L.A.'S EXPERIMENT WITH EXPRESS BUSES IS PROVING A BIG SUCCESS SO FAR

Rina Maya has a very unusual expression on her face. She's smiling. Not tentatively, but broadly.

What makes her expression unusual is that she's riding an L.A. metro bus. And she's not the only one smiling.

Maya is one of an unexpectedly large and growing number of local commuters who are flocking to the new, bright-red rapid transit buses zooming along Wilshire, Ventura and Whittier boulevards.

Since their introduction June 24, the red buses have emerged as bright spots along the otherwise gloomy road that the L.A. public transportation system has traveled in recent years. The express routes have attracted so many riders that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has added 10 percent more buses to service them.

"For the first week we had very high demand, and assumed it was because of the free fares," said Rex Gephart, project manager for the MTA. "We assumed it would decrease as we started to charge full fare. (The next) week was the Fourth of July holiday, and we expected lower demand, but that hasn't happened. The demand has continued (ever since)."

Another pleasant surprise has been the extent to which the new rapid bus system and newly expanded Red Line subway line are feeding off one another boosting ridership on both systems. (The Red Line extension to Universal City and North Hollywood opened on the same weekend that the rapid bus system launched.)

The rapid bus/subway connecting stops on Wilshire at Western and at Vermont as well as the one on Ventura Boulevard at the newly opened Universal City station are teeming with riders. In fact, packed rapid buses are regularly almost emptying out at Red Line connecting stations.

During the first week of operations to the San Fernando Valley, the number of passengers taking the Red Line each day nearly doubled from the previous week, to about 120,000. (More recent figures will be available at the end of the month.)

One mass transit user who takes both the Red Line and the rapid bus said it has halved his travel time. High school student Lee Williams said it used to take him two hours by bus to get from his home in Central L.A. to Reseda High School.

"With the train and the bus, I can get to school in about an hour," Williams said. "It's great."

And much of that speed is resulting from elements of the rapid bus system. The buses themselves have been outfitted with electronic transponders that keep traffic lights green; bus stops are farther apart; and boarding platforms are flush with curb heights to facilitate quick boarding and exits. The payoff: commuters are seeing their travel times cut by anywhere from 25 percent to 50 percent, or more.

As for smiling Maya, she used to spend 40 minutes on the bus to get from her office in Universal City to a doctor's appointment in Encino. Now the trip takes her half that time.

"This bus is really good," she said.

One bus driver is so fond of the new system, he even recently rode it on his day off. He traveled the rapid transit bus and Red and Blue rail lines for a weekend outing to the Queen Mary in Long Beach with his girlfriend.

"I love driving them," said Mike Kalustian, as he barreled down Ventura Boulevard one morning. "For one, they get from one end of the line to the other a lot quicker, and they're brand new buses."

A closely watched experiment

The pilot program, which was rolled out at a cost of $8 million to $10 million, was implemented to determine whether a faster form of above-ground travel would increase the use of public transportation. Planners hoped they would prove a viable alternative to the long-awaited subway system, which, even after long delays and huge cost overruns, doesn't service most L.A. neighborhoods.

Indeed, the routes were selected as a kind of consolation prize after city officials scrapped plans to extend the Red Line to the west Valley and westward from the Mid-Wilshire district along Wilshire Boulevard.

Hoping to improve travel time by 25 percent, the city devoted 90 buses to two routes. About two-thirds were assigned to the 26-mile stretch on Wilshire and Whittier boulevards from Santa Monica to Montebello. The remaining third were put on Ventura Boulevard from the Red Line station in Universal City to Warner Center in the West San Fernando Valley.

So many riders took to the new buses that two weeks into the pilot program, the city added another 10 buses, evenly distributed between the two routes. Although it will be several weeks before the city completes gathering initial statistics on ridership, checkers stationed along the routes are reporting that business is brisk on the new lines.

"It's a real consistent average," said Gephart. "Every bus seems to have quite a few people, enough to where if we didn't schedule these extra buses, we probably would have people standing."

Along Wilshire Boulevard, it's often standing-room-only on buses, even on Saturdays and during lunch hours. In fact, on one eastbound bus at the tail end of rush hour last week, not only were all the seats taken, so were all the handholds for standing passengers.

Reading on the bus

Daniel Hinerfeld, deputy to L.A. City Councilman Mike Feuer, recently decided to try out the new Wilshire rapid transit bus from his home in Santa Monica to City Hall in downtown.

"I thought it was great. It took me about 10 minutes longer than by car," Hinerfeld said. "It was about an hour, door to door, but the big difference is, I read the whole way."

His two major gripes: there isn't much legroom and the bus transponder didn't seem to turn all the lights from red to green. "At major intersections, we sat at red lights. And the tripping of the lights doesn't work at all in Santa Monica or Beverly Hills."

The latter two cities have not yet installed the roadbed detectors that enable the signal transponders to work. Meanwhile, even in L.A. the bus occasionally stops at red lights, because it will only change them to green if there are 10 seconds or less left in the red sequence. If there are less than 10 seconds remaining in a green sequence when the bus crosses the underground sensor, the light will remain green long enough for the bus to cross.

Another annoyance cited by riders relates to the limited number of stops. If a rider's home or destination isn't located close to one of them, he or she must either catch a connecting bus or walk up to a mile either way, it can add another 10 to 15 minutes to the trip.

But one commuter seems to have found a way around this problem.

"I love the buses," said Scott Brackenhoff, who was traveling to his office in Sherman Oaks from Topanga Canyon the other day, with his bike hitched to the front of the bus, where a rack will hold one or two bikes. "It used to take 40 minutes. Now it can take 24 minutes, so to me it's dramatic. Until they get more people on the bus with bikes, I'm happy."

Inconvenient stops

Another irritant for some riders is that the bus stops for the Rapid Bus are usually on the opposite side of the intersection from the stop for connecting bus routes.

"It's harder for me now because the Rapid Bus stops almost a full block away from the other bus stops, usually across a busy intersection," said Jess Kalinowsky, who works at Friends Travel agency in West Hollywood and who frequently rides the Wilshire bus route. "I used to take the (old) express buses. Transfers to local lines were easier because it was right there, at the same stop. The stops should be on the same side of the intersection."

The stops are on different sides of the intersection to boost the speed of the rapid buses, according to Doug Suisman, principal of Suisman Urban Design, which was the main design firm on the Rapid Bus project.

"We tried to locate the stops on the far side of the signal, so as not to miss the green light by having to stop beforehand. It speeds things up tremendously," Suisman said. "But it also makes transfers a little more difficult, since the regular bus stops are often just before signals on the other side of the intersection."

Over the next six months, the MTA and the Los Angeles Department of Transportation will be evaluating ridership along these pilot rapid bus routes to see if the numbers merit expanding the system. They will also be looking at the impact of the new buses on traffic. When the signal priority system trips green lights for oncoming rapid transit buses, it also delays intersecting traffic for several seconds. At busy intersections, like the corner of Ventura and Sepulveda boulevards, that means traffic that's often already backed up for blocks could become even more snarled.

Ironically, too much success could foil the whole system, because more buses traveling the route more often would trip the signal priority system so much that it might bring traffic at cross streets to a standstill.

"We're out looking at (the intersections) on a priority basis," said Sean Skehan, senior transportation engineer for the L.A. Department of Transportation. "Wilshire and La Brea or Fairfax, and Ventura and Sepulveda are the big ones that will be at the top of our list."

So far, traffic is flowing smoothly, or at least as smoothly as it usually flows, Skehan said, and the new buses are consistently beating out their predecessors for speed.

In initial tests, the best time for the bus along Ventura Boulevard was 32 minutes for the entire route at 10:20 p.m. The worst was 58 minutes. "That was during peak evening hours," said Skehan, noting that on the old system, that trip would take an hour and 10 minutes.

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