Tuesday, January 19, 2010

metro rapid, or what we could've had if catoe stuck around

It's rush hour in Los Angeles, but I'm sitting on a bus, flying past the BMWs lined up on Wilshire Boulevard. When we reach an intersection, the light turns green. Cars swing out of the right lane to let the bus pass. And before my eyes is a parade of famous landmarks: Miracle Mile, Rodeo Drive, the beaches of Santa Monica at sunset.

720 Bus At Dusk, Wilshire at Fairfax
A Metro Rapid bus on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.

This trip is why I was disappointed that Metro head John Catoe resigned last week, because he'd revitalized Los Angeles' bus system while running its Metropolitan Transit Authority before coming here in 2006. Last summer's accident at Fort Totten had many people demanding his ouster, but I was waiting to see what he could do here with a little more time.

Catoe's tenure with Metro, as Los Angeles calls its transportation authority, was a triumph of organization and marketing. Metro's small but impressive network of rail and BRT lines has been growing rapidly since opening in 1993, but it still barely covers a county with ten million residents. Without rail to my hotel or many of the places I wanted to visit, my sightseeing took place mainly on the bus.

In a city obsessed with image, the LA Metro aggressively brands itself. Billboards across the city show "sexy" Metro Rapid buses and boast of the faster service. Coffeehouse baristas in uber-hip Silver Lake wear Metro T-shirts. And the county's 191 bus routes are broken down into three color-coordinated services. Metro Local buses are painted orange and stop every few blocks. Metro Rapid buses are painted red and have stops about a mile apart. And Metro Express buses, painted blue, run on freeways and make few stops at all.

Local and Rapid Buses, Broadway at Ocean Avenue
Metro Local and Rapid buses pass each other on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica.

As a result, 1.2 million people ride the bus each day, or more than the subway and bus in D.C. combined. The agency claims that ridership on the 26 Metro Rapid routes has increased 40%, travel times have dropped by 29%, and one-third of the system's new riders are people who've never used transit before.

Metro Rapid won't fool anyone into thinking it's a train, but it's a good substitute in places that won't get rail for decades. It's what you might call Bus Rapid Transit lite: it doesn't have special lanes or fancy stations like the HealthLine in Cleveland or Los Angeles' own Orange Line, but it does provide faster service than a typical bus.

On many routes, buses come every 12 minutes or less, making schedules unnecessary; signs at each stop use GPS to tell when the next bus is coming. Bright red livery and specially marked stops distinguish Rapid buses from the rest of the system. And buses have special transponders that keep traffic lights green; when stops are far apart, they can easily reach speeds of 30 to 40 miles an hour.

It's on Wilshire Boulevard where Metro Rapid shines. Running sixteen miles from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica, Wilshire is like Wisconsin or Connecticut avenues here, lined with high-rises and posh shopping malls. Traffic is notoriously bad, but walking can be very pleasant in compact neighborhoods like Westwood or downtown Beverly Hills.

720 Map
Metro Rapid stops have simplified maps for each route.

There are two Metro Rapid routes on Wilshire. The 720 stops every mile or so and is good for short trips. At rush hour, it does the 9.3-mile trip from Wilshire and Fairfax to Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade in fifty minutes, making thirteen stops. The commuter-oriented 920 stops about every three miles and makes the same trip in just forty minutes, stopping three times.

Both services are faster than a comparable "express" route in this area, the J4 Metrobus between Bethesda and College Park, a corridor with lots of activity and lots of traffic. During rush hour, it takes fifty-six minutes to go from the Bethesda Metro to the corner of Campus Drive and Regents Drive at the University of Maryland, a distance of 10 miles, making eighteen stops.

The J4 was one of the routes that could've seen Metro Rapid-like service as part of Catoe's proposed 100-mile MetroExtra network of rapid buses, first unveiled in 2008. Today, just two of the proposed lines, the 79 on Georgia Avenue and S9 on 16th Street, are up and running while a third on Veirs Mill Road has been delayed. It's unclear whether Metro's next head will expand MetroExtra, especially at a time when the existing system is starved for funding.

I didn't think I'd come back to Maryland with a squishy red toy Metro Rapid bus, but it goes to show how a few small improvements can make public transit both fun and memorable. It's a shame that John Catoe won't have the chance to bring more of his innovative ideas to the D.C. area, but hopefully their time will come soon.

Check out this slideshow of Los Angeles transit and other stuff.

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