fashion Mall. Metro estimates the end-to-end 18-mile trip would take 60 minutes, according to Jager, though he noted that most bus riders begin and end their trips "within the corridor, not from end-to-end," especially in the Valley.

WHAT'S THE REACTION SO FAR?

The projects might be new, but the arguments are familiar, and residents are gearing up to brawl in the thunderdome of public opinion.

On one side: those who say the BRT lanes will choke car traffic on their routes, lead to parking chaos on residential side streets and lay the groundwork for towering developments, tanking home values in their neighborhoods.

On the other side: advocates and researchers who say connecting more residents with reliable public transit is vital to address L.A. County's growing density, reduce congestion and get a handle on carbon emissions.

(And, of course, on the academic side: there is no cure for congestion.)

A before-and-after rendering of a possible lane configuration for the Vermont corridor bus rapid transit project. (Courtesy Metro Los Angeles)

CSUN is championing the North SFV project as a mobility boon for its students and employees because it would be a "direct route from the most dense student-resident areas to campus," according to a university statement.

"Currently, there are more than 200,000 single-occupancy vehicle trips to campus each week," the statement reads. "In a survey of CSUN students, 57% of our nearly 40,000 students said they would use public transit if they needed only one bus to get to campus."

A Metro committee meeting on June 19 brought dozens of Valley residents out in vocal resistance to the North SFV plan. A similar scene played out in Eagle Rock, where residents vehemently opposed the plan to re-configure Colorado Boulevard with bus-only lanes.

WILL PEOPLE ACTUALLY CHOOSE THE BUS OVER THEIR CAR?

According to Juan Matute, director of UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies, the freedom that driving yourself promises is an illusion, because when everyone opts for that autonomy and convenience, it just means more cars on the road — and more of that crippling traffic.

That's the existential debate at the heart of public transit projects like this, Matute said, in which L.A. motorists, who regional mobility has historically revolved around, would be losing ground — literally — and giving up their priority to the humble bus.

"Is this an individualistic region where you have a right to drive on as many lanes as possible, park in as many lanes as possible, no matter what impact that brings to everyone else?" Matute posed. "Or are you going to take a collectivist approach to the problem and say, 'Hey, for some people for whom the bus works, if we can make it work better — and make it work for more people — then this is a better way to move people throughout the region.'"

This rendering shows one concept for Metro's bus rapid transit project on Vermont Boulevard, which would create bus-only lanes to replace lanes currently occupied by all vehicles. (Courtesy Los Angeles Metro)

BATTLE LINES

According to Metro spokesman Brian Haas, the North Valley project in particular is a step toward "rectifying" the fact that the SFV has been historically underserved by public transportation.

Yvette Lopez-Ledesma, the former deputy director for Pacoima Beautiful and a member of Metro's service council in the Valley, also views the project that way, adding that the bus line would fill a vital need for densely populated, transit-dependent Valley communities like Pacoima, Sun Valley and Panorama City.

She's also an Arleta resident, and attended the heated Metro committee meeting June 19 and saw the debate play out.

"I heard a lot of support [for the project], but... as always, we were drowned out by the voices that were opposing."

One of those voices was North Hills resident Jay Beeber, executive director of Safer Streets L.A., which advocates for eliminating red light cameras and other traffic enforcement in favor of engineering-based solutions. He's also a leader of Save the San Fernando Valley, a group organized to fight the bus project.

The group's website features a photo of a dedicated bus lane project in India and prompts visitors to email Metro's board members to voice their opposition. Roughly 1,000 emails have been sent so far, according to Beeber, who ran for the L.A. City Council's open District 10 seat in early June.

He sees the projects as "backlash against people who [own] single-family homes, who have a car and drive where they need to go." Plus he's thoroughly unconvinced residents in his neck of the Valley will choose the bus over their cars.

(Courtesy Metro / Paul Gonzales)

"It's not going to happen," he said. "People bought their homes — these are people's major investments in their lives, and you're messing with people's major investments in the quest to somehow reengineer society..."

Lopez-Ledesma believes the rift around BRT and similar transit projects stems from many local homeowners other-izing public transit users, the vast majority of which are minorities and low-income, according to Metro data. As she sees it, the anti-BRT crowd is putting deep-rooted privilege over the needs of Valley residents who'll benefit from a better bus network.

"They may own their homes, but they don't own our streets and they don't own our sidewalks," Lopez-Ledesma said. "All projects aren't for everyone. This one is just not for them. And they shouldn't get in the way of ensuring that people have what they need to thrive and survive here in L.A."

Some Angelenos, like Beeber, take a fundamentally different position.

"There's a belief out there... that people have to give up [convenience] for the good of whatever," he said. "Sorry, but I don't buy it."

The vocal side-taking can paint the issue as black and white, but there's more nuance in the debate.

For example, Tony Wilkinson, a pro-transit retiree and longtime Panorama City resident who serves on the neighborhood council said while the council decided not to officially oppose the North Valley BRT project, he and other community leaders believe the route Metro is recommending — a bus line through the heart of Panorama City on Roscoe Boulevard — is a mistake.

He's supported other Metro projects, but he's now prepared to fight this one, even if that puts him in "a hard place" philosophically.

"I hate to align with the 'Not In My Backyard' guys, because we aren't," Wilkinson said. "But, frankly, [the project is] so destructive to our community the way they have it laid out that I would tend to join the evil NIMBYs and kill the line, if necessary, to save my hamlet."

But Wilkinson would rather Metro study the possibility of keeping the route up on Nordhoff, on the northern border of Panorama City, before turning up Osborne Street, then south on Laurel Canyon Boulevard to North Hollywood.

"This is different from the rich people [along] Nordhoff... complaining about the project in general," he said. "We like our diversity, we don't mind density, we're pro-transit. [But] to do this to us, just because I believe they know that we don't have enough organization to fight back, is just almost cruel."

Metro did explore that as a possible route, according to spokesman Rick Jager, but found it "results in significant out of direction travel and longer travel times" and "lacks activity centers that support deviating [from Roscoe]."

For Metro's part, the agency will continue to hold meetings and welcome all forms of feedback, "even if it's angry," said spokesman Brian Haas, adding that opponents to the busway projects have valid concerns.

But for Metro, the clearest indicator that they're on the right track (or dedicated bus lane, as it were) was the passage of Measure M, which more than 70% of county residents approved in 2016.

"Voters have signaled to us multiple times — with Measure R, Measure M, and SB-1 — that they want transit," Haas said. "There is no better vote of confidence than tax dollars, quite frankly."

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

All three bus rapid transit projects are still in the study phase, but the Vermont corridor plan is the furthest along. The first technical study was completed in February 2017.

Metro staff's recommendation for the North SFV corridor was set to be heard by the agency's board of directors last week, which could have launched a draft environmental impact review period for the project. But the Metro board took the discussion off its agenda, delaying it until September.

The NoHo to Pasadena project is now in a review period following a board vote earlier in June. A series of public meetings are slated in July for residents in North Hollywood, Burbank, Glendale, Eagle Rock and Pasadena to weigh in on the route.

Metro is also in the midst of a broader study to determine what the future of busing looks like for the region, and they want feedback from L.A. County residents. You can find out more about that on the NextGen project website.