Review of the Metro Orange Line and Extension to Chatsworth
The Metro Orange Line is a segregated busway operated by Los Angeles Metro in the San Fernando Valley that has opened in two phases. The first phase, from North Hollywood Station to Warner Center, opened on October 29, 2004. The second phase, from Canoga Station to Chatsworth, opened June 30, 2012.
Although initially the only reason the Orange Line was a busway was due to community opposition to a rail line, at this time it is hailed as the epitome of bus rapid transit and is used as an example of successful rapid transit worthy of being emulated by all American cities.
There are two major problems why the Orange Line is not worthy of emulation, one of which could be fixed and the other one an inherent flaw in the mode chosen. The problem that could be fixed is the current operating procedure - put in place soon after the line opened due to frequent accidents caused by car drivers violating traffic laws - of the bus slowing to an almost complete stop at every intersection. In conjunction with poor signal with priority - particularly evident on the recent Chatsworth extension - this flaw means that the bus stops at almost every light along the route - hardly making it rapid. Now that people are used to the line, operating normally along it would significantly speed up the trip without being unsafe.
The other flaw is the limited capacity of the line. Although down to a weekday ridership of around 22,000 due to the economy, in 2008 ridership was up to almost 28,000 per weekday. This level of ridership caused significant overcrowding, which could not be ameliorated for two reasons. First, in order for signal priority to work at all headways cannot be lower than four minutes so that the cross-traffic will receive occasional green lights. Second, unlike a light rail train , which could be made up of two or three sixty to seventy-five foot long cars to improve capacity, the Orange Line is stuck with being able to only operate one bus.
Keeping in mind those flaws, I was pleasantly surprised by the Orange Line extension. On a recent Saturday afternoon trip the buses I rode were half full along the section - quite good considering that the existing parallel local bus service only operates every sixty minutes. Furthermore, the extension connects to the Amtrak station at Chatsworth and, from a scheduling perspective, significantly reduces deadhead costs since the extension right of way is adjacent to a Metro operating division. Finally, it is great to see the westside of the valley finally have late evening transit service.
Despite my pleasant surprise, there are problems that need to be addressed with the extension. First, the fact that the branching off of the two segments of the Orange Line (one to Warner Center and one to Chatsworth) happens at a station means that there are two platform from which patrons may board eastbound buses to the same destination of North Hollywood Station. Because waiting at the wrong platform may cause you to miss a bus and wait another ten minutes, I feel that this setup will cause passengers to run back and forth between the two platforms to avoid missing their bus, which could cause safety problems. In order to fix this I suggest dynamic signs be installed to inform people which platform will have the next bus.
Second, connections between the Orange Line extension and intersecting local bus routes need to be improved. Not only was no bus service added on the lines intersecting the Orange Line extension (152, 158, 163, 164, 165, 166, 167), but one bus route does not connect at all (169) because no station was included at Saticoy Street. While I am all for increasing stop spacing to speed up bus travel, my support assumes full buses. To me, not serving potential riders so that half-empty buses can operate at a higher speed makes no sense (a sentiment supported by the Transit Coalition ). A stop at Saticoy Street should be added.
Overall, although I was skeptical of the success of the extension given the low density environment in which it operates, it seems to be off to a good start. It goes to show the industry that people everywhere, even ex-urban industrial / residential districts, need and will support effective transit options that meet their needs.