Top Story: Transportation
September 26, 2013
L.A.’s subway system has locked its gates and finally moved past an honor system that’s been in place for more than two decades. But it’s a different story at dozens of Metro light rail stations, which usually have stand-alone fare-card readers but no barriers to entry.
David Sutton, Metro’s deputy executive officer in charge of the gate-latching project, said that won’t change any time soon. Last week, in response to a July motion from several members of the Board of Directors, Sutton and his team released a report on the feasibility of installing lockable turnstiles on Phase 1 of Expo Line and at future stations throughout the expanding rail system.
“We’re not going to be able to lock them all,” Sutton said. “Some of the stations just don’t lend themselves to gates because of the space available and the cost.”
The primary reason is safety, said Rick Meade, who manages station construction for the agency. The National Fire Protection Association requires safe evacuation of platforms within 4 minutes in case of an emergency, as well as clearance to a “safe distance” within 6 minutes.
“As soon as you put gates on there, your exiting calculations are going to change because you have an obstruction that slows everything else down,” Meade said. Underground and aerial stations have space to accommodate enough gates for a swift exit, he said, but street-level stations usually do not. For those, increasing the size of platforms is often the only solution, a costly proposition that can encroach on traffic lanes or other property.
Some stations on the light rail system are already equipped with turnstiles, and their latching is slated for completion by February, Sutton said. On the Gold Line, the 5 out of 21 stations with turnstiles were latched earlier this month. Next up is the Blue Line, where 6 of 21 stations are scheduled to be latched in December, followed by all 14 stations of the elevated Green Line.
Along all Metro’s light rail routes, there currently are 41 stations where customers can enter without a barrier requiring payment, including the entire first phase of Expo Line. Sutton and his team examined the possibility of installing barriers at all non-gated light rail stations and have identified 13 for further analysis.
For Expo’s first phase, Metro estimates it would cost $3.1 million to add gates to three elevated stations, an investment the agency says could be recouped within 7 years because of increased fare collection. At the street-level stations, where there’s no room for gates, Metro is planning to add more stand-alone card validators at a cost of $173,000, plus $141,000 in annual operating expenses. Sutton said the non-gated card readers have been effective elsewhere in the system in reminding riders who want to comply with the rules to tap their fare cards.
“With gates and these kinds of things, it keeps honest people honest,” Sutton said.
Sutton said he plans to return to Metro’s Board of Directors in January with a full engineering analysis of what would be needed to install gates and additional card validators on Expo’s first phase, which goes from downtown to Culver City.
A similar gating scenario is being faced by Expo’s second phase, which will end in Santa Monica and is now under construction. At least two of the seven stations in that phase could not have locked gates, while four others are able to accommodate barriers and one other is being reviewed. For future rail projects that have yet to be designed or constructed, lockable gates will be required, Sutton said.
Meanwhile, on the Red and Purple lines, where gates have already been latched, preliminary data on fare collection for August is encouraging, showing a 22% increase in ticket machine sales over the same month last year—worth more than $614,000. Sutton said many free riders have left the system, opening more seats for paying customers.
The latched stations have also been a help to law enforcement, said Lieutenant Sergio Aloma, a transit services officer with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, which is tasked with policing the system.
“Any time you can latch stations, it is better from a fare enforcement standpoint,” Aloma said. “I just wish we could latch them all.”
Aloma said latching even some gates allows officers to be deployed in larger numbers to non-gated locations. The increased visibility of law enforcement, he said, works as a deterrent to would-be fare evaders.
Aloma also said that, even at stations where gates are locked, dedicated scofflaws will find ways to beat the system by, for example, sneaking through access points for disabled people or jumping turnstiles. On the other hand, some riders may make honest mistakes such as forgetting to tap their fare cards when transferring lines as they try to figure out the new system.
“In some cases deputies have to use discretion and determine whether we need to take a customer-relations viewpoint or an enforcement viewpoint,” Aloma said. “This is still new and we want to educate folks on how to use the system.”
September 5, 2013
As the Wilshire segment of the massive 405 Project winds down, with the completion of sweeping new flyover ramps in the months ahead, another big project is about to hit the boulevard.
The Wilshire Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project, which is creating a dedicated bus lane running from MacArthur Park to the border of Santa Monica, is set to begin work in March, 2014, on a segment of Wilshire Boulevard near the V.A. Hospital in West Los Angeles.
Construction on the Wilshire segment of the 405 Project is expected to wrap up by January, 2014. With the exception of some landscaping work, the freeway project is not anticipated to overlap with the bus lane construction.
In the V.A.-area section of the bus project, Wilshire is being widened from Bonsall Avenue to Federal/San Vicente to incorporate a new eastbound lane that buses will be able to use exclusively during peak morning and afternoon rush hour periods. In the off-hours, the new lane will be available to all vehicles.
Initially, there were concerns that more than 30 jacaranda trees that line the median on Wilshire between Federal and Bonsall would need to be removed as part of the project.
Now, however, plans call for the trees to be boxed up during construction and replanted when the widening project has been completed. Trees deemed not healthy enough to survive transplanting will be replaced.
“We’re going to improve the situation,” said Lance Grindle of the county Department of Public Works, which is designing the project and overseeing work on the .8 mile stretch. New street lighting is being installed, along with a new, more reliable irrigation system.
“There are quite a few nice healthy trees there. There are also quite a few trees that are in distress because they didn’t get enough water,” Grindle said.
In addition to replacing the jacarandas in the median, more than 35 Brisbane box trees will be planted along the north side of the boulevard with other landscaping.
“It actually creates a nice little walking area,” Grindle said.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors this week authorized Public Works to move ahead with the V.A. segment of the project.
Martha Butler, director of regional transit planning for Metro, the lead agency for the project as a whole, said the new lane is essential to speeding up bus travel times along Wilshire.
“It’s the most important corridor in the county, our No. 1 in terms of ridership,” Butler said. She said the bus station at Bonsall, serving the V.A., is particularly heavily used, with 700 boardings a day.
“It really provides a critical service to veterans,” she said.
Butler noted that the new bus lane is an addition to the existing lanes on Wilshire and will not usurp any current travel space. Construction will take place in phases, beginning with the north side of Wilshire, and two lanes will remain open in each direction throughout the project. In addition to the new bus lane, there will be longer left-turn pockets on westbound Wilshire at San Vicente and on eastbound Wilshire at Sepulveda.
An initial segment of the BRT project—which in its entirety will span 12.5 miles, including 7.7 miles for buses only during peak hours—opened in June from MacArthur Park to Western Avenue. Construction on the segment running from Western to San Vicente is expected to begin this month. (The dedicated bus route is not continuous, as this map shows. Areas excluded from the project include the entire stretch of Wilshire through Beverly Hills and a one-mile stretch in Westwood.)
When the whole project is completed in November, 2014, average travel times along the corridor are expected to improve by 24% and spark a bus ridership increase of 15% to 20%.
August 29, 2013
One year after a task force convened to improve safety on Los Angeles Metro’s Blue Line, newly-released figures show that, while progress is being made, the line remains the deadliest in the system.
Abdul Zohbi, a system safety manager who organized the task force, says every fatality is reason for concern, but that he’s not ready to panic.
“All of our safety projects are being worked on as we speak,” Zohbi said.
Last July, officials discovered a spike in fatalities on the 22-mile light rail line from Downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach. It was on pace to experience the highest number of accidental fatalities and suicides of any year since it opened in 1990.
Acting on a motion by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, Metro’s Board of Directors approved the creation of a Blue Line Task Force to find solutions for the agency’s oldest rail line.
“With our new lines, we are installing state-of-the-art devices that have come into existence in the past 20 years,” said Vijay Khawani, Metro’s executive officer of corporate safety. “A year ago we said, ‘Wait a minute, why can’t we retrofit the Blue Line?’”
Zohbi reached out to the City of Los Angeles’ Department of Transportation, the California Public Utilities Commission and Union Pacific Railroad, which runs a freight line directly alongside the Blue Line. He also invited representatives from Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, a Culver City nonprofit organization that operates a 24-hour suicide crisis hotline.
The resulting recommendations were approved by the Board last December, and included $7.7 million for such physical improvements as pedestrian gates, bright LED signs and audible warning bell devices, although it has taken time for the measures to work their way through the bureacracy. Additional training is underway for light rail vehicle operators, including 2 days walking the line to experience the environment as pedestrians. And educational outreach to communities, another major part of the new safety program, has begun as well. “We expect the public to do their part in heeding the signs,” Zohbi said.
The outreach and training have already begun, and most of the physical improvements like the new LED signage are expected to be finished by around June of next year. But the improvements Zohbi believes will be most effective—108 new pedestrian gates—must be contracted out competitively, which will take longer.
In the meantime, safety issues continue to plague the Blue Line. According to statistics released Monday, it experienced more accidents and fatalities than all other Metro lines combined since the beginning of 2012, accounting for 56 of 77 accidents involving trains and pedestrians or cars during the period, along with 12 of 14 total fatalities.
“We need a physical barrier to stop people trying to cross the tracks illegally,” Zohbi said. “The No. 1 cause of accidental fatalities on the Blue Line is pedestrians running to catch a train. When you’re trying to save 30 seconds, you could lose your life.”
Tragically, even more deaths are intentional—half of the fatalities in 2012 and 75 percent of deaths so far this year were suicides. The task force called for suicide prevention signs with Didi Hirsch’s 24-hour hotline number to be installed at stations and other key locations. Those signs are 90 percent installed along the Blue Line. When that job is finished, they’ll be installed on the rest of the rail system.
Lyn Morris, who represented Didi Hirsch on the task force, said the signs represent “a big step ahead” by Metro.
“It wasn’t always popular to put the word ‘suicide’ on signs,” Morris said. “People like to talk around it, but when you are talking to someone who is suicidal you need to address it directly.”
The signs have only been in place for a couple of months, but Morris said her agency has already fielded calls generated by them, including some from people in a state of crisis. But beside that point-of-contact intervention, she said the signs serve a much broader purpose—spreading the word to communities across the county that someone is out there to listen and help at the most seemingly-hopeless times.
Both Morris and Bruce Shelburne, Metro’s rail operations chief, admitted that it’s next to impossible to eliminate all accidents resulting from people who break the law or attempt suicide.
“We are eating an elephant one bite at a time,” Shelburne said. “It’s a fine line—the safest train is one that doesn’t run at all.”
The Blue Line faces unique challenges. For one, it is Metro’s oldest rail line; the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were used to promote its June, 1990, opening. And it runs through a densely populated part of town, with 103 at-grade crossings with other streets. Over the first 12 years of the line’s operation, it experienced more fatalities than any other line in the nation. In 1999, after a particularly rough year, Metro added safety measures that cut deaths by nearly half during the next decade.
While behavior of pedestrians and vehicular traffic can’t be predicted to a certainty, Zohbi called all fatalities “unnecessary.”
“To bring the fatalities down to zero,” he said, “that is our optimal goal.”
August 14, 2013
By profession, he’s a television engineer. But when he dons a fluorescent yellow vest and picks up his Canon EOS 40D camera, Dwight Sturtevant transforms into…Expo Line Fan.
At least he did until this week.
After nearly three years of chronicling the second, final phase of the Expo Line light rail project down to the last rivet and rebar, Sturtevant is leaving town for a new job in Ohio—and leaving behind a project he has documented in thousands of images and nearly three dozen videos since 2010.
Through it all, Sturtevant has worked anonymously and without compensation, with public credit for his photos going simply to “Expo Line Fan,” if it was given at all. But now, at last, his story can be told.
“I am just a rail fan who has been unofficially the project photographer,” the prolific volunteer said recently as he took a break from packing for the move. “I’ve had a free hand.”
Using his own photo equipment and wearing a Metro safety vest and a hard hat he purchased himself, Sturtevant has become a familiar figure on construction sites all along the 6.6-mile stretch where work is now underway to extend Expo from Culver City to Santa Monica.
“We use his pictures even in our office. It’s just built so much enthusiasm,” said Skanska USA Civil Executive Vice President Mike Aparicio, who added that Sturtevant’s outlook on the project has rubbed off on the whole Expo team. “When they see that kind of enthusiasm, they just feed on it.”
“He’s done a great job of capturing key milestones and highlighting progress,” Gabriela Collins, Expo’s government/community relations manager, said in a statement. “We thank him for sharing his wonderful photos and wish him well!”
While others have chronicled Expo’s progress in photographs, “Dwight has taken more than anybody,” and got unique shots because of his access to the construction process, said Darrell Clarke, a founder and co-chair of Friends 4 Expo Transit, longtime advocates for the project. “I’ve enjoyed his passion for following the project,” Clarke said.
Since his photo odyssey began, he has regularly delivered his copious output to the contractor, Skanska USA, to the Expo Construction Authority and to the Metro Library’s archives. It adds up: “If you figure every week since 2010, 200 pictures every week—do the math. It comes out to a lot of pictures.”
His connection to the project began—as so many L.A. adventures do—with a search for an alternate route. He was commuting at the time between downtown Los Angeles and the airport area and started to use Flower Street and Exposition Boulevard to get home. “And that’s when I went, ‘Wow, they’re building a light rail project.’ ”
When the company he was working for relocated to New Mexico, Sturtevant had more time on his hands and he was able to devote two days a week to photographing Expo.
“Over the last 2½ years, I’ve gotten the respect of Skanska where they’ve allowed me access to the project. Metro’s given me access to do certain things because I’ve earned the trust slowly, proved I wasn’t some nutcase,” he said.
He’s also become a familiar face to Metro’s train operators. For the past two years, he’s been printing up large posters with collages of his photographs to show them the project’s progress. He dropped off his last one at the 7th Street Metro Center last week, with a note: “To all my friends at Metro, I will miss you…I hope you have enjoyed the photos. Dwight S., aka the Expo Line Fan.”
Sturtevant, 51, said he has boyhood memories of looking at freight trains with his grandfather. His rail enthusiasm, literally, came with the territory: “I grew up in Boston. We had the first subway system in the country.”
His wife isn’t so keen on his hobby, however. He said her attitude is best summed up as: “If you’ve seen one train you’ve seen ‘em all.”
But he views his Expo work as a chance to make a difference, and to be an eyewitness to the construction of a light rail project that, in part, moves along the same route once traveled by the city’s late, lamented Red Cars.
“There’s not many places in the country where you’re able to watch cities regain what they’ve lost,” he said. “I mean, L.A. had all this once, and then we lost it.”
Sturtevant said he will be back for the project’s grand opening in 2015, and sooner if he can. In any case, the move to Ohio—where he’ll work for a mobile TV company that records professional sporting events—has at least one advantage for a train buff.
“The house has a big basement,” he said. “I’m going to be able to put my model railroad back up.”
August 7, 2013
A long-running legal challenge to the Exposition Line light rail project, now under construction from Culver City to Santa Monica, was stopped in its tracks this week by the California Supreme Court.
In a 6-1 decision, the court ruled against the group called Neighbors for Smart Rail, which contended in its lawsuit that the environmental reviews for the second and final phase of the Expo project had been inadequate.
The high court said the environmental information considered was sufficient, although they did agree with the plaintiffs on one point: they found that the project should have considered 2015 conditions—not 2030 conditions—in assessing potential impacts. But even so, the justices found, the process “did not deprive the agency or the public of substantial relevant information on those impacts.”
Expo backers hailed the ruling as the last chapter in a lengthy legal battle and said it clears the way for completion of the project, which will provide a transit alternative on a route that for the most part parallels the heavily-congested 10 Freeway.
“With this litigation now behind us, Westside residents can look forward to an exciting new public transit option when the Expo Line is scheduled to open in 2015,” Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a member of the Exposition Light Rail Construction Authority board, said in a statement.
The high court ruling comes after two lower courts also rejected Neighbors for Smart Rail’s arguments. An injunction that would have stopped work on the project while the Supreme Court considered the group’s appeal was turned down in November, 2012.
Construction has been continuing at a brisk pace since then.
“We were free to move forward, and as a result we were able to construct about almost 50% of the project,” said Samantha Bricker, the construction authority’s chief operating officer. “The contractor is moving full steam ahead.”
“I think it’s a win for future riders,” she added, “as the project will be able to be delivered, as it stands right now, on time and on budget.”
Mike Eveloff, a board member of Neighbors for Smart Rail, said the group is continuing to explore its legal options.
“We’re in the weird position of being right on the law but I really think the court was hesitant to stop a big project,” he said. Meanwhile, he added, the organization “stands ready now, as we always have been, to talk about issues outside the legal process” to address its traffic concerns.
The initial phase of the Expo Line, between downtown Los Angeles and Culver City, opened last year to high ridership. When the second, final phase to Santa Monica is complete, Expo will make it possible to travel between downtown L.A. and Colorado Avenue and 4th Street in Santa Monica in 46 minutes.
June 13, 2013
If you lock it, they will pay.
After extensive testing of latched turnstile gates and rollout of a new TAP card fare payment system, Los Angeles’ long, free trip on a subway without barriers is finally reaching the end of the line.
Next Wednesday, the subway gates at Union Station will be locked as a new era of public transportation rolls out in L.A., following more than two decades on an honor system that critics say unfairly penalizes paying passengers while leaving millions of dollars in revenue on the table.
David Sutton, Metro’s deputy executive officer in charge of the gate-latching project, said the lengthy testing period has been “a real eye-opener,” with consistent results in every test location: fewer boardings but a lot more paying customers using TAP cards.
“The data doesn’t lie,” Sutton said. “When we latch gates, we see less riders, more TAPs, more [vending machine] activity and more revenue.”
In 30 tests at Metro stations conducted earlier this year, sales at ticket vending machines spiked by nearly 30%, with 6,919 additional passengers paying to board trains, compared to the normal volume of paying passengers at each location.
Trains were less crowded because 14% fewer riders got onboard.
And as gate-latching tests intensified and enforcement was heightened, it seemed to create a lingering deterrent to would-be fare beaters. From October through December of 2012, fare evaders made up an estimated 18% of subway riders; from January through April of this year, with testing underway, that number dropped to 13%. So-called “fare checks” by sheriff’s deputies or security officers more than doubled—from 36,588 in October to 74,482 in April. And citations went through the roof, from 881 issued in October to 2,451 in April.
Overall, the testing results suggest that the agency could be able to recover between $6 million and $9 million annually in lost revenue once the subway and existing light rail gates are latched system-wide.
Supervisor and Metro Director Zev Yaroslavsky, a leader in efforts to get the gates latched, has made the case that it’s more than just a matter of money.
“It’s not fair to those people who pay to have a significant percentage of people who don’t pay,” he told the media last month. “The credibility of the enforcement system is undermined. It’s human nature to say, ‘If he’s getting away with it, why should I pay?’ ”
It’s been more than 20 years since L.A.’s first subway—the Red Line—opened on an initial stretch of 4.4 miles. And it was five years ago that Metro’s Board of Directors voted to install gates in the subway and some light rail stations, citing security concerns and revenue losses of an estimated $5.5 million a year due to fare evasion.
“Metro remains the only subway operator in the country to operate a barrier-free system,” Yvonne B. Burke, then a Los Angeles County supervisor and Metro board member, said at the time. “That freedom has come at a significant cost to the agency’s bottom line as a result of fare scofflaws.”
Next week’s latching of the first subway gates can be seen as a coming of age moment in the progression of L.A.’s public transit system, which has grown exponentially in recent years and moved from comedian’s punch line to nationally-recognized point of pride.
But getting from there to here has been anything but an express trip when it came to getting the turnstiles locked.
One big stumbling block was the move from paper tickets to the TAP cards needed for passengers to be able to open locked gates. The transition initially prompted widespread confusion and complaints among would-be users, particularly seniors unable to find a way to buy their reduced-priced tickets in the new TAP system. New signs were installed and instructions on vending machine screens were retooled to simplify the process.
Regional transit agencies also needed to be recruited to join the TAP system; by the end of next year, 24 providers will be onboard. Integrating Metrolink passengers’ paper tickets with the TAP system proved to be a special challenge. Eventually, a special chip embedded in Metrolink tickets was developed so that passengers on the commuter rail system can get through locked gates when transferring to a Metro subway or light rail line.
A final test will be run Friday at Union Station, before the Red and Purple lines there are permanently latched on Wednesday, June 19. After that, work will begin on individual subway stations, with locked gates expected to be in place at all Red and Purple line stations by the end of August.
From there, the process moves to the transit system’s light rail stations, which cannot be completely locked because not all of those stations are equipped with gates. Light rail stations with gates on the Gold Line will be latched in October, on the Green Line in December and on the Blue Line in January, 2014.
Metro’s Sutton said the agency has heard some complaints during the lengthy gate-latching testing process but has received far more positive comments, chiefly along the lines of:
“Thank God. Why did you wait so long?”
June 6, 2013
Deborah Murphy’s first experience with CicLAvia was no smooth ride. She was walking her Jack Russell terrier down the sidewalk in East Hollywood when she decided to make a move to the car-free streets.
“Get out of the road with your dog, lady—this is for cyclists, stay off the street,” she remembers someone yelling.
When the next CicLAvia brought more shout-downs, the long-time pedestrian advocate and founder of Los Angeles Walks decided to form WalkLAvia, a group aimed at staking pedestrians’ claim to a share of the roads during the events.
“This is an open streets event and people should be out there walking or on bikes or doing cartwheels or whatever they want to do,” Murphy said.
No one would love to see that more than CicLAvia’s organizers, who’ve been pushing for that kind of inclusivity from the beginning. To make that point abundantly clear, they’re billing the upcoming
June 23 event along Wilshire Boulevard’s “Miracle Mile” as “the most walkable CicLAvia ever!”
“This all feeds into the ultimate purpose of CicLAvia—to connect people with their community in a way that is not possible in a car,” said CicLAvia spokesman Robert Gard. “On bike and, more specifically, on foot, you are really able to interact with your fellow Angelenos.”
But turning that long-held aspiration into a reality has proven increasingly elusive as the event’s popularity has grown. The last event, which opened a 15-mile stretch of streets from downtown to Venice Beach, drew a crowd of about 180,000 people, according to Gard. The overwhelming majority of them were on bikes. “There are so many bicyclists now, walking appears to not be part of it,” Gard said.
Unlike the last route, however, the new one along Wilshire Boulevard will be just 6 miles, with pedestrian-only zones at each end. Although architecture tours and other walker-friendly activities are planned, organizers think the location itself may lure more walkers. The Wilshire route will offer more street life and more sights—from MacArthur Park to Koreatown to “Miracle Mile,” with its museums and vibrant arts scene.
Of course, any event with “cycle” in its name is bound to attract a bike-heavy crowd. But part of the challenge is simple growing pains, Gard said. CicLAvia was inspired by ciclovías in Bogotá, Colombia, which began in the mid-1970s. L.A.’s first event was held just three years ago, and local cyclists jumped at the chance to freely ride streets, where automobile traffic normally makes biking nerve-wracking, even perilous.
Once people realize CicLAvia events are here to stay, bike riders won’t jump at the chance to ride every one of them for fear they’re missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “In talking with our peers in Central and South America, once they were more established, people understood it better,” Gard said. In time, serious bicyclists came to accept that ciclovías were for riders of all ability levels—and for pedestrians, too.
Alissa Walker, a member of Los Angeles Walks’ steering committee, said attitudes have already started to change.
“It has gotten a lot better,” Walker said. “At first, people didn’t understand that it wasn’t a race or something. It was possibly dangerous.”
CicLAvia organizers, in hoping to encourage that evolution, highlighted the problem using a video of a disabled man describing how he was verbally abused and directed off the streets because he was on a special, motorized device to accommodate his disability.
The City of Los Angeles’ first-ever pedestrian coordinator, Margot Ocañas, has participated in all six CicLAvias—sometimes on foot, sometimes on bike. She believes that continued, heavy interest from cyclists will mean that the roads “below the curb” will probably remain dominated by bikes, while pedestrians will take the sidewalks. For safety’s sake, she said, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Creating more pedestrian-only areas could help bring out more walkers, Ocañas said. She also envisions using the main route as a “launch pad for walking activities that tentacle off into other areas.”
No matter how CicLAvia evolves, everyone agrees that it should keep on rolling, stepping and hula-hooping.
“The fact that the bikes and pedestrians are having that conversation,” Ocañas said, “I’ll take it any day over bikers or pedestrians having that conversation with a car.”
May 16, 2013
The Orange Line is feeling the squeeze. An immediate success upon its opening in 2005, ridership continues to surge on the San Fernando Valley’s dedicated busway, which runs from Woodland Hills and Chatsworth to North Hollywood. The line currently handles more than 30,000 passengers on an average weekday, making it the second busiest bus line in Los Angeles County. While that success is something to celebrate, elbow room is getting hard to come by.
“Yesterday it was pretty miserable,” said Mark Hill, who commutes between Sherman Oaks and downtown Los Angeles. “You had people letting the bus go because you could just not fit any more.”
Metro plans to relieve some pressure by adding additional service. Next week, the agency’s Board of Directors is expected to take action on an annual budget that includes $1.2 million for more midday buses on the Orange Line. More late night service was also added recently, and increased Saturday service is planned for late June.
Jon Hillmer, a 30-year veteran in Metro’s bus operations, said the popularity is due to the line’s speed and convenience.
“It offers rail-like service on rubber tires,” Hillmer said. “People board at stations, wait on platforms and pay their fares at machines.”
The line also provides important connections to other transit options. At Chatsworth station, it connects to Metrolink’s service to Ventura County. At the North Hollywood station, it connects to the Red Line subway, which provides access to Hollywood, downtown L.A. and the rest of Metro’s rail system.
While improvements are planned to handle the growth in ridership during off-peak hours, rush hour is a different story. One additional bus trip will be squeezed onto the back end of the peak traffic period but, after that, the agency is just about maxed out on how many buses it can run at a time. Among other issues, the line is constrained at intersections with north-south roadways, which are managed by the city of Los Angeles’ Department of Transportation.
“Running buses every 4 minutes during rush hour is the best we can do under the current traffic configuration,” Hillmer said. “The city is reluctant to go below the 4-minute frequency level.”
Jonathan Hui, a spokesman for the city agency, said it allows buses to pass through the intersections every two minutes, but they only get special priority—early or longer green lights—every four minutes. That preferential treatment is important to keep the line moving swiftly.
“Not everybody can get the green at the same time,” Hui said. “The Orange Line is obviously important, but so are drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists.”
The two agencies are currently working on a solution to the problem. Hillmer said possibilities include sending two buses in tandem through intersections, or getting shorter but more frequent green lights to enable more buses to get through.
While the rush hour fixes remain a work in progress, adding extra buses during off-peak hours should be a big help to riders who crowd the Orange Line before and after rush hour.
“At 7:45 p.m., there are still a lot of people waiting, ” said Isabel Barbosa, who commutes from her home in Woodland Hills to downtown L.A. Even at 8:30 p.m., “it’s usually standing room only,” said another commuter, Ian Tudor.
Most of the current rider congestion occurs between the station at Sepulveda Boulevard and North Hollywood, but as last June’s extension of the line to Chatsworth matures, Hillmer expects more growth on the western end.
Ridership probably hasn’t even peaked for the year. The months of September and October, when students return to school, are typically the busiest. The extra riders should push the line’s numbers closer to those of Metro’s busiest bus line—the 720 Rapid, which runs between Commerce and Santa Monica on Wilshire Boulevard and averages about 40,000 riders each weekday.
Despite the ridership boom, Orange Line commuters like Mark Hill say they appreciate the smooth, fast ride the line offers—even when it’s standing room only.
“The buses are nicely appointed,” he said. “There’s plenty of stuff to hang on to.”
April 18, 2013
Bruce Shelburne is hoping for the best. But he’s bracing for “a learning experience.”
As Metro’s executive director for rail operations, Shelburne will have his hands full this Sunday, when the hugely popular CicLAvia winds its way for the first time from downtown Los Angeles to Venice, promising to pack the rail system with riders headed to points along the 15-mile route. At the same time, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Grand Prix of Long Beach will also be feeding crowds onto the rail lines.
Still, Shelburne, a 26-year Metro veteran, says he’s learned not to get overly stressed by the logistics and pitfalls of his job. “I’m learning to let go a little bit,” he says. “Otherwise you’re going to find yourself on the wrong end of a shovel, six-feet under.”
Shelburne expects one major CicLAvia hotspot to be the new Expo Line’s Culver City station, which, for now, is the closest stop to the sea. That end-of-the-line location will make it a major—and potentially clogged—entrance and exit point for people interested in traveling only along the route’s western end. Culver City’s elevated station might also complicate things because cyclists will have to carry bikes up and down stairs or crowd into elevators.
Increasing the potential congestion, CicLAvia has placed one of its “hubs” there to provide water, restrooms, and bike repairs, while Culver City and its businesses are planning a variety of entertainment options, including free massages and live music to complement food and shopping deals. A bike valet will help people make sure their wheels are secure while they browse the area.
Throughout Metro’s rapidly expanding rail system, Shelburne and his staff will also have to grapple with the reality that many CicLAvia passengers will be riding the rails for the first time and are unfamiliar with the agency’s TAP Card system, which can be confusing to the uninitiated.
“Trust me,” Shelburne says, “if that becomes a bottleneck, we’ll undo that real quick. We’ll address it with any means necessary to get people moving.”
Shelburne says that he sees CicLAvia and other major seam-stretching L.A. events as laboratories for lessons that can be applied in the future. For example, based on past CicLAvias, Shelburne says he’s doubling the number of trains on some lines. And while bikes are normally limited to two per train, Shelburne says, “we tend to look the other way on this kind of day.” In fact, Metro staffers will try to devote one car or maybe more per train to cyclists.
“It’s not all about the bikes,” Shelburne says. “We can’t take all the seats out. We have 100 million riders boarding the system annually and the majority of them don’t use bikes….The advantage is that bicyclists, especially the experienced ones, tend to work well with each other.”
(On Thursday, the regional rail service Metrolink announced it would be putting all 17 of its specially-outfitted “bike cars” into service on Sunday to serve the CicLAvia crowds. More information is here.)
While Shelburne is modest about his team’s successes managing past events, he’s particularly proud of one of his personal contributions—deploying Metro staffers to help people navigate the system and provide a human face to agency. Humor helps, too, he says. “If you’re not afraid to make a joke at your own expense, it goes a long way.”
On the future of bikes and trains in general, Shelburne sees a growing challenge and the need for a new relationship between cyclists and other passengers. “It seems like our bicycle ridership has really gone sky high,” he says.
Metro has already removed seats from older rail cars, and new cars will include additional accommodations for bicycles. But in the long term, Shelburne says, Metro will need to look at additional measures, such as arranging seats around the edges of cars to open more floor space.
While Shelburne admits he’s not one to jump on a bike very often, he does spend a plenty of time on the rails each day. He commutes from his home Oxnard to Union Station in downtown L.A.—a 70-mile trip that takes more than 90 minutes each way. On the way home, it’s a chance to catch up with work. But in the morning, he says, the smooth ride is the perfect opportunity for a pre-office nap.
“What rail buys,” he says, “is peace of mind and consistency. It just calms you down and you don’t have to worry about some of the idiots on the road.”