The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy isn’t so sure about many of the proposed Montgomery County Bus Rapid Transit lines, because of the county’s spread-out, suburban character. But I took a trip on Los Angeles’ first BRT line, which shows how BRT could indeed transform suburban commute patterns.
Built in 2005 and extended earlier this summer, the Orange Line runs between North Hollywood, Warner Center and Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley. It’s a suburban area with over 1.7 million people, known for wide boulevards, tract houses and shopping malls that gave rise to the infamous “Valley Girl.”
Like Montgomery County, it has not one but several “downtowns.” And like the Valley, Montgomery County has become more diverse, with more younger, immigrant or low-income residents who depend on transit, but also a growing interest in alternatives to driving among more well-heeled residents.
Why does the Orange Line work? It goes where people want to go, it’s frequent, and it connects to the subway, major bus routes, and commuter rail. But more importantly, it gives riders a fast, pleasant experience that rivals driving in a place known for its car culture.
The Orange Line includes many of the same features as Montgomery’s BRT proposal, giving it the feel of a train. For instance, the stations are more substantial than normal bus shelters, with ticket machines, maps and benches, and signs saying when the next bus is coming. They have distinctive canopies that provide shade while giving the line a unique visual identity.
The buses are long and sleek, with big windows that make the inside feel bright and airy. They’re actually the same buses the Los Angeles Metro uses elsewhere, though with a different paint scheme. Passengers pay by tapping a smart card at the station, and when the bus arrives, they can get on or off using any door, as they would on a train. I never had to wait more than 5 minutes for buses to arrive when I rode the Orange Line around 2pm, though they were still packed.
What makes the Orange Line really effective, however, is that buses have their own special lanes for the entire 18-mile route, the result of using a former rail line and a wide boulevard. There are also special sensors that turn stoplights green when buses approach so they don’t have to stop. This allows buses to reach speeds of up to 55 miles an hour, cutting commutes across the Valley nearly in half and making it as fast, if not faster, than driving. The busway is lushly landscaped, while a popular bike and foot path runs alongside it. The result is a commute that’s not only convenient, but very pleasant.
As a result, ridership has almost doubled from 16,000 people each weekday in 2005 to 31,000 today. That’s the same number of riders planners anticipate will use certain BRT lines in Montgomery. By comparison, the busiest conventional bus routes in both the Valley and Montgomery County carry just 10,000 riders per weekday.
One rider told me, completely unprompted, how much he liked the Orange Line. “Thank God for Metro,” he said. “I’m glad they have all these buses and trains now. Back in the day, we didn’t have none of this and you had to have a car.”
Unfortunately, Montgomery County’s BRT plan wouldn’t always give buses their own lanes, even in congested areas like downtown Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring. Buses would be stuck in traffic with everyone else, making it a lousy alternative to the car.
That said, at $25 million per mile, the Orange Line cost nearly twice as much to build as Montgomery’s BRT is expected to, and we can’t afford to make that kind of investment in places where it’s not warranted. Some areas in the 160-mile system envisioned by the county’s Transit Task Force might be better suited for smaller improvements, like the Metro Rapid buses in Los Angeles that inspired MetroExtra service here.
However, in areas where transit use is already high, we should go all out to encourage more of it. The Orange Line didn’t require taking away lanes from cars, but we will have to in Montgomery County to get the same quality of service. It won’t be easy, but it can and should be done.
It’s no surprise that some officials, like County Councilmember Nancy Floreen, are skeptical of Montgomery’s BRT plan. “This is suburbia,” she told the Washington Examiner. “To assume that everyone is going to switch to a nice, snazzy looking bus is not particularly realistic.”
And she’s right: no one’s going to ride the bus, especially if we don’t make it worthwhile. The Orange Line shows us that in the right places, you can get suburban riders on the bus if you give them a fast, frequent, and pleasant experience. We’d do well to follow their example.
Check out this slideshow of the Orange Line.