Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Bus Rapid Transit: What’s Holding Los Angeles County Back?

Note: This blog was guest written by Jordan Fraade, a second-year master’s student in UCLA’s Urban Planning program. Jordan is completing his Applied Planning Research Project in coordination with Investing in Place.

Since September, I’ve been collaborating with Investing in Place on a study of dedicated bus infrastructure in LA, in particular “how we can work together to push Los Angeles into a future when bus riders can count on the same high-quality, frequent service that rail riders receive on a regular basis.” The school year is almost over, and I’m looking forward to sharing the final product with IiP’s collaborators and partners in a few weeks — including some concrete recommendations based on feedback I’ve gotten from everyday riders. But in the meantime, I’ve spent the last few months traveling all around Los Angeles County, talking to transportation experts from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. My task in all of these interviews was to find out what they think has been holding back the region’s bus service, and how they think we can fix it.

So, what needs to be done? A full analysis of what my interviewees told me will be included in the final report, but in the meantime, here are some major themes that kept coming up:

  • Many people feel geographic equity is key to getting things done in LA. Los Angeles County is huge and diverse, and any measure to raise tax revenue (like Measure M) needs a two-thirds majority to pass. This means a very high level of buy-in is needed across a huge region, and if every part of the county wants to feel like it’s getting its money’s worth, that might mean investing in more expensive, big-ticket projects for those regions, at the expense of upgrades to existing service in the urban core, where most riders live.
  • Taking lanes away from drivers is really, really hard. The Orange Line is the city’s only true BRT line, and it was built on a strip of land that used to belong to the Southern Pacific Railroad. In contrast, the success of future BRT projects in LA will depend on our ability to take existing mixed-traffic lanes, and turn them into bus-only lanes.   Planners call this the “concentrated costs and diffuse benefits”  problem: Thousands of bus riders from across the city will benefit from faster and more reliable travel, but they won’t be as organized or vocal as the handful of neighborhood residents who are furious that the lane in front of their house is being taken away — and want to make sure everybody knows it.
  • Bus riders are frequently “othered,” and have few champions in places of power. One of my interviewees said that even well-meaning transit planners and elected officials sometimes think of bus riders as “those people.” This could reflect unconscious racial and class prejudices. It could be because few Angelenos take transit, and therefore don’t know what it’s like to be a rider on a daily basis. Either way, it’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking that bus riders are “captive,” and will accept whatever quality of service they’re given. They vote with their feet, just like anybody else.
  • LA’s political structure is decentralized, which makes it difficult to cooperate on big projects. For example, transit projects are built and operated by Metro, but the city Department of Transportation controls street design and engineering. In order to build and maintain dedicated bus lanes, two agencies with very different institutional cultures have to work together and coordinate their efforts. Individual cities and neighborhoods can “opt out” of projects they don’t like, as Beverly Hills and part of Westwood did with the Wilshire Blvd. bus lanes. And LA’s city government is set up to have a small, powerful City Council, giving each Council member effective veto power over what happens in their district. Having a sympathetic ear in City Hall is crucial to success.

I included these findings in a poster I presented on April 3 at UCLA, joined by many of my urban-planning classmates who shared their own research projects. Take a look below:


For the last stage of the project, I have been convening focus groups to find out the community perspective — what do riders want and need for their communities, and how can they organize and work strategically to make it happen? I’m holding my final focus group on Wednesday May 24 at 6 p.m. in Downtown LA, and all are welcome! All participants will receive a gift card to La Monarca Cafe. If you’d like to participate, email jordanfraade@g.ucla.edu or call 203.246.8342.

Además, queremos hacer un grupo de discusión para los pasajeros y miembros de la comunidad que hablan español. Vamos a reunirnos dentro de 10 días, y todos los participantes recibirán una tarjeta de regalo a Cafe La Monarca. Si quiere participar, escriba a jordanfraade@g.ucla.edu o llame a 203.246.8342. ¡Gracias!

Comments on Draft Measure M Guidelines due Friday May 26th - see our letter

by Jessica Meaney

Policy Makers come together to discuss defining transportation equity in Los Angeles County

by Investing in Place