LA’s Orange Line Offers a Sneak Peek at Fast Ashland Bus Service

Photo: The Transit Coalition

When I visited Los Angeles earlier this winter, I took a ride on the Orange Line, a bus rapid transit route that offers a preview of what fast, reliable bus service will be like for transit riders on Ashland Avenue.

The Orange Line launched in 2005 as a 14-mile route through the San Fernando Valley, with 14 stops spaced about a mile apart, built at a cost of $324 million, on a right-of-way formerly used by passenger rail and streetcars. In 2012, a four-mile extension and four more stops were added at a cost of $215 million. It’s eastern terminus is the North Hollywood transit center, where you can catch various other city bus lines, as well as the Metro Red Line subway to downtown LA, which I rode to a talk at City Hall by former Chicago transportation chief Gabe Klein.

The Orange Line has some significant differences from Chicago’s Ashland BRT plan. Because it’s completely separated from parallel car traffic, keeping cars out of the busway is not a major concern, whereas camera enforcement will needed for Ashland. The Orange Line does make multiple at-grade crossings of streets, controlled with stoplights. Signal prioritization helps keep the buses moving through these intersections.

Photo: John Greenfield

The LA system includes prepaid boarding – you buy a ticket at a kiosk that you must display during occasional onboard inspections – which helps speed boarding. The buses are sleek 60-foot vehicles with low floors that make it easy to board, although there aren’t level boarding platforms like there will be on Ashland. The Orange Line buses are articulated vehicles with three doors on the right side, which further expedite boarding. Ashland will use the same 60-foot, articulated, five door buses as Cleveland’s Health line, which allow for boarding on the left side as well, which will be necessary for Ashland’s median stations.

The stations feature handsome shelters and signs. The route is nicely landscaped, and a high-quality bike and pedestrian path parallels it for most of its length. The buses have racks in front that can carry three bicycles in front, and there are bike parking racks and lockers at every stop.

Photo: John Greenfield

Thanks to fewer stops and faster cruising speeds, the Orange Line buses have an average speed of just over 20 mph, including stops, faster than the 15.9 mph speeds projected for Ashland. As a result, a crosstown trip that used to take 81 minutes now only takes 44-52 minutes, which saves passengers an hour on the round trip.

This time saving makes the system quite popular. The Orange Line sees 30,000 boardings on an average weekday, according to LA County Metro Spokesman Paul Gonzales. That’s about what Ashland gets now, but on the LA system crowding has become an issue as it has become more popular. This has some people calling for the system to be converted to rail.

“Many people envisioned the Orange Line as a light rail line when it was first conceived,” Streetsblog LA editor Damien Newton told me. “Even though the bus line has exceeded ridership expectations, there is still a disappointment for many.” He noted that there has been no real development boom around the Orange Line stations.

Photo: John Greenfield

“But I’m not sure I would call it a missed opportunity,” he added. “If nothing else, the Orange Line showed people how [BRT] buses could work, and made campaigns for simpler bus-only lanes throughout the city a much easier concept for people to support.”

I found riding the Orange Line to be a very pleasant bus experience. Boarding through the multiple doors having already paid my fare was much like getting on a subway car, and the large buses provided a relatively smooth ride with a fun sensation of speed – the traffic signals are timed for 35 mph cruising speeds. The buses were fairly full when I took them at non-peak times both during midday and early evening. Instead of ads, onboard TV screens showed public service announcements and trivia questions.

The Orange Line doesn’t provide an exact preview of the Ashland BRT, since it’s right-boarding and not integrated into an urban grid like the CTA service will be. But it does provide a sample of what service on nice, big buses, traveling at rapid transit speeds and unhindered by car traffic, will be like, features we can look forward to on Ashland.

  • No Ur Fax

    Strong try but seems to me like you’re comparing apples to ORANGES…lolz.

  • Salts

    Unless you are referring to the peAk of a mountain,”Sneak Peak” should be “Sneak Peek”

  • Dennis_Hindman

    There is a Streetsfilms that was made about the LA brt Orange Line in 2009:

    A 4-mile extension along Canoga Ave was added in mid-2012.

    The Orange Line brt does run on a grade separated median down the middle of Chandler Blvd for about 2-miles. That part of the route has the most similarities to the proposed brt project on Ashland Ave.

    Triple bike racks on the front of the 60-foot buses used on the Orange Line do not meet the measurement restrictions for street use in California. Because the buses operate mainly on a bus only route, the MTA must have gotten an exemption to that rule.

    When the Orange Line first started operating in 2005, there were no exterior bike racks as you can see in the first picture above that taken by the Transit Coalition. Up to two bicycles were each secured by a strap across from the third door after the front wheel was lifted by the rider. This method had problems with bicycles falling. Metro then tried a standard two-bicycle rack and within a few months installed the triple racks.

  • Anna Schibrowsky

    Yes, they will be missing out on all those purchases that cars make.

    It does seem to be challenging to find an example of an existing BRT implementation that’s similar to the proposed Ashland BRT because the existing BRT systems are either on bus-only streets or on streets with low traffic density. In December, I rode the MAX BRT in Las Vegas off-peak, and the streets were so clear that the BRT was just moving at the same pace as the other automobiles. Ashland desperately needs a bus-only lane so the bus can match private cars’ speed, but, judging by the reaction to making one lane a bus lane, Chicagoans are not ready to make Ashland bus-only like LA’s Orange Line.

  • Luke

    “An advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport,” argues Enrique Peñalosa.

    In this spirited talk, the former mayor of Bogotá shares some of the tactics he used to change the transportation dynamic in the Colombian capital… and suggests ways to think about building smart cities of the future.

  • Mishellie

    That is a great quote. Awesome.

  • Fbfree

    Look at the former 98 B-Line in Richmond BC.

  • Fred

    Why can’t we just accept and embrace the fact that Ashland BRT will be unlike anything that currently exists, and is therefore worth doing on that merit alone? Why do people absolutely insist on trying to compare it to something that vaguely has similarities. Someone has to be the first. Let’s be the first! Embrace being the first! We’re innovative! We’re leaders, not followers! We’re #1!

  • Matt

    A person’s reaction of ‘liking’ or ‘feeling’ that the proposed Chicago BRT is fine, but does not change the facts. The ‘Orange Line’ is not at all like what is proposed with the Ashland BRT, except that both use buses. The Orange Line does not remove a lane of traffic from a main and heavily traveled transportation corridor, where as the proposed Chicago Ashland BRT does. That is the root of it. Any other comparisons are incidental, essentially ‘feel good’ reactions. I have my personal opinions of the Ashland BRT – but when attempting to make a comparison between these two, nobody should be mislead of the facts at hand. The proposed Ashland BRT will be highly disruptive to the present flow of traffic in Chicago – undeniable.

  • matt

    Oh it will be unlike anything that has ever existed before. BTW, you will not be able to ride your bike down Ashland anymore with the BRT.

  • Fred

    Yes. And…?

  • As stated, the main way that the Orange Line is a useful comparison to Ashland BRT is in its benefits to transit riders: fast, reliable service, unhindered by car traffic in the bus lane.

  • matt

    From what I understand, with the Chicago Ashland BRT there will be no room for bicycles. The planned use for each of the 3 lanes (each way) is: one lane for parking, one for cars / commercial vehicles, and one for the BRT – also sidewalks will be expanded. The effect will be a ‘squeeze’ on useful road space. Absolutely no room for a bike lane and a bike in what will become a very high congestion lane of automobile traffic will become even more dangerous than it is right now. I guess that is not bad as it will force bikes off to side streets – that is what I do now mostly, but sometimes Ashland is your best way, such as over the river. Bottom line, is it will become more difficult – the next best north-south pathway is Damen (already single lane) and not very bike friendly, or Western – or Halsted. OK my personal opinion is, that the most efficient way to use Ashland is to remove the parking (even if just in rush hours) and put a modified BRT along this lane. Parking is the least best use of the street – streets are designed primarily for the movement of people and goods and parking is a secondary use.

  • BlueFairlane

    I agree. There is nothing to which you can compare Ashland BRT in any sensible way. Proponents fear this is a weakness and often stretch to find someplace where this has worked, but there are always too many variable to draw a real comparison. I think the attempt is a mistake that only weakens the pro-BRT argument. Everything that ever happens has happened first somewhere, and that’s okay.

  • It’s true that the there is no other existing BRT street that is exactly like Ashland. However, the fact that BRT has has been successful in a wide range of different street configurations suggest that it should work on Ashland as well.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    First picture looks like bus bunching to me.

  • matt

    John, if there was a way to ‘build a road’ in Chicago for a 14 mile BRT, then this would be an effective and useful comparison. But until that can be done or planned out, the comparison is not effective nor useful as it ignores all the disruptive and negative impact(s) of the Ashland BRT proposal. You would have to look hard and far to find people that disagree with the positive aspects of what the proposed Chicago BRT will deliver, but when you intentionally ignore the consequences and impact that will result – so significantly weakens the comparison, that it has very little merit and becomes more of a conversation of ideologies than a true apples to apples comparison.

  • BlueFairlane

    I doesn’t suggest that at all. Bacteria are successful in a wide range of environments, but that doesn’t mean they’re successful everywhere. We can’t assume there are bacteria on Mars. Ashland BRT will either be successful or unsuccessful based solely on the specific factors of its particular environment. What’s happened elsewhere doesn’t forecast that one way or the other.

  • david vartanoff

    John, thank you for the survey. From what I have read previously the line is close to maxed out with buses on very short headways. This success points to why it should have been rail. A 3 unit light rail train carrying 4 busloads only requires a single T/O at one salary.
    Your pictures also show that LAMTA was too lame to make the bus platforms roll on roll off. At least they bought buses which they can use on other routes when needed.

  • Fred

    Yes, BRT would trade mediocre biking facilities for revolutionary public transit facilities. With fixed space, compromises must be made. Road allocation is a zero sum game.

    Find a viable funding solution for paying off CPM and then we can discuss removing parking from Ashland. Until then the discussion is pointless.

  • Alex Oconnor

    Bacteria on Mars? Someone is breathing too much CO2.

  • BlueFairlane

    Maybe. Probably not bacteria.

  • Fred

    Its interesting that when talking about BRT, proponents do their best to compare it to how similar successful systems work, but when talking about pedestrianizing streets, talking about the failure of the State Street mall is irrelevant.

  • Allan Mellis

    Comparisons like this only reinforce the position of those opposed to the Ashland BRT.

  • cjlane

    Address and dismiss as not real concerns, Because the concerns don’t bother you.

    “whereas camera enforcement will needed for Ashland”

    SHOULD BE: “whereas a change in state law to allow camera enforcement will be needed for Ashland”. Ain’t happening.

  • cjlane

    “revolutionary public transit facilities.”

    Keep overselling it Fred.

    How much of the Ashland parking is metered? Not too much in the parts that I travel most.

  • Chance

    Knowing much about the Orange Bus, the lesson is: if you need a bus, go BRT; if you need high capacity transit, avoid BRT at all costs because you will never get the government to later upgrade to rail.


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