Sunday, December 13, 2009

Los Angeles puts lipstick on a pig.

Harbor Transitway at Slauson AvImage by Metro - Los Angeles via Flickr

With great fanfare, Los Angeles Metro will be introduced its new Silver Line service on Sunday. So is the newest light rail line to open in Los Angeles or part of the subway to the sea? No, actually it is combining service on two of the LA basin’s two busways into a single service and increasing the number of transfers.

The first busway was opened 35 years ago extending from just east of downtown Los Angeles to the city of El Monte and traveled along the Interstate 10 freeway. There is a rail line between the busway that once carried the interurbans of the legendary Pacific Electric and is now home to the Metrolink Commuter Rail service to San Bernardino. The busway was later extended a mile to Union Station in the late 1980’s.

When the busway first started a large number of buses would travel the busway to El Monte then fan out throughout the San Gabriel valley. After many cuts to bus service most of the San Gabriel valley routes were taken over by Foothill Transit in the late 1980’s leaving RTD with only a few routes on the busway.

The second busway is the infamous Harbor Freeway Transit way that extends from Artesia to a few miles south of downtown and parallels the Long Beach light rail line that sits a few miles to the east. While the Blue line carries upwards of 78000 passengers per day the Harbor Freeway Transitway pulls in roughly 5000 per day.

Now Metro will run a direct line from the Artesia station through downtown Los Angeles out to the El Monte station calling it the Silver line. This will give the first direct service between the two lines but will also mean that people traveling from the routes that currently use the busway will have to transfer to the new service as those routes will be truncated at El Monte and Artesia respectively.

In addition the new Silver line will compete with Foothill Transit’s Silver Streak service that started a couple of years ago and operates from Pomona to downtown Los Angeles via the El Monte busway. Like Metro is doing with its lines, Foothill Transit also truncated most of its bus routes at El Monte when Silver Streak service was started.

Isn’t it interesting that when most road warriors say that buses should be used instead of rail, they say that buses are more flexible and thus better than the rail option? Of course we all know the tired BS about BRT (Badly Repackaged Transit) being just like light rail but on rubber tires. In this case they are operating a bus route like a rail line but cutting the so called flexibility of the bus.

What is interesting is that Metro’s predecessor the RTD tried to run truncate routes in El Monte and run a separate El Monte to downtown LA route back in the late 70’s. Route 495 provided frequent service from El Monte to downtown but was killed only a few months later.

But let’s also look deeper into the two busways themselves.

As stated before the El Monte bus way is celebrated its 35th year in 2009. While it is hard to quantify any development results being the fact that there is only three stations on the line with the two mid line stations being a University and a hospital, the end of the line station has seen no development in the area since its opening. In other words the place looks the same as it did in 1974 although plans are finally progressing to turn the station into a transit oriented development.

Compare that to TRAX where development is starting to take place in several areas along the line. While progress has been slowed by the credit crunch, new homes have been built near several stations and when things heat back up in the real estate market you will several more projects come on line.

The Harbor Freeway Transit way points to not only that busways are not an alternative to light rail but also the failure of Freeway Transit in general.

While it is hard to judge the Harbor Transitway head to head against the Blue line despite their close proximity to each other, it is clear that the Transitway does not attract riders like the Blue Line.

Meanwhile the Harbor Transitway also shows that Freeway transit is not an attractive option for riders. Whether it is a light rail station or busway station, freeway stops are noisy and inconvenient for riders. For those that have tried to access a station that sits in or along a highway know that they can be impossible to access due to the freeway and then noise levels are extremely high.

Instead of spending $500 million on the transitway that carries few passengers, the agencies that built it would have been much farther ahead by pumping money into the overburdened Blue Line. Money could have been used to grade separate the line and then build a branch down to San Pedro (which would restore another ex-Pacific Electric line) build a branch to Torrance or southeast toward Orange County. Either of these options would have garnered more ridership that the pathetic transitway.

The two busways also show the true reason why road warriors support busways over rail lines. When the El Monte busway first opened it was used exclusively for buses but then it seemed like good highway lanes for the taking so car pools were eventually allowed to use the busway. Every time I have gone down the busway in the last few years it has been more crowded that the main lanes on the freeway.

Now Metro is planning to turn the busways into HOT lanes just line the car pool lanes here in Utah and reason behind the creation of the Silver Line. One has to wonder how long it will take before our state legislature passes laws stating that the BRT lanes along 3500 South and subsequent ones have to be open to automobile traffic of some form.

The Silver line is doing nothing but putting lipstick on a pig. While it will make it easier to travel through downtown Los Angeles from the Harbor Transitway to the El Monte Busway, overall it does little to increase the travel opportunities in the region. It will be interesting to see what happens over the year or so.

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