The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, in response to the unexpected capacity crowds climbing aboard its red-and-white express buses, is moving to substantially expand its Rapid Bus system.
The proposed expansion would involve adding two or three new routes a year until the L.A. area is crisscrossed with some two dozen Rapid Bus lines. The current system, which debuted last June, has routes along Ventura and Wilshire boulevards, with limited stops and easy street-level boarding that can chop 25 percent or more off travel times.
"We saw how successful the two demonstration routes have been and decided to expand the system," said Rex Gephart, the MTA's Rapid Bus project manager.
The proposal is included in the MTA's 25-year plan, which will go out for public review next month. Portions of that massive plan which include light rail projects, dedicated busways and freeway improvements will likely come before the MTA board later this year. If the board approves the Rapid Bus expansion, the first new routes could be rolling as soon as next year.
"This is long overdue," said Jim Moore, associate professor of civil engineering and public policy at USC. "For years, the MTA has put so much of its resources into the rail system. Now they've got a program that actually works, and it seems they're finally on the right track."
Gephart said the regular bus routes with highest ridership are being targeted as the first to get one of the new Rapid Bus routes. These include Van Nuys Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley, Pico and Venice boulevards on the Westside, Crenshaw and Avalon boulevards and Florence Avenue through South Central L.A., and First Street on the Eastside.
"When added to the Wilshire/Whittier Ventura routes and First Street on the Eastside.
"When added to the Wilshire/Whittier and Ventura routes now running, these six new routes will give us a total of four east-west and four north-south lines," Gephart said. "The idea is, over time, we build up a grid network of these Rapid Buses."
The cost of adding new Rapid Bus lines is highly variable, Gephart said. That's because in each case, the Rapid Bus line will substitute for an existing line. In the case of Wilshire and Ventura boulevards, the "limited-stop bus," which stopped every half-mile, was eliminated and replaced with the Rapid Bus, which stops about once every mile.
That move upset bus rider advocates, who preferred simply adding the Rapid Bus service on top of the existing limited-stop buses.
"Because the Rapid Bus stops are farther apart, many riders have had to walk several more blocks to catch a Rapid Bus or take the much slower local bus, which stops every other block," said Cynthia Rojas, an organizer with the Bus Riders Union.
Initially, MTA planners expected an even swap between the limited-stop and Rapid Bus lines on Wilshire and Ventura boulevards, with no increase in operating costs. But demand for the Rapid Bus was so intense that the MTA had to add 22 red-and-white buses to both routes, bringing the total number of Rapid Buses to 112. That meant spending about $9 million more to operate the additional buses. (Because the MTA has agreed to a federal consent decree to purchase 500 new buses, regardless of whether they are used in the Rapid Bus system, that $9 million does not include the cost of buying the 22 buses.)
In fact, Gephart said, before the Rapid Bus was introduced last June, there were 10,800 total bus boardings on Ventura Boulevard and 69,000 bus boardings on Wilshire and Whittier boulevards. Within 90 days, 3,200 more riders got on buses on Ventura Boulevard and 21,000 more boardings were recorded on the Wilshire/Whittier route an increase of about 26 percent on both lines.
All of the increase was attributed to the Rapid Bus, Gephart said.
Ridership figures went to zero during the month-long MTA strike and didn't reach pre-strike levels again until earlier this month. It took several weeks to recover from the effects of the strike; then the holiday season meant fewer student riders, Gephart said.
Because the Rapid Bus travels faster and therefore makes more frequent trips, planners had the capacity to handle about 12 percent more riders without adding new buses, not the 26 percent increases that actually materialized on the lines.
"We of course expected to add new riders," Gephart said. "But the degree of response surprised us, and we had to add new Rapid Buses to handle the load."
More buses coming
As a result of the experience on the Ventura and Wilshire/Whittier lines, Gephart said, the MTA will likely have to add buses on many of the other streets targeted for the Rapid Bus program. How many will depend on the popularity of the Rapid Buses on each line.
Bus rider advocates said that scores of buses need to be added on each of these routes, not just a handful.
"You're saying they added 22 Rapid Buses on the Wilshire and Ventura lines?" Bus Riders Union organizer Rojas asked. "You can't tell they added those buses. They are all still so overcrowded."
Of course, adding buses tends to result in an improvement in service, which in turn attracts even more riders. And that's exactly what has happened with the Rapid Buses on Wilshire/Whittier and Ventura.
"The fact that they've added riders is a good thing in that it gets people out of their cars," Rojas said. "But the MTA also needs to reduce overcrowding, and that's not happening. They need to add more of all types of buses."
Transit expert Moore said he agrees with the Bus Riders Union that more buses are needed.
"But when resources are limited, the ridership numbers should be your guide in determining where those dollars are spent," Moore said. "Since the Rapid Buses are attracting the numbers, the investment should go there."
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